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Animal Behavior

Patsye Peebles


This is a unit on Animal Behavior which is designed for a general Biology II class, but can be used with Biology I classes quite easily. The objectives include development of an understanding of some principles of animal behavior, practice in science process skills and particularly critical reading, writing, and thinking skills, and a greater awareness of the evolutionary implications of primate behavior similarities. It includes hands-on activities, class and group discussion, reading and writing activities, and a field trip to the zoo. The field-trip is the high point of the unit for the students, and they are required to make specific animal behavior observations while they are there. This is a great opportunity to develop liaisons with local zoo personnel and to promote awareness of zoo conservation efforts as well.


This teaching unit is a module on Animal Behavior that I designed for my Biology II class. It captures students' interest and uses a variety of teaching strategies including videos, observation, experimentation, class discussion, reading essays and popular science articles, and journal development..

The unit begins with students assigned to observe an animal and write down their observations. The animal may be a pet or wild animal. They purposely aren't given guidelines for how to do this. After reporting to the class on their observations, the class brainstorms appropriate methodology for observing animals. Students watch several videos featuring primate observation by such well-known primatologists as Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and Shirley Strum. Interspersed is the critical reading of National Geographic articles on the behavior of various animals and reports on the methodology used and interesting behavior observed. They write journal entries commenting on the behavior observed in the videos.

Classroom discussion uses Socratic questioning strategies designed to promote critical analysis by the students of the things they are seeing and reading. I ask a lot of general questions but rarely give answers, thus allowing students to construct their own framework of understanding. This gradually leads students to the understanding of the similarity of behavior in many different animals, and they are always surprised by the complexity of primate behavior. Evolutionary questions are raised as well, particularly when they realize how similar the primate behavior they are seeing is to that of humans. Few students are aware of the similarities before this unit. A careful effort is made to avoid anthropomorphism, and to help students understand the danger of analyzing animal behavior as though it was human behavior. They choose a topic in animal behavior to research and write a brief paper on that topic.

In classroom cooperative groups, they design experiments on mealworm behavior, critique and modify them, and then carry them out. After reading a Science 86 magazine article on different methodology and learning the difference between ad lib, scan, focal sampling, and other methods, the unit culminates with a trip to the zoo to actually carry out the behavior observations. These focus on primates but allow the opportunity to choose other favorite animals, too.

I arrange for a zookeeper in the primate area to talk to the students and answer their questions, and then they make their observations. The next day in class they report on their observations and turn in their notes. I tell students about the "adopt an animal" program at our zoo, and they always vote to collect money to help support an animal. This year they adopted a cotton-top tamarin, and really enjoyed observing "their" animal and seeing their class's name on the plaque at the zoo. They seem to find it very satisfying to make a connection with the real world this way, and hopefully some of them may choose to continue to support the zoo in the future.

The final activity in the unit is a debate on animal rights. The class is divided into two or four groups depending on the size of the class. Each group must research both sides of a number of issues regarding animal rights, from dissection to medical research to hunting to fur coats, as well as a variety of others. I have collected a variety of resources from both sides of the issues which they can use as well as their own sources. Each group will usually assign someone to research and become an "expert" on one issue. When the informal debate takes place, the groups draw their issues and their positions out of the hat and they present arguments and rebuttals. This is graded mainly on the quality of their arguments and their preparations. Then, for fun, we vote on the issues and write a wrap-up journal in which they expand on their personal opinions and whether their ideas have changed since they began the unit.

This is a successful unit for students because it's fun and because they are allowed and encouraged to form their own conclusions. They learn a lot about behavior, evolutionary relationships, and the way that scientists work.



You are to do a fifteen minute behavior observation of an animal. This may be a pet or a wild animal, such as a squirrel. Write a summary of your observations to turn in. Questions for the class after reports are given:
  1. Did you learn the same amount of information about behavior from every report given today?
  2. Did some reports contain more information than others?
  3. Why were some reports more useful than others in learning about the behavior of the animals?
  4. If you were doing the observations over again, what sort of methods or guidelines would be useful?


Some of the suggested videos are the National Geographic ones "Jane Goodall-My Life with Wild Chimpanzees, and "Urban Gorilla", as well as "Life with the Pumphouse Gang" with Shirley Strum, Birute Galdikas' studies of orangutans, and gorilla studies by Dian Fossey. While watching this video, take notes on the methodology of the researcher and some general observations about the primate observed.


  1. What kind of observations or experiments were done?
  2. Give the name of the primate and where it lives, as well as the name of the researcher. What kind of group structure does it have?


After reading the article, describe the animal, its location, the method of observation, and give a short summary of some of the interesting facts about the animal.

Read "How to Watch Monkeys", Susan Walton, Science 86 , June 1986. This describes different methods of observation and the advantages and disadvantages of each. The most common method is ad libitum sampling. In ad lib sampling, the observer records as much as he/she can of whatever they can see. This is a good method to get an overview of the behavior of a group of animals, but over a period of time can cause over-emphasis on dominance behaviors and under-sampling of female behavior. Jeanne Altmann, the primatologist who is the focus of the article, suggests the use of three other methods to correct the bias. The first is focal sampling, where the observer concentrates on one or two animals and records everything they do. The second is scan, or instantaneous sampling, where the researcher uses an ethogram and records what all animals are doing at predetermined time interval, giving a sort of snapshot picture of behavior at intervals of time. The third method focuses on one specific behavior and records all instances of that behavior. Another sampling method in use by some researchers is the one-zero method, wherein the observer records whether a given behavior does or does not occur during a specified period without recording how often or for how long.

To make an ethogram, make a list of different types of behavior that might be expected to occur. You then make a chart showing those behaviors with a grid for recording at specified time intervals, such as 2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc. Give each animal being observed a letter designation. At the end of each time interval, you record the letter of each animal by the behavior in which he is engaged at that time.


REQUIRED - three observations of three different animals, at least two of which must be primates. For each animal, fill out the background information sheet and then follow the directions for that particular observation.


  • Common name and scientific name of animal:
  • Country of origin, if given:
  • Number in habitat or cage of adult males, adult females, youths and babies:
  • Description of habitat in zoo and/or sketch of habitat/cage:
  • General description, including size, color, locomotion, vocalization, etc.
  • Look at faces of each animal and identify distinguishing characteristics, then designate each animal by letter (example: large male - A)


Ten minutes ad lib (recording everything you see), then make an ethogram with the behaviors you think you might see. Do a ten minutes scan observation by recording at the end of each minutes what each animal in the cage or enclosure is doing.


--choose from these and add others if needed for your ethogram.
eating --- nursing baby --- Dominance drinking --- holding baby --- threat posture playing --- mating --- charging self-grooming --- vocalizing --- staring grooming other --- huddling --- baring teeth climbing --- touching --- submissive chase --- urinating/defecating --- averting eyes flight --- scratching --- cowering/hunching sleeping --- play-fighting --- retreating resting --- freezing


Do focal sampling of the second primate by choosing one animal in the group to observe and recording everything he/she does in detail. If they aren't active enough, after ten minutes switch to ad lib observation of the whole group in that enclosure. If more than one person is using the same animal group, each person should observe a different animal in the group. This observation should last for a total of twenty minutes.


Fifteen minutes of any animal, with any method of the three. This does not have to be a primate, as the other do, but it may be a different primate from the first two. An excellent resource for this unit is ZEST-Zoos for effective science teaching produced by the Bronx Zoo. It contains many more ideas for zoo activities.

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