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A New Flock of Researchers: Citizen Scientists in Animal Behavior

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Wow! You study animal behavior. So cool! People must have a field day with you at parties. When they first meet you, they probably think you just look at animals all day and travel to exotic locations. La di da, oh look there’s a tiger.

But we know the truth. Studying animal behavior is a lot of work. A lot.


What if citizen scientists could help? Citizen scientists already contribute meaningful data to a wide range of fields like ecology, public heath, urban planning and entomology. And don’t even get me started on the contributions citizen scientists have made to the field of ornithology!

Citizen scientist volunteers receive training so they meet the requirements of the project, and to complement that, researchers set up internal data quality checks. These topics require much consideration before projects get off the ground, but let’s start somewhere else. Let’s think big picture.

Animal behavior is the study of what animals do, how they do it and why they do it. In 1963, Niko Tinbergen wrote ‘On aims and methods of Ethology.’ He explains his motives: “…for the future development of Ethology it seems to me important to continue our attempts to clarify our thinking, particularly about the nature of the questions we are trying to answer.” He proposed that behavior (or “behaviour”) can be investigated in terms of “four problems” or questions: causation, development, function and phylogeny. Each animal behavior researcher has his or her own niche. For some, that might mean studying animal behavior at one level of Tinbergen’s questions, or at many levels.

But what if animal behavior researchers had help? Could citizen scientists assist animal behavior studies at each level of Tinbergen’s Four Questions? If so, how? What are some examples?

How could a new flock of researchers join your field of animal behavior research?


Photo: Flickr Creative commons BioDivLibrary

Reference: Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of Ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20 (4): 410–433.

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher, science writer, and PhD student at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:38 am 09/30/2013

    Yes, you probably can recruit many dog owners to make experiments, but you would have hard time in weeding out wishful thinking results.

    You might, however, test-run lots of experiments with dog owners, and then try reproducing results in a controlled manner.

    Link to this

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