What Does an Ethologist Do?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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An ethologist studies the behavior of animals. While there are other types of careers in which a person may study animals, this one has a specific primary focus: An ethologist studies animal behavior that seems to come naturally and appears to be pre-programmed into the animal despite its environment. In other words, ethologists are particularly interested in the types of behavior animals do not learn but instead inherit. They do take into account, however, that pre-programmed behavior can be affected by outside factors as well.

When a person is referred to as an ethologist, this means he studies animal behavior, and there are a lot of different reasons a scientist might do so. For example, people with this type of job study animals to learn about the causes of their behaviors, how their behaviors develop and evolve, and how animal behavior effects other animals and the environment. The information ethologists learn through their studies helps satisfy curiosity about animal life and makes it easier for scientists to understand a range of biology processes. The results of animal studies can also help explain and solve issues with animal and human interactions.


The focus of ethologists' studies differs from other types of scientists who study animals. Other scientists, such as animal behaviorists, are often more concerned with animal behaviors that are learned rather than those that are naturally present in the animal and considered pre-programmed. For example, an animal behaviorist might focus on the behavior of rats that learn to navigate their way through a manmade maze. An ethologist does not usually disregard such learned behaviors, but often proves more interested innate behaviors, such as the communication sounds an animal makes.

One example of a behavior an ethologist might study is referred to as imprinting, which is demonstrated in the way some animals identify and learn to follow their mothers. Some animals, for example, recognize their mothers based on hearing a specific call. Then, when the animal they have identified as their mother moves, the young animals follow. Interestingly, many animals exhibit this behavior even if the sound is not produced by another animal or comes from an object that couldn't possibly be its mother. Additionally, imprinting is sometimes time dependent, and some animals won't exhibit this type of behavior unless exposed to the trigger, such as a specific sound and movement, early on in life.


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