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The 4 key types of animal behaviour

If you’ve always been fascinated with animals, you’ll no doubt be interested in animal behaviour. These movements, rituals and unspoken rules form the very basis of what we know about the ’Wild Kingdom’ around us, separating individual species and teaching us more about them. But what do these behaviours mean and why do animals engage in them? If you are looking for a career within animal care, or simply want to learn more, we are going to dive into the definitions, causes and key types of animal behaviour below. 

What is behaviour?

All animals, including humans, exhibit behaviours. Behaviour is almost everything we do! A series of movements, signals and responses to stimuli in the world around us. Actions in response to the world are also known as adaptations. These behaviours are the adaptations we have made to be able to survive and reproduce on Earth. So, behaviour is both fascinating and extremely important!

Why study animal behaviour?

Early human survival depended on knowledge of animal behaviour. We hunted, fed ourselves, domesticated and acquired knowledge from our animal friends. We also needed to know how to escape from predators! 

Today, continuing to learn from animal behaviour is still considered crucial. This knowledge can help in a multitude of ways, including providing the blueprints for how to:

  • Reduce diseases
  • Increase biodiversity
  • Increase agricultural yields
  • Protect natural habitat
  • Rehabilitate endangered species
  • Reduce climate damage
  • Encourage harmonious living with nature
  • Increase the quality of life for domesticated and zoo animals 

Behaviour can be separated into the following categories:

  1. Innate – These are instinctual behaviours that are inherited, automatic responses to stimuli. Like a bird building a nest for spring or you having a sneeze! These behaviours are not usually the process of conscious thinking. Instead, animals respond naturally until the behaviour needed to fulfil the instinct is completed.
  2. Learned – Learned behaviours accumulate through an animal’s lifespan. Learning allows animals to respond to changing situations and gives them a higher chance of survival. Either through being taught by carers, conditioning or repeated exposure, behaviour modifies to reach success. Like a child learning to ride a bike, a gosling learning to fly or a dog learning that performing tricks equals treats!
  3. Abnormal – As well as normal behaviour, animals can also present abnormal behaviours. These can be caused by a number of factors such as changing environments, abnormal experiences, inappropriate habitat or disease. Usually, abnormal behaviour leads to failure to mate, or a lack of care for offspring and can present a threat to the animal’s long-term survival. Therefore, being able to understand what an abnormal behaviour might be is important – such as an overly aggressive dog or a captive animal engaging in pacing. 

Using a mixture of these categories, there are 4 key types of animal behaviour that are generally universal and considered important to understand when working with or researching animals. 

Reproductive behaviour

As survival is the main goal of all animals, reproductive behaviour is considered fundamental to understanding different species. These include behaviours that are used to attract mates, as well as taking care of the young.

To be chosen as mates, animals may perform courtship behaviours, seeking to show prowess and gain attention as a suitable mate. Birds may perform elaborate songs or dances, whales will send powerful sound signals across vast oceans, while male deer will fight off other males to gain exclusive access to females. 

In most species, one or both parents care for the young. This can include den or nest building, feeding and protecting the young from predators. The better the care received, the more likely the young are to survive, so these behaviours are usually strongly innate. Emperor penguins, for example, go to great lengths to ensure the survival of their young, going months without food in sub-zero temperatures to keep their eggs warm.

Social behaviour

Animals use different types of communication and interactions to also enhance their survival chances. Many animals live in groups, families or troops to provide extra protection, warmth and comfort. Both apes and horses, for example, will mutually groom each other to remove parasites and keep skin healthy. These bonding behaviours can help to reduce stress and improve the chances of peaceful co-existing, which raises survival chances. 

Some animals even work together too, forming societies or communities. Bees, just like us humans, must cooperate to live together successfully, dividing up tasks, defending each other, and sharing food. Greatly increasing their survival rates.

Territorial behaviour

A territory is a dedicated space for feeding, mating and rearing young. Your home is a territory, as is a certain section of savannah for a lion. Owning and protecting territory raises survival rates, offering access to these vital resources. Protecting territory is a strong innate behaviour for most animals and shown in a variety of ways. Either through marking, patrolling, dominance and, if necessary, aggression. 

For example, your dog may bark at the postman for entering his territory, just as a male lion might chase off a young male intruder on his patch.

Cyclical behaviour

Many animals have behaviours that respond to changes in the environment in a cyclical way. For example, as diurnal animals most humans sleep at night and are awake during the day, whilst many owls, as nocturnal animals, sleep in the day and arise at night. 

Hibernation or migration are examples of instinctual cyclical behaviours. In response to dropping temperatures, swallows will leave Europe and make for warmer climates. In response to changes to food supply, bears will survive on stored body fat in a deep sleep for the winter months. These adaptations allow animals to follow the bountiful food supplies and increase their survival rates. 

Working with animals in any capacity, or furthering your knowledge of animal care, requires a basic understanding of behaviours. By understanding a species’ natural, instinctive behaviours, we can take better care of them, provide them with enriching habitats or help them flourish in the wild.  

These aspects are covered thoroughly in many of our online animal courses. Choose from animal welfare, animal care & animal behaviour courses, which cover the fundamental aspects of spotting these patterns, cycles and instincts. Understanding how to locate and prevent potentially abnormal or harmful behaviours too. Providing the best quality of care to animals in either domestic settings, zoological settings or even in wildlife rehabilitation

Our popular online dog training course, for example, examines all aspects of canine behaviour. Providing you with the skills to work with and harness these natural instincts for a happy, healthy dog. As well as mastering the art of teaching new, learned behaviours to create harmony for owners and pets.

You can put your new skills to the test in a variety of animal-focused careers, or use them to make a difference in sanctuaries or volunteer positions across New Zealand. Allowing you to spend more time observing these fascinating creatures and their natural behaviours. Check out our animal courses and get started today. 


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