Careers in Animal Behavior
What is Animal Behavior?
Why Study Animal Behavior?
What Education or Training is Needed for a Career in Animal Behavior?
What Careers are Available in Animal Behavior?
Where Can I Get More Information?
Links and Other Resources

What is Animal Behavior?

The study of animal behavior is the scientific study of everything that animals do, whether the animals are single-celled organisms, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, humans, or other mammals. It involves the investigation of the relationship of animals to their physical environment as well as to other organisms, and includes topics such as how animals find and defend resources, avoid predators, choose mates and reproduce, and care for their young.

People who study animal behavior are typically trying to answer one or more of the following four kinds of questions about behavior (often referred to as "Tinbergen's four questions," after the animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen who first described them):

  • What is the cause of the behavior? What mechanism is underlying it? What "triggered" it just now?
  • How did the behavior develop within the individual's lifetime?
  • What function or functions does the behavior serve?
  • How did the behavior evolve over time?

Answers to questions about the causes of behavior include both the external stimuli that affect behavior, and the internal hormonal and neural mechanisms that control behavior. Questions about the development of behavior focus on the ways in which behavior changes over the lifetime of the animal, and how these changes are affected by both genes and experience. Questions about the functions of behavior focus on both the behavior's immediate effect on the animal and on the behavior's adaptive value in helping the animal to survive or reproduce successfully in a particular environment. Finally, questions about the evolution of behavior focus on the origins of behavior patterns and how these change over generations.

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Why Study Animal Behavior?

The Significance of Animal Behavior Research

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What Education or Training is Needed for a Career in Animal Behavior?

Most scientists directly involved in the study of animal behavior work in one of four broad fields: ethology, comparative psychology, behavioral ecology, or sociobiology. These disciplines overlap greatly in their goals, interests, and methods. However, psychologists and ethologists are primarily concerned with the regulation and functions of behavior, while behavioral ecologists focus on how behavioral patterns relate to social and environmental conditions. Ethologists and behavioral ecologists are usually trained in departments of biology, zoology, ecology and evolution, entomology, wildlife, or other life sciences. Most comparative psychologists are trained in psychology departments. Animal behaviorists specializing in the study of human behavior are usually trained in anthropology, psychology, or sociology departments.

 

Some jobs in animal behavior only require a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor's of Science (B.S.) degree. However, most careers in animal behavior require advanced degrees, sometimes a Master of Arts or of Science (M.A. or M.S.), but usually a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.). Earning advanced degrees requires a very good undergraduate background, a strong academic record, lots of motivation, and hard work.

Many colleges and universities worldwide offer graduate training programs in animal behavior. In order to become a strong candidate for admission to graduate school, completing an independent study project or obtaining some research experience as an undergraduate can be very helpful. A booklet detailing the current training programs in North America is available through the Animal Behavior Society.

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What Careers are Available in Animal Behavior?

College Teaching and Research:

Most animal behaviorists teach and/or do independent research at colleges and universities. Many have academic appointments in biology, zoology, or psychology departments. Others are employed in departments of anthropology, sociology, neurobiology, animal science, wildlife biology, entomology, ecology, or in medical or veterinary colleges.

 

Careers in college teaching and research usually require the Ph.D. degree; a very few junior colleges require only a Master's degree. Most animal behavior jobs exist within larger academic departments, and animal behaviorists often teach in related disciplines such as psychology, physiology, ecology, or evolution. Scientists who obtain the Ph.D. degree in programs offering broad training in one or more of the behavioral or biological sciences will be more competitive in the job market. Although animal behavior is a growing discipline, competition for jobs in teaching and research is very keen.

An increasing number of animal behaviorists are being hired by universities to apply behavioral knowledge to the production, management, conservation, and/or care of domestic animals. Many are employed by academic departments such as animal science, veterinary medicine, wildlife, or entomology for research aimed at areas such as improving livestock production, managing wildlife populations, or controlling pests. Most of these researchers have a Ph.D. in animal behavior or in some allied field of biology with advanced training in animal behavior.

Government and Private Research Institutions:

A growing number of animal behaviorists work in government laboratories or in private business or industry. Many of these jobs involve health-related research. For example, drug companies or government laboratories may hire animal behaviorists to conduct research on the behavioral effects of new drugs, to examine the links between behavior and disease, or to evaluate the well-being of animals under their care. State and federal government agencies responsible for natural resources management sometimes hire animal behaviorists to work in their wildlife programs. Increasingly, private environmental consulting firms are employing behaviorists to examine the effects of habitat alteration on foraging patterns, spatial dispersion, and reproductive success in animals.

