What is ethology?

1 Answer
May 4, 2015

Ethology is the study of animal behavior under natural conditions (source: Merriam-Webster). Note that this term can also refer to the study of the formation of human character. The term ethology was first defined as the study of animals in their natural habitat by Isidore Geoffrey-Saint Hilarie in 1859 (Jaynes, 1969). Ethology is difficult to precisely define though, with ethologists often pointing to the biologist Konrad Lorenz 's work as a prime example of the type of animal behavior research conducted (Burkhardt, 1981).

Ethology is considered a part of biology with ethologists usually focusing on the evolution of behavior. Subjects of study include learning, communication, sexual behavior, and others. Ethology can be conducted in the field, the laboratory, or through a combination of both, although it is usually conducted in the field. It is thanks to ethology that we have the ethogram, or a description of behaviors frequently used in animal behavioral research.


Ethology is closely related to comparative psychology, neuroanatomy, ecology, and sociobiology. E.O. Wilson (1975) predicted that animal behavior would be replaced by neurophysiology and sensory physiology and sociobiology (sociobiology is the study of social interactions and behavioral ecology). Indeed, distinctions between sociobiology and ethology are becoming increasingly blurred (Barlow, 1989).


Barlow, G. W. (1989). Has sociobiology killed ethology or revitalized it?. In Regional Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science, 3rd, 1979, U Colorado, Boulder, CO, US. Plenum Press.

Burkhardt, R. W. (1981). On the emergence of ethology as a scientific discipline. Conspectus of History, 1(7), 62-81.

Jaynes, J. (1969). The historical origins of ‘ethology’and ‘comparative psychology’. Animal Behaviour, 17(4), 601-606.

Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.