Why Should Our Students Study Animal Behavior?

Article excerpt

Studying animal behavior in the classroom is an excellent way to teach the nature and process of science. As a discipline, animal behavior is particularly well suited to facilitate integrative study and encourage students to make curricular connections. Students' focus can move readily from the organismal view "up" to the animal in its ecosystem or "down" to the molecular level as they investigate topics in animal behavior.

Studying animal behavior is an excellent way to demonstrate the continuity of life and allow students to challenge their assumptions about nonhuman animals. "Why" questions serve to reinforce the role of evolution as a shaper of animal behavior and challenge students to move beyond Lamarckian explanations. Can animals make choices? Ate all choices equally "good" (i.e., adaptive) ones? What do you mean when you say an animal is "smart"? What does it mean to learn? Do all members of a species behave the same way under similar circumstances? Collecting behavioral data necessitates the naming of behaviors, and the challenge for students is to avoid naming and describing behaviors on the basis of our human experience, the so-called sin of anthropomorphism. Unfortunately, a statement such as "The gerbil is frightened" tends to end the conversation the student has named the behavior and transferred all the human associations of this state to the gerbil. Scientists will tell you that it is better to describe what one sees objectively and name the behavior accordingly. However, the complexity of nonhuman animal behavior is astonishing--and guess what? Hormonal and neurological studies have confirmed that, particularly in vertebrates, the animal has the equivalent physiological responses a human would show in the same emotional state! So maybe the gerbil is frightened.

Animals feel pain. Animals recognize each other. And animals can be bad-tempered, deceitful, and behave like sociopaths. The line between the behaviors of humans and other animals is becoming ever more blurry as the scientific literature demonstrates that many animals lead complicated social lives worthy of the worst soap opera and experience a range of what can only be called emotions. Challenge your students to look at their data critically. And don't be so quick to generalize from a few data points to a species-wide trend. Alternative strategies to a goal ate common and may be equally successful under natural conditions. Your data outliers of "uncooperative" study subjects might just be demonstrating an alternative way to solve a contextual problem! Encourage your students to relate what they see in their classroom studies to the animal's natural environment. Ate rats smarter than cats because they can learn to run mazes more efficiently?

There are several issues pertaining to the hands-on study of animal behavior in the classroom that I find troubling. …