Family STEM: Tracking Animal Behaviors

By Lindsay Carroll, Oregon Sea Grant

Do you have a cat or dog at home that you find yourself watching a little more closely these days? Have you caught on to some of the behaviors of your pets or perhaps of birds, rabbits, or chipmunks you’ve seen out your window? You may have been inspired to take a closer look at the environment around you after reading the recently published Family STEM blog “Take a Fresh Look at Nature“.

With more time spent at home, you may find that your dog sleeps or rests all day long. You may have also noticed they wag their tail with excitement during play or when you come home from the grocery store. Or possibly those famous looks of guilt when they have gotten into the trash for the 100th time? Either way, all of these actions are behaviors. Do you think you would have noticed the amount of time your dog spends doing these behaviors if you weren’t home with them all of the time?

INSPIRE

Over time, scientists have tracked behaviors of a lot of different animals because recording what they are doing (behavior) and how long they are doing it (time) is how we learn more about them. Scientists who study animal behaviors are known as ethologists and they use ethograms as a way to collect data and answer important questions.

When you think of tracking animal behavior, you may think of the famous ethologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, and her work with chimpanzees. It is because of her many years of research and time spent with chimpanzees in their natural environment that we know so much about them. Get inspired by her decades of research!

Photo credit: Satya Deep, Unsplash

Then, see first hand the type of behaviors she may have witnessed over the years as you watch the monkeys in this video. Take a mental note or make a list of the various behaviors you observe. 

Have a fish tank at home? Take five minutes to note the different behaviors you observe of your fish. No fish tank? It’s ok, watch the first few minutes of these goldfish and take note of the different behaviors you see. What do the fish spend most of their time doing?

Photo credit: Biljana Martinic – Unsplash

You’re starting to look at these animals a little bit differently, right? Now, watch a zookeeper from the John Ball Zoo use an ethogram to learn more about her dog’s behavior in the backyard. Be sure to take note of the question she is trying to answer about her dog.

ASK A QUESTION

Now that we have spent some time observing a few animals and taking note of some of their behaviors, you may have a few questions.

Photo credit: Jules Bss – Unsplash

For example, you may wonder “Do fish in my fish tank spend most of their time swimming?” Or even, better — your observations may have inspired you to test a hypothesis, or educated guess, such as “I think the fish in my fish tank spend most of their time swimming.” What other questions might you have about the animals you observed?

Think back to the zookeeper who conducted an ethogram on her dog. What question was she trying to answer? You may have noted that she recently moved to a new home and she wanted to determine if her dog was adjusting well to a new space. By comparing her dog’s previous behavior to the data she collected, she determined her dog appears comfortable in her new home.

Equipped with all of this new knowledge, think of an animal on which you want to use  an ethogram to learn more about their behaviors. What question do you want to ask?

TRY IT!

STEP ONE: Select an Animal
If you have pets at home, great! No pets at home? Consider an animal in your backyard OR watch pre-recorded footage of animals listed below.

Photo credit: Oregon Sea Grant

You could also consider conducting your ethogram using one of the following webcams from local zoos and aquariums. But, note that these animals can be very mobile!

STEP TWO: Make Observations and Develop a Question
Whether you are watching your animal live or on a screen, be sure to take a few minutes to note some of their behaviors ahead of time. That way you can use your observations to inform a question you want to answer about your animal.

STEP THREE: Collect Data
Now it is time to collect behavior data on your animal! For your ethogram, you will record the behavior of your animal every 30 seconds for 10-15 minutes. Since we are collecting data, we need a data table. What should your data table look like? Think about the different variables we are considering – behaviors and time. For some pointers – try reflecting back to the zookeeper’s datasheet shown at the end of her video or possibly get some tips from this educator from the Environmental Learning Center. 

STEP FOUR: Draw Conclusions
You have data! Now, think back to your original question. What are some conclusions you can draw from the data collected? What are some of the behaviors your animal exhibited most frequently?  Why did animals do some behaviors more often than others? If you watched the goldfish in the tank – do they actually spend most of their time swimming?

STEP FIVE: Expand and Elevate Your Learning
Interested in expanding and elevating your ethogram abilities? Consider using this Sea Lion Ethogram Datasheet to conduct an ethogram on a sea lion located in Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves. Use footage from the Sea Lion Cave webcam and see what those often loud, smelly, but fun critters are up to these days. Are there new behaviors you are observing? Are there behaviors missing from the datasheet? Have fun with it!

Photo credit: Tracy Crews, Oregon Sea Grant

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

While it may be fun to watch your pets behaviors or learn more about animals via live webcams, we must take a minute to think about why we are doing it. What does it all mean? What information can be gained using ethograms? Not only can scientists learn more about animal behaviors, but once a baseline of behaviors is established, scientists can use ethograms to determine dramatic changes to an animal’s well-being and what may have caused them.

Tracking the behaviors of animals in zoos and aquaria is especially important, as unusual behaviors can often be a sign of changes to the animal’s health. Ethogram data can track different behaviors related to feeding, reproductive status, mating, seasonal changes, age/sex differences, social group dynamics, and more. Having a deeper understanding of these behaviors of animals in captivity could also  inform protection or management of wild animals.

In essence, ethograms help us detect Patterns, which is one of seven cross-cutting concepts that are prevalent throughout all science disciplines. Patterns occur all throughout the natural world. Think about the patterns you notice among honeycombs, flowers, and zebras. Just like these visual patterns, animals exhibit patterns of behaviors as well. Anomalies that we notice are what bring our attention to change and difference in the animal.

It is also important to note that as you move through the process of collecting data for an ethogram, you are engaging in critical Practices of Science. You are: 

  • Asking questions
  • Planning and carrying out an investigation
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using math
  • Constructing explanations

CELEBRATE AND SHARE

Photo credit: Oregon Sea Grant, GEMS

Knowledge is power! If you used an ethogram to learn more about your pet, you will be equipped with important baseline information that could be used to determine a change in their health or well-being in the future. 

Your curiosity does not need to end here. Consider increasing your data collection frequency – see if you notice new behaviors or perhaps the most common behavior changes. Think critically about what could be causing the differences. Is there a new question you could ask or hypothesis you could test?

Sample Questions:
“Does my pet….”

  • Spend more time on the floor or on the couch?
  • Sleep more than 6 hours a day?
  • Pee on one, many, or perhaps specific objects?
  • Behave differently when it is raining versus sunny? 
  • Act differently in the morning versus in the evening?

Photo credit: Ruby Schmank – Unsplash

Celebrate your newly gained information by sharing it with a friend! Do they also have a pet at home? Perhaps challenge them to use an ethogram to learn more about their pet and compare common behaviors. Does your dog rest more or less than their dog? Or, challenge them to watch the same webcam or online video and compare notes. Options are endless, so have fun with it. You are well on your way to becoming the next Dr. Jane Goodall!


Lindsay Carroll is the Marine Education Coordinator with Oregon Sea Grant, which is one of more than 60 partnering organizations in the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lesson on our website: https://oregoncoaststem.oregonstate.edu/

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