For many of these jobs, a Ph.D. degree will be desirable, and breadth of training will be essential. For health-related jobs, training in relevant fields such as physiology, biochemistry, or pharmacology will be particularly helpful. For management or consulting jobs, experience in environmental science, conservation biology, or population and community ecology may be useful.

Zoos and Aquariums, Conservation Groups, and Museums:

Zoos, aquariums, and museums occasionally hire animal behaviorists as curators or researchers. Curators are responsible for acquiring, maintaining, and displaying collections of particular animals, whereas researchers are responsible for the scientific study of these animals.

In zoos and aquariums, behavioral research is usually aimed at improving health and reproduction, and behaviorists often collaborate closely with field biologists and specialists in endocrinology, nutrition, genetics, and veterinary medicine. Behavioral research conducted in museums may cover a wide range of topics, but usually encompasses aspects of the ecology, natural history, and systematics of the taxa being studied.

Some conservation groups also hire animal behaviorists, especially those that fund long-term field research, or are involved with reintroduction programs, the design of nature preserves, or sustainable wildlife use. As these groups grow in number and gain support, the availability of jobs for animal behaviorists in this area should increase.

Curators, researchers, and conservation workers usually have Ph.D. or D.V.M. degrees and also have broad training in at least one other area of biology such as animal husbandry, ecology, systematics, or in one of the taxonomic disciplines such as entomology, ichthyology, herpetology, ornithology, mammalogy, or primatology.

Some zoos, aquariums, and museums also hire researchers that specialize in animal behavior education. Educators work to communicate knowledge about animal behavior to the general public through tours, lectures, and educational displays. Educators may have a B.S. or B.A. degree, an M.S or M.A., or a Ph.D. in the behavioral or biological sciences. Usually some specialized training or experience in secondary or adult education is preferred. The following is a more specific description of jobs in the zoo setting and their typical requirements.

Zoo Director: Requires a degree (Bachelor's or higher), or experience in zoo administration. Zoo directors are usually responsible for the overseeing of the entire zoo and all of its various staff. The zoo director also acts as a liaison to local universities and to the public. They decide what exhibits are to be built, what animals are to be exhibited, manage budgets, etc.

Assistant Zoo Director: Requires a degree (Bachelor's or higher), or experience in zoo administration. Assistant zoo directors are usually found only in larger zoos. They take on a part of the burden of the zoo director. They are usually responsible for overseeing the various curators as well as many of the other duties assigned to the director.

Curator of Education: Requires a degree in the sciences or in education (sometimes in both!) Prior zoo experience is usually a prerequisite. The curator of educationis responsible for developing and organizing all of the various educational programs offered by the zoo. Often, this person spends much of his or her time researching libraries and other zoos' educational facilities for new ideas. Sometimes, this person is called upon to develop the zoo's graphics (signage), although larger zoos often have a separate graphics department for just this purpose.

The curator of education oversees and trains volunteers called "docents" who actually present the zoo's educational programs. Examples of zoo education programs include tours, zoomobiles, speakers' bureaus, zoo camps, and internships.

Education in these kinds of settings is called "informal education," to discriminate it from education in schools and similar settings. There are degree programs available in informal education that you can look for if this is a career option that interests you. Some have webpages that you can read. Try

Curator of Zookeepers: (Head Zookeeper). Requires a degree in the biological sciences or in animal husbandry, and prior zoo experience. The curator of zookeepers oversees the zookeeper staff; handing out assignments, collecting animal reports, monitoring animal feed and chemical stock, handling general zoo problems, etc. In larger zoos, this job may be split into sub-positions, such as Curator of Birds, Curator of Mammals, Curator of Reptiles, etc.

Zookeeper: Usually requires a bachelor's degree in the biological sciences or animal husbandry, and at least 2 years of zoo experience. Zookeepers are responsible for cleaning, feeding, caring for, and monitoring the health of various exotic species. In addition, zookeepers may maintain "studbooks" on endangered species, design and construct zoo exhibits, observe animal behavior and participate in research, and assist with upkeep of the zoo grounds.

Zookeepers are always in the public eye and should have good communication skills. They are often called upon to lead tours or to give lectures. Zookeeping is very strenuous work. People in this position must be in good physical condition.

Director of Research: Requires a Ph.D., typically in the biological or behavioral sciences. Responsible for approving, coordinating, and overseeing all research conducted at the zoo. Conducts in-house research, and may do some teaching to research volunteers and the community.

