Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Behavior is action in response to a stimulus. My cat Cameo is now responding to both an external stimulus the sound of a bag of treats, and an internal stimulus her hunger, or at least her insatiable desire for treats. Sometimes animal behavior can seem really far out, but if you look closely enough, you can see how all behavior serves a purpose to help an animal mate, eat, avoid predators, and raise young. And since behaviors can come with advantages like these, natural selection acts on them just as it acts on physical traits ensuring the success of animals who engage in beneficial behaviors, while weeding out those that do stupid, dangerous or otherwise unhelpful stuff. The most beneficial behaviors are those that make an animal better at doing the only two things in the world that matter: eating and sex. Still, that doesn't mean all behavior is about just looking out for number one. It turns out some advantageous behavior is actually pretty selfless. More on that in a minute. But first, behavior is really just a product of a pair of factors: Morphology, or the physical structure of an animal and physiology, or the function of that morphology. Now, an animal's behavior is obviously limited by what its body is capable of doing for example, Cameo does not have opposable thumbs, so, much as she would like to get into the treat bag, by herself, she cannot. This limitation is strictly hereditary no cats can open treat bags with their thumbs because no cats have opposable thumbs. Though some cats do have thumbs. In the same way that a penguin can't fly to escape a predator; or a gazelle can't reach the same leaves as a giraffe can. Similarly, behavior is constrained by an animal's physiology. Like, Cameo's built for chasing down little critters and eating meat, not beds of lettuce. This is because her physiology, everything from her teeth to her digestive system, are geared for eating meat. If she pounced on and ate every blade of grass she came across... let's just say I would not want to be in charge of that litter box. Now the traits that make up an animal's morphology and physiology are often heritable, so we generally talk about selection acting on those traits. But as natural selection hones these traits, it's really selecting their associated behaviors. It's the USE of the trait, using wings and feathers to escape predators, or using a long neck to reach leaves, that provides the evolutionary advantage. Still, that doesn't mean all behavior is coded in an animal's genes some behaviors are learned. And even for animals that learn how to do things, natural selection has favored brain structures that are capable of learning. So one way or another, most behaviors have some genetic underpinning, and we call those behaviors adaptive. Problem is, it's not always obvious what the evolutionary advantages are for some of the nutty things that animals do. Like, why does a snapping turtle always stick out its tongue? How does a tiny Siberian hamster find its mate, miles across the unforgiving tundra? Why does a bower bird collect piles of garbage? To answer questions like those, we have to figure out what stimulus causes these behaviors, and what functions the behaviors serve. To do this, I'm going to need the help of one of the first animal behavior scientists ever, or ethologists, Niko Tinbergen. Tinbergen developed a set of four questions aimed at understanding animal behavior. The questions focus on how a behavior occurs, and why natural selection has favored this particular behavior. Determining how a behavior occurs actually involves two questions: One: what stimulus causes it? And two: what does the animal's body do in response to that stimulus? These are the causes that are closest to the specific behavior we're looking at, so they're called the proximate causes. In the case of the male Siberian hamster, the stimulus is a delicious smelling pheromone that the sexy female hamster releases when she's ready to mate. The male hamster's response, of course, is to scuttle, surprisingly quickly, over several miles if necessary to find and mate with her. So the proximate cause of this behavior was that the girl hamster signaled that she was ready to knock boots, and the male ran like crazy to get to the boot-knockin'. Asking the more complex question of why natural selection has favored this behavior requires asking two more questions: One: what about this behavior helps this animal survive and/or reproduce? And two: what is the evolutionary history of this behavior? These, as you can tell, are bigger-picture questions, and they show us the ultimate causes of the behavior. The answer to the first question, of course, is that the ability of a male hamster to detect and respond to the pheromones of an ovulating female is directly linked to his reproductive success! As for the second question, you can also see that male hamsters with superior pheromone detectors will be able to find females more successfully than other male hamsters, and thereby produce more offspring. So natural selection has honed this particular physical ability and behavior over generations of hamsters. So, who would have thought to ask these questions in the first place? And where's my chair? Niko Tinbergen was one third of a trifecta of revolutionary ethologists in the 20th century. Along with Austrians Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, he provided a foundation for studying animal behavior and applied these ideas to the study of specific behaviors and for that all three shared the Nobel Prize in 1973. You may have seen the famous photos of young graylag geese following obediently in a line behind a man. That was Lorenz, and his experiments first conducted in the 1930s introduced the world to imprinting, the formation of social bonds in infant animals, and the behavior that includes both learned and innate components. When he observed newly hatched ducklings and geese, he discovered that waterfowl in particular had no innate recognition of their mothers. In the case of graylag geese, he found the imprinting stimulus to be any nearby object moving away from the young! So when incubator-hatched goslings spent their first hours with Lorenz, not only did they follow him, but they showed no recognition of their real mother or other adults in their species! Unfortunately, Lorenz was also a member of the Nazi party from 1938 to 1943. And in response to some of his studies on degenerative features that arose in hybrid geese, Lorenz warned that it took only a small amount of "tainted blood" to have an influence on a "pure-blooded" race. Unsurprisingly, Nazi party leaders were quick to draw some insane conclusions from Lorenz's behavioral studies in the cause of what they called race hygiene. Lorenz never denied his Nazi affiliation but spent years trying to distance himself from the party and apologizing for getting caught up in that evil. Now how exactly does natural selection act on behavior out there in the world? That's where we turn to those two types of behavior that are the only things in the world that matter: eating and sex-having. Behavior associated with finding and eating food is known as foraging, which you've heard of, and natural selection can act on behaviors that allow animals to exploit food sources while using the least amount of energy possible this sweet spot is known as the optimal foraging model. And the alligator snapping turtle has optimal foraging all figured out. Rather than running around hunting down its prey, it simply sits in the water, and food comes to him. See, the alligator snapping turtle has a long, pink tongue divided into two segments, making it look like a tasty worm to a passing fish. In response to the stimulus of a passing fish, it sticks out its tongue out and wiggles it. Natural selection has, over many generations, acted not only on turtles with pinker and more wiggly tongues to catch more fish, it's also acted on those that best know how and when to wiggle those tongues to get the most food. So it's selecting both the physical trait and the behavior that best exploits it. And what could be sexier than a turtle's wiggly tongue dance? Well, how about sex?