Observations in the Wild

Ethological study starts with an ethogram, a simple descriptive list of behaviors, compiled by an observer in the natural environment. Such observations should be carried out in the natural environment because many behaviors make no sense unless they are observed in the context in which they evolved. After observing animals in the natural environment, ethologists may develop hypotheses which are tested in more controlled research, either outdoors or in a laboratory environment.

What is an ethogram? What are blinds?

While compiling an ethogram ethologists sometimes build shelters that disguise the observer while allowing observation and picture taking. These are called blinds. An ethologist may spend hours in a blind every day, for weeks, simply observing and photographing animals in their natural habitat. The result is a detailed record of natural behaviors. From this one can compile a list of species-characteristic behaviors called an ethogram.

A blind is not necessary if animals become habituated to human observers. Habituation occurs when humans put themselves in the presence of animals but never do anything alarming. Eventually the animals cease to respond to humans as dangerous. The idea of habituation is not to make animals tame or interact with them as friends; it is to become irrelevant so the animal will behave naturally and permit observations that are not distorted by the presence of an observer. Some television programs such as Meercat Manor depend almost entirely upon habituation.

Jane Goodall was the first chimpanzee observer to use habituation as a technique. She followed a chimp family in the Gombe Reserve, in Tanzania. Most of the her first few months were spent observing the chimps with binoculars, when she could see them at all, from a hilltop where she was in full view of the chimps. Eventually the chimps habituated to her presence and allowed Goodall to approach them for closer observation.

What is habituation and how is it accomplished?

What happened when Goodall interacted with the chimps?

Goodall was thrilled when some of the chimps initiated gentle grooming behavior with her, a sign of friendship among primates. She experimented with feeding bananas to the chimps, a practice that resulted in some interesting observations but also some wild feeding frenzies. Worse, the chimps started invading her camp, looking for food. Having totally lost their fear of humans, they became destructive. Goodall eventually realized she had made a mistake when she allowed her interaction with the chimpanzees to move past habituation to social contact. She instituted new rules of non-contact between human and chimp that are in effect to this day at the Gombe Reserve chimp research facility.

What are technologies that help researchers make observations in the wild?

Advancing technology has permitted many ingenious new techniques for observing natural behavior in the wild. "Creature cams" are small cameras with wireless transmitters that can be attached to anything from a mouse to a whale, giving researchers a video record of a creature's travel. Fiber optics allow filming inside tiny burrows, tunnels, and nests. Global positioning systems permit precise tracking of individual animals, permitting researchers to discover the typical range of endangered species such as the Siberian Tiger (in that case encouraging the Russian government to set aside a huge tract of land as a nature preserve). For some species that are especially shy of human beings, infra-red triggered cameras are the best way to make observations, because human observers can be far from the area when the camera is activated by the body heat of a nearby animal.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey