Youth animal science: Ethology

Take a deeper look at the science involved in animal production by exploring ethology.

Youth practice science by observing animal behaviors.
Youth practice science by observing animal behaviors.

As learned in “Showcasing the science in ‘animal science’,” youth are using science in all aspects of raising animals. Anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, chemistry, ethology (study of behavior), virology (study of viruses), bacteriology (study of bacteria), endocrinology (study of hormones) and many more scientific fields play a large role in animal production.

With the adoption of the National Research Council’s report, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H are working to increase science literacy through the inclusion of the Scientific and Engineering Practices described in the framework. These eight practices help guide youth through thinking about science while making the subject a little less intimidating. There are numerous MSU Extension news articles to help youth succeed in science and see it more in their everyday lives.

This article series will look more closely into the science that is inherently part of every 4-H animal project, breaking it down into five major areas including ethology. Additional articles cover anatomy and physiology, biochemistry and chemistry, virology and bacteriology and endocrinology.

As animal caretakers, we practice ethology daily. When we look closer at the study of animal behavior, also known as ethology, we are able to observe normal behaviors. This creates a baseline of what is common for an individual, which helps us better detect abnormalities such as potential illness or other sources of stress. Studying animal behaviors is largely observational and builds skills that helps in learning how to properly identify animals.

Observation allows individuals to stop, watch, listen and learn. In doing so, patterns are noted and can help provide more clues to a situation. When applying this to animals, caretakers can observe behavior changes as a result of many factors. Stimuli, including internal (hormones, chemical signaling, etc.) and external (temperature, food availability, etc.), can be positive, neutral or negative, impacting animal behavior. These stimuli can impact an animal for a day, month, year or lifetime, being either beneficial or detrimental.

In learning more about animal behaviors, we can also better understand some human reactions. For example, fear is a motivator that causes muscles to become tense and facial expressions harden (eyes widen, ears pull back and if have a tail, tail tucks). Many times, similar indicators such as tensing up can be noted in human behavior.

Noticing changes in animal behaviors allows us to ask and analyze situations. Skills such as critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, keeping records, communication and personal safety are all valuable components that relate to observing animals. For example, animals may move in certain patterns and if they feel they could be in danger, as an observer, you need to think of your own safety and decide whether you are too close to a situation. In doing so, you have practiced life skills as well as inadvertently applied science to determine how quickly and in which direction your safety could be impacted.

Another factor in animal observation is being able to note the differences between animals. Colors, size, vocalizations and coat markings are common ways to differentiate individual animals. Although these methods may allow for you to easily differentiate animals, when someone else is looking at the same grouping of animals, they may not be able to recognize your descriptions. To help youth in understanding this concept, consider using the “Importance of Animal Identification Activity: That’s MY Apple!” lesson to reinforce this concept. Additionally, some species such as swine have ear notches or ear tags, which are visible numbering systems that can help differentiate animals.

You can help youth learn more about the animal science by using the MSU Extension 4-H Animal Science Anywhere lessons, 4-H Science Blast activities or Animal Care and Well-Being resources. There are also several volunteer trainings offered in Michigan throughout the year, as well as more resources on the Michigan 4-H Resources page.

Other articles in this series:

Did you find this article useful?