Other Research Opportunities:

Paid research assistants often are hired by universities, zoos, aquariums, museums, government, and private facilities to help conduct ongoing animal behavior research. Here they work under the direction of faculty or staff researchers and help to design, perform, and analyze the results of animal behavior studies. Research assistants may work in laboratories or in the field, depending upon the nature of the research project. These jobs may be full-time or part-time.

Full-time research assistants have either a bachelor's or master's degree. The usual requirements for a research assistant with a B.S or B.A. degree is a major in the behavioral or biological sciences with some coursework in animal behavior. Part-time assistants need not have a bachelor's degree, but usually they have some background in behavior. Often, part-time assistants are students working toward a college degree. As is true for college teaching and research, competition for research assistant jobs can be intense. Breadth of training in allied fields (such as ecology, physiology, or biochemistry) and/or possession of particular practical skills (such as statistical analysis, computer programming, or electronics) can be helpful. For field projects that take place overseas, knowledge of a second language or experience working in a foreign country may be useful.

Other Jobs Working with Animals:

Many other jobs that involve working with animals also involve some knowledge of animal behavior. These include employment as veterinary assistants, animal caretakers at zoos, universities, and research institutions, animal psychologists, companion animal trainers, pet store workers, and animal control officers. Some of these require specialized or advanced training through certification programs; others do not.

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Where Can I Get More Information?
For more information about the science of animal behavior, begin at your local public or college library. Many books on animal behavior have been published in recent years. A librarian can help you locate them, or you may view a list of books on animal behavior from the Animal Behavior Society Education Committee's Booklist page.

Many scientific journals also report research on animal behavior, particularly Animal Behaviour, Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Ethology,The Journal of Comparative Psychology, and Zoo Biology. In addition, multidisciplinary studies containing a behavioral component are often published in Physiology and Behavior, Hormones and Behavior, and Brain, Behavior, and Evolution. Journals devoted to particular taxonomic groups also frequently report behavioral research.

Additional information can also be found by surfing the links below.

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Links and Other Resources:
Professional Societies:
Since 1964, an international society dedicated to the scientific study of animal behavior.
A non-profit volunteer organization made up of professional zoo keepers and other interested persons dedicated to professional animal care and conservation.
The Animal Behavior Society's sister society in Europe.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) was founded in 1924 to support membership excellence in Conservation, Education, Science, and Recreation.
In the treatment of behaviour problems in cats, dogs and other companion animals, it takes time to establish cause and develop treatment plans that are suitable for the owner's circumstances. The APBC represents a network of experienced behaviour counsellors who, on referral from a veterinary surgeon, are able to offer the time and expertise necessary to achieve these objectives.
An international scientific society devoted to education and furthering research on adaptive behavior in animals, animats, software agents, and robots.
A new, broadl based, professional scientific society, committed to understanding the interaction between behavior and neuroendocrine function.
Advancing the scientific discipline and the giving away of Psychology in the public interest.

The purposes of the ISDP include the promotion and encouragment of research on the development of behavior in all organisms, including humans, with special attention to the effects of biological factors operating at any level of organization.

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Research and Graduate Training Groups:
The Centro Interdisciplinare di Bioacustica e Ricerche Ambientali (Interdisciplinary Center for Bioacoustics and Environmental Research) was founded in 1988 and is endowed with a Laboratory of Marine Bioacoustics. The activity of the Centro focuses on the development of research projects on the acoustic communication in animals, the study of practical applications in regard to the monitoring and censusing, the development of advanced methods of sound analysis based on the digital processing of signals, the establishment of a Sound Library of Mediterranean Cetaceans as well as the technical support to other institutions involved in bioacoustical research.
The Center for the Human-Animal Bond is committed to expanding our knowledge of the interrelationships between people, animals, and their environment.
Based in Alaska and includes abstracts on current research including behavioral research.
This department provides scientific and administrative support for a wide range of programs focusing on the research, conservation, education, and exhibition missions of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
Dedicated to the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds. Great links to bird songs.
Links from here to other animal behavior resources, such as info on animal behavior meetings, animal behavior jobs, grants and fellowships for graduate research, and field courses in animal behavior
At San Diego State University.
At Cornell University.
Graduate Program in Environmental Management and Behavior
Center for Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
Graduate Studies in Animal Behavior

Animal Behavior Graduate Group

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Other Great Links:
Links here for everything, including teaching resources.
By Diana Guerrero. A series of on-line articles for those interested in careers in zoos, wildlife management, and behavior

and the Electronic Zoo. More animal links than you can imagine!

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