How Ethology might help us

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"How Ethology might help us"
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Did you ever wonder why your dog walks in circles before he lays down? His ancestors lived in the wild, and would circle to make a bed by pressing down the tall grass. That's the type of question that can be answered by ethology. Ethology studies the intricate interaction between the innate behaviors of animals and their environment. To study the customs or character of an animal you must observe them in their natural environment.

Behaviorists who study animals in the laboratory, like Dr. Skinner's rats in a box, learned that given a certain stimulus, a rat would give a certain conditioned response. But it didn't reveal much about the behavior of a rat in his own environment like a dump. An ethologist studies the instinctive behavior of the rat's food gathering and reproduction habits in his natural habitat, which helps us solve the rat overpopulation problem.

Actually, ethologists believe that behavior secrets are buried in the genes and have evolved to deal with particular environments. In 1918, ethologist, Dr. Heinroth, found that when bird hatchlings were isolated, they still exhibited the gene-coded instinctive behaviors of preening, shaking, and scratching. The chaffinch learns to sing its song even when raised in a sound proof box.

Studying the ethos' of different species can help us understand their behavior, and improve methods of husbandry or animal care. This also opens our minds to the animals care-giving behaviors and capacity for empathy, and leads us to inspect our philosophy concerning animal rights.

This science also helps us in the design of facilities and management systems, which cut the number of problems for animal producers. For instance, because piglets root into a floor before lying down, a cold cement floor with wood shavings over it would not protect the animal from sleeping on the cold cement. A warm wooden floor keeps them warmer. Piglets instinctively press up against a vertical surface like their mother to keep warm. In the absence of their mother you need to put bales of cotton in their stalls to prevent them from pressing up against a cold outer wall.

Studying the behavior of horses helps us in the training process. Understanding the signs of aggressive behavior can help keep trainers and animals safer. Keeping males and females separated and training during certain times in the day can make the  process easier as well.

Knowing the reproductive behaviors, feeding regimes, stock densities, and social dominance of animals can enable us to set the proper conditions for the raising of cattle, sheep, chickens, and all the animals we use for food and work.

Pet owners need to understand the actions of their pets too. Then we will recognize when they are sick or need our assistance. We may need to buy prey type toys like mice for our cats to keep them happier and away from our furniture. Feuding dogs may have territorial concerns. Knowing facts like these help us find better solutions to our pet's problems.

Ecologists also use animal behavioral information to forecast the possibility of endangered species.For instance, studying arctic-nesting geese and the nutritional requirements of goslings can help them predict how elevated CO2 may affect arctic ecosystems.

Studying animal behavior can sometimes explain human behavior. For instance, many animals mark their territory with urine, which evolved as a way of reducing violence between species. Likewise, human property lines prevent disputes over territory. Evolution indicates that aggressive instincts tend to keep order in social groups. 

We're finding new applications for ethology every day. As we are faced with new challenges to our existence like the drastic depopulation of the pollinating honeybee, scientists search deeper into the genetics and habits of these creatures and their interaction with the environment to find answers. Our very survival could depend on ethology.

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More about this author: Kathy Stemke

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