The study of animal behaviour allows us to understand how individuals solve the various problems that life throws at them, as well as to discover the tactics and strategies that combine to help resolve these conflicts. Basically, it could be said that behaviour is a decision making process. It is the balance between a set of solutions that can guarantee the biological performance of the animals (survival, reproduction, inclusive fitness, etc.) and that allow them to be independent of the surroundings and the environment.

The evolution of animal behaviour is a long process consisting of several phases and involving various factors and mechanisms; it is also a process that depends heavily on events, situations and circumstances during the earliest stages of an organism’s development, even at an embryonic level. Read on to find out more about this complex evolutionary phenomenon.

What happens during certain embryonic phases may influence the individual's future behaviour. Pic by Andy Holmes
What happens during certain embryonic phases may influence the individual’s future behaviour. Pic by
Andy Holmes

What factors are involved in animal behaviour?

It has been shown that patterns and models of animal behaviour depend to a large extent on genes. However, genetics is not the only driver of individual behaviour. Patterns can undergo multiple modifications and transformations depending on the environment. The development of animal behaviour, therefore, involves many factors.

Animals are subject to a series of permanent and constant changes, which are the result of continuous interactions between phenotype, genotype and environment, and which will modify and shape the behaviour of individuals. These interactions can be considered as highly predictable processes, especially in the earliest stages of an organism’s development.

Animal behaviour depend on interactions between phenotype, genes and environment. Pic by Ray Hennessy
Animal behaviour depend on interactions between phenotype, genes and environment. Pic by Ray Hennessy

In any case, certain common conditions are required if the development of an organism is to be regarded as normal. For this, there must be a series of regulatory mechanisms, both internal and external, in charge of monitoring the directions and speed of development. The purpose of such mechanisms is to for development to reach a specific endpoint, even if it is done so via different pathways.

The necessary stimuli in the earliest stages

The natural and logical development of animals can require certain stimuli during the earliest stages of growth, even in embryonic phases. For example, some claim that the natural pecking behaviour of ducks is established inside the egg prior to hatching as a result of pumping action the heart. Therefore, the heartbeat is fundamental for an individual to adopt normal pecking behaviour.

Also, prior to hatching, there may be “egg-to-egg” communication: the movements of the chicks within the egg are transmitted to the adjacent eggs, which ensures that hatching eventually occurs in synchrony. This has significant behavioural advantages, particularly in future responses to predators. “Mother-to-egg” communication is also important, as the mother’s signals can affect the subsequent movements of her offspring.

The communication of movements within the egg can influence future behaviour. By Soner Eker
The communication of movements within the egg can influence future behaviour. By
Soner Eker

Predictable behaviors during maturation

Once the initial stages of development are complete, and after the foundations of behaviour have begun to form, the organism enters new transcendental phases of life. One of these phases is maturation, an essential process for all types of behaviour. Maturation refers to the set of morphological and physiological changes that occur at a given time of development, which affect behaviour in highly predictable ways.

Many of the processes and transformations that animals undergo are associated with the maturation stage: the metamorphosis of insects, the singing of birds, the construction of nests, the way in which adult male dogs lift their hind legs to urinate, etc. The ability of birds to fly, something they acquire at a certain age, is also related to the maturation phase. Birds do not need to “learn to fly”, they are simply capable of doing so from a given moment; it is not a process of learning, but of maturity.

Birds begin to fly at a certain point in their development without having to learn. By Mathew Schwartz
Birds begin to fly at a certain point in their development without having to learn. By Mathew Schwartz

It should be noted that some of the processes that take place during maturation are linked to other fundamental phases, such as experience.

The role and importance of experience

As we have just mentioned, the singing of birds and the construction of nests are processes related to maturity. In other words, all birds, at a certain age and at a given moment, know how to sing and how to build nests. However, they are processes that, to varying degrees, are associated with experience. This is what happens in the case of weaver birds.

Weavers are a group of birds that, from a very early age (before they even reach one year of age), begin to construct their nests. They build hanging, sack-shaped nests that provide them with great advantages, especially in terms of protection. Younger birds start off building less complex nests, gradually perfecting their construction skills, with experience, into adulthood. The complexity with which the nest is built will effectively determine the creator’s survival.

Experience allows weavers (Ploceidae) to build increasingly more complex nests. By tahirsphotography | Shutterstock.com
Experience allows weavers (Ploceidae) to build increasingly more complex nests. By tahirsphotography | Shutterstock.com

Although the construction of these nests is a genetic process of maturation (all individuals do it, but some better than others), experience also plays a key role.

The learning process

Learning is the modification of behaviour, insofar as the animal reacts in a certain way to a stimulus as a consequence of previous exposure. Learning can be innate or acquired, and the differentiation between the two can be complex. Nevertheless, some behaviours with a clear adaptive value seem innate: for example, the fear of heights, the identification of predators, or the storage of food by squirrels.

As we have seen throughout the article, learning can also be linked to other processes, such as maturation or experience. This leads to combined effects of all stages in the final behaviour of the animal. Similarly, learning may also involve certain social influences, such as imitation: for example, an animal may learn a new skill or entire pattern of behaviour thanks the presence of a peer.

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