What is behavioral ecology and why should I take this course?

Answers to this main question comes in the form of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), a powerful way of communicating and something I’ve covered before here.

What is behavioral ecology? It is the study of why organisms behave as they do from an evolutionary perspective. This means we focus on behavior in natural environments, though we might test specific competing hypotheses under laboratory conditions. The evolutionary history of actions is useful, for then we can see the order in which behaviors arose, so we use phylogenies.

What is behavior? A behavioral act is what an organism does. We want to know what they do and why they do it, so we often view actions as responses. We might say a behavior is anything that can be captured on video, but sometimes we also include things like invisible releases of chemicals.

What is ecology? Ecology is the study of how organisms interact with each other and with other species. Many ecologists study whole communities or even ecosystems. They talk about things like how communities are assembled, or how they change with climate or invasive species. But to figure out how the many species involved at these levels impact each other, ecologists often study just a few species, for example, plants and arbuscular mycorrhizae. These are fungi that help plants get phosphorus from the soil in exchange for carbon, which the plants fix from carbon dioxide in the air. The interaction has evolved and impacts community structure.

Why do you keep saying “organism” and not “animal”? A lot of behavioral research is on animals. They are large, active, and fun to watch. But we have increasingly learned that the theories applicable to animal behavior in natural environments also apply to micro-organisms, protists, social amoebae, and bacteria. They can also apply to plants, to within genome conflicts of interest, to how life itself diversified. This breadth is better captured by the term organism. That term itself is a challenge to define, a challenge we think we have met, but this is a topic for later.

What is a response variable and why are they important? Clear thinking is essential for science. We humans have discovered a huge number of truths about how the world works. In a science course it is important to teach you some of those truths directly and efficiently. But it is also important for you to learn how we came to know those truths, why they are true, and how they might be tested. After all, many of the things we think are true now will later be shown to be false, or to have important exceptions. You are the next generation. You need the tools to think critically, not just to accept facts. A good start on this process is to think graphically whenever possible, identifying the response variable, putting it on the Y axis, then thinking about what causes change in that variable, putting that on the X axis. Then draw the curve that defines the relationship between the two.Right there you will start thinking quantitatively, wonder about units, causative and response variables, and confounding factors. This is how scientists think. Our book is full of such figures. Study them carefully.

What is the main response variable for this course? It is behavior. This is what makes this class so much fun. The bunny is running away. Why? The lion hides motionless in the bushes. Why? An amoeba dies to help others nearby. Why? A chick screams for food from its mother. Why? A swallow nests right next to another, allowing parasites to efficiently find it. Why? Killer whales beach themselves hunting sea lions. Why? Actions, in short, are the response variables we care about. We wonder why these actions have evolved, which means why the individuals that act this way and not another way had more babies, passing on this way of acting. This is called adaptation. Why behaviors evolve is what we study.

We have to take a test over a whole book, The selfish gene, by Richard Dawkins, on the third day of class. Why? This book is a great introduction to the topic of the course. It is not difficult to read. You have a set of study questions to guide your reading. Knowledge is like a net of interconnections, or perhaps like a sponge with even more connections than a net. There is no easy way in. One philosophy is to give a great overview, then specialize. We are fortunate to have this wonderful book for our overview.

We have quizzes all the time, but no big tests past the first one. Why? Did you ever put off all the reading until a day or two before a test, then cram? Were you amazed at how well you did, though you did not remember the material at all even a month later? I thought so. To get into an excellent university like this one, you have to be very good at learning efficiently and judiciously. Some of you won’t be able to take the time for learning extra material. In this class I want you to do all the assigned reading, on time. If you do, you will be rewarded by your quiz grades. I also want you to learn for keeps. I want you to remember what you learned in this course every time you watch a nature video, or see a hawk pounce on a squirrel. I want you to think critically and carefully every time you come to a conclusion. This takes projects.

Our projects have us focus on one of the chapters in An introduction to behavioural ecology, by Nick Davies, John Krebs, and Stu West (called DKW often here). How can I understand my chapter if I haven’t read all the intervening chapters? This is another reason to read The selfish gene. With this book, you will have an overview to all the topics. Also, we will do the first two chapters of DKW together to help you get comfortable with an evolutionary approach to hypothesis testing in behavioral ecology. From there, the different chapters apply the principles to different areas of behavioral ecology, building on each other only modestly. Also, they are not in the order I would have chosen.

I still don’t get why you are having us focus on just one chapter and not all the same chapter. If one is the best, why don’t we focus on it? One of the things about effective learning is teaching. Each table of six will be an expert on their chapter. Their response variables will be those of their chapter. They will inform the rest of us, improve Wikipedia entries, and teach from their knowledge base. From in-class material, everyone will learn the whole book. From your specific chapter you will learn in depth in ways that facilitate taking a critical approach. Each of these chapters is vitally important, with tons of amazing material in the references. You will learn to read original literature on the topic of your chapter. This mix of breadth and depth accords with the best teaching practices. It enhances learning, retention, and critical thinking. It will be fun!

What is this creativity course you mentioned? The folks over at Know Innovation have offered us a special opportunity for you to enroll in their on-line course on creativity. I took it this summer and it is a lot of fun. I strongly recommend this for it will help you be creative and innovative in these projects and in your whole life. We will be using some of these techniques in class, so if you take the course, you can see where they come from. They are not going to charge you, though the course normally has a fee. Taking it is one of several enhancement things you can do for extra credit.

You are putting us in groups of three and each person specializes on writing, fact checking, or Wikipedia. Why? Aren’t all these skills important? Yes, all are important. But specializing is how we get things done. This is a behavioral ecology class and you all do that. Specializing on some of the more technical aspects is efficient. It is also how projects get done outside the classroom. It follows the philosophy of doing some things in depth, others broadly.

Who took those photos? I did.

Are there other things I should know about this course? Yes, lots, but this is what comes to mind now. Stay tuned!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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3 Responses to What is behavioral ecology and why should I take this course?

  1. Liz Haswell says:

    This sounds like an amazing class! I’m thinking of getting the Selfish Gene and reading along.

  2. The Selfish Gene is a really enlightening book. I hope the course is fun! I hope the students are wonderful!

  3. Liz Haswell says:

    Joan, I want to take your test! I won’t have the book until too late to take it with the students, but would you send it to me after?

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