Towards an integrated conservation ethology

So lately I’ve been reading this book by Paul Ehrlich called “The Machinery of Nature”. The book provides a neat overview of how evolution has led to the biodiversity of life which exists today. Particularly interesting was a chapter which outlines the ways in which animal species have evolved complex social behaviours. It refers particularly to selection, and how organisms share a singular goal of passing on genes. The thought struck me as I was reading that something so important in the evolution of species should be equally important for conservation of these species. As it turns out, whilst the integration of animal behavioural studies (ethology) and conservation biology has improved in recent years, it is still left comparatively lacking (Berger-Tal et al 2011). Sutherland (1998) for example finds far fewer mentions of conservation in animal behaviour research than in equivalent population or genetic studies.

So why isn’t conservation often considered in studies of animal behaviour? Could it be an intentional oversight? Berger-Tal et al. suggest a lack of a disciplinary framework; Sutherland suggests a prejudice exists towards “more exciting” research. I however find it difficult to believe that anyone who studies animal behaviour could place any less significance on species protection. Indeed, as I (and I’m sure anyone else who’s watched an Attenborough documentary) could attest, the more you learn about an animal’s behaviour, the more you feel personally invested in its survival.

image from Wikimedia commons

cheetah image from Wikimedia commons

Through trying to put myself into an ethologist’s shoes, I can suggest two further possible explanations for why this lack of integration might exist:

#1. The subjectivity often required in interpreting behaviour makes it tricky to apply to conservation with certainty. Behavioural theories can be amended if they’re deemed inaccurate, but species cannot be brought back from extinction.

#2. Behaviour can adapt quicker than physical characteristics to selection pressures, and thus can vary significantly on an intraspecies level (Alexander 1976). What works for one population in this instance might not work for another.

“You may be rare, but your behaviour is making my conservation choice difficult” – source

Improving the linking of research would benefit both disciplines, as they are to some degree reliant on each other (Clemmons and Buchholz 1997). Without conservation, ethology stands to lose valuable research species. Without ethology, effectiveness of conservation efforts may be hampered by a lack of behavioural knowledge. For example behaviour is critical in how species can persist in fragmented habitats, and in the reintroduction of captive species into the wild.

With a continuing decline in species the role of ethology can only increase in importance. The barriers to a knowledge resource so valuable for conservation need to be removed.

Author: Richie Southerton (contact via:


Alexander, R. D. (1974). The evolution of social behavior. Annual review of ecology and systematics, 5, 325-383.

Berger-Tal, O., Polak, T., Oron, A., Lubin, Y., Kotler, B. P., & Saltz, D. (2011). Integrating animal behavior and conservation biology: a conceptual framework. Behavioral Ecology, 22(2), 236-239.

Clemmons, J. R., & Buchholz, R.(1997). Linking conservation and behavior. In: Clemmons, J. R., & Buchholz, R. (eds.) Behavioral approaches to conservation in the wild, Cambridge University Press, 3-22.

Ehrlich, P. (1986) The Machinery of Nature. Collins.

Sutherland, W. J. (1998). The importance of behavioural studies in conservation biology. Animal Behaviour, 56(4), 801-809.


About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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