Guest Author - Deborah Watson-Novacek
Ethology is the zoological study of animal behavior with a special interest in "genetically programmed" behaviors, known more commonly as instincts. These behaviors are those which are inherited by animals through their parents.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines instinct as "a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason."
Ethologists generally refer to instinct as "programmed learning." Instinctual behaviors are those predictable behaviors for "fixed action patterns," also known as FAP.
COMMON TYPES OF INNATE BEHAVIOR
Imprinting is a specialized type of programmed learning. Early analysis of this type of learning was done by Konrad Lorenz with goose hatchlings. His experiments showed that goslings did not learn their specific "call", or language, while they were in the egg as had been previously believed. Rather, geese are born "pre-programmed" to bond to the first thing that makes the species-specific call. This has been re-proven time after time as scientists have completed a myriad of experiments resulting in the goslings identifying as "mom" objects ranging from puppets to model trains. The first thing to make the imprinting species-specific call bonds the animals.
Monarch Butterfly Migration
Monarch butterflies are unable to survive the cold winters in most of the U.S, and so they migrate some 2,500 miles each autumn to Monarch-friendly environments in Mexico and California. What is amazing about this process is that Monarchs use the very same trees every single year when they migrate. Why is this considered so interesting? It's amazing because each year the Monarchs that arrive at their winter "campgrounds" are not the same butterflies that were in those same trees in the previous year. In fact, the butterflies that end up in California and Mexico are four generations removed from the last butterflies that wintered in those same trees! The migration routes are genetically imprinted on these insects!
Orb Spider Webs
Another interesting case of imprinted behavior is the Orb Web spider. Female spiders make their egg sacs every Fall, shortly before they die. The spiderlings which hatch from the egg sacs each spring have never seen an orb web built, and yet they construct one perfectly even at their first attempt!
Dove songs are completely innate. Even if young doves are raised without exposure to the song of the adult dove, they will be able to sing that song perfectly the first time they try it!
OTHER AREAS OF RESEARCH IN ETHOLOGY
Analysis of Behavior Patterns
The order, of sequence, of activities during courtship has been found to be innate in many species, such as the stickleback fish.
Play behavior is common in many species, and not just for the young of the species! It is believed that play behavior serves to clarify rank within certain social groups, solidify selective social bonds, and prepare the young for both sexual and predatory behaviors. Many innate play behaviors are similar between species. For example, most people have seen the "butt-up" signal many animals exhibit. This signal is common among many species and signals to others that play is desired.
THE FUTURE OF ETHOLOGY
Ethologists have started to expand the study of innate behavior from individal behavior to the study of the innate behavior of animal social groups. Additionally, some researches have begun studies to learn more about atypical or disordered animal behavior. Previously, all such behavioral study was confined to the study of human behavior.