I’m in full throttle Research mode and as I am oft to do – I think very deeply about the meaning and purpose of my tests. My ever-evolving research philosophy is definitely a very whole organism approach. The whole animal is my subject. In my care, the whole animal is my responsibility, not just the data it yields me. I put my mind space in that of the animal. What is life? What am I doing? Why do I need to do it? Why am I doing it? Trained very heavily in ecology and evolutionary biology the answers are simple – I am alive. I am here, now. I need to survive. I need to reproduce.

Experiments are how I “read my subject’s mind”. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What is the outcome? Unlike people, I can’t simply ask them to tell me what they are doing and why? (And heck, even people lie.) So, I have the amazing and challenging job to design experiments that ask mutually exclusive questions. Some of the most thorough and extensive behavior research has been conducted in laboratories by psychologists, behavioral pharmacologists, and physiologists.

First, some background. Animal Behavior is one of the oldest fields of science inquiry. Traditional cultures have oral, written, and illustrative accounts of animal behavior that far outstretch the modern Western definition of science. However, a student interested in Animal Behavior study today could follow one of four main paths to a career in behavior: Anthropology, Ecology, Psychology, Physiology.

We may study different species of animals. Or we may study the same species, but for completely different purposes, asking very different questions. How Ecologists “see” and study behavior is fundamentally different than how psychologists or physiologists study behavior; and how Anthropologists study behavior is very different than the rest. One major distinguishing feature of Anthropology is the relationship between the researcher and the subject. Anthropologists often embed themselves with their subjects in order to fully understand them. Think Jane Goodall approach. My experience with this approach is limited and I will spend the rest of the post discussing the remaining three avenues to animal behavior.

I don't wear a lab coat; and this is a baby pouched rat. A baby!

In Ecology animal subjects are the subject of interest. Questions are asked to understand how they survive, disperse, interact with conspecifics and other organisms in their communities, how they adjust/adapt to the environment and human intervention. Related fields include Behavioral Ecology, Ethology, Natural History.

In Psychology animal subjects are of interests because they (usually) serve as proxies of human behavior. Questions are asked to identify patterns and correlations of their behavior to help us understand more about our own or to identify general patterns in behavior across many species. Related fields include Clinical Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Psychobiology, Neurobehavior.

In Physiology animal subjects can be the subject of interest or a model for human or wider taxa questions. Questions are asked to understand how changes in the animal’s system (internal physical, biochemical, neurological, reproductive, digestive, hormonal, etc.) impact behavior and vice versa. Related fields include Behavioral Pharmacology, Biomedical research, Reproductive Physiology, Neurobehavior.

Rodents are a commonly studied by professionals of all three fields. However, the growing popularity of Biomedical Research (and the declining popularity of natural history) has really shaped expectations about what it means to study animal behavior, both among the public and those who are researchers. When the average person thinks of a rodent subject, they think Lab Rats or Mice and for good reason. They are the most frequently used subjects for various types of research. A lot of important science happens in the lab, but the lab isn’t the only place where science happens.

Pros and Cons of Lab vs Field experiments

The Lab is clean. You can really isolate variables and design experiments to get to the minutia of inputs to behavior. Mechanism based behavior studies are especially keen on lab experiments: physiology, neurobiology. Development has definitely gained so much from super-controlled experiments that are able to observe and track changes in reproduction and embryology and more.

The Field is authentic. You get an uncut, unfiltered, front seat ticket to animal behavior. Understanding the what (Function) and why (Evolution) of how animals behave becomes more clear. The context of the behavior is as essential as the behavior itself. But all of this “context” makes for a tangly mess. Sorting out variables is hard, hard, hard.

Which makes what I do and how I study animal behavior challenging and exciting. I straddle the fences. I do a bit of both: Lab and Field based work. I apply psychological methods to examine animal behavior under ethological contexts. I intentionally focus on ethological questions (ecology approach) of animal behavior, but I often track (minimal) physiological changes in my subjects. I want to know about the animal, it’s natural state, it’s essence if you will. But I need to be able to identify what is happening with the animals. I need to tune out all of the noise of the environment and get a clear picture of what an animal is doing. This means I need to bring them into the lab, a controlled environment to get a good look at them and observe them. To aid in this “examination” I use tools designed by psychologists to examine single or small suites of behavior. Thanks to a very thorough literature I have the blueprints to a host of tests that are relatively easy to do and apparatuses that are easy to assemble or build.

But the tests are just tools, not the machinery proper of my outfit. That’s because I am often working with completely different species and asking fundamentally different questions than the creators of those experiments. I see behavior differently. For me, the behavior is my focus, for behavioral pharmacologists, for example, the behavior is the result of a modification made in the animal. Moreover, field research and working with wild animals is altogether different than working in a lab with domesticated animals.

Me, clearing a field to set up a trapping grid in Tanzania to catch my research subjects.

Wild animals are just that – wild. They scamper, bite, lunge. (Whatever shenanigans you think laboratory/domesticated/pet shop style/farm type animals do, I assure you that the wild varieties are faster, wilier, and more agile.) Wild animals are dirty – yes with actual dirt, but often have a host of pathogens and parasites that they’ve inherited since birth, maybe before. Field research is riskier – both in the physical risks researchers take to do their work. Exposure to Dengue-Malaria infested mosquitoes, Leptospirosis-tainted urine, tape/round/hookworm-infested poop, snakes, predators, hunters, poachers, you name it. Researchers spend weeks, even months to just access their animals and there’s no guarantee they will encounter a single subject, let alone get a confident sample size of n=12 or more per treatment group. The stress of procuring and transferring animals to a lab is a nail biting time, too. Weeks (or months) of providing basic care and husbandry to an animal just to make sure it’s in good health and condition before getting the okay to do any test.

For researchers, like me, who work with animal species that have no SOP (standard operating procedures), then you take the most cautious, conservative road to manipulations and observations. Because care and well-being of your subject is paramount. If something happens to one of my pouched rats, I don’t have the option to order more from a catalog. But that’s the why and how of what makes these different fields of animal behavior essential. We’re exploring different questions for very, very different end points.

My end point is to identify the basic behavioral reactions of African Giant Pouched Rats to a suite of novel stimuli. That’s it. How do they fare? And we want to know their basic, natural, not-antagonized behavioral responses so that we can get an idea of what they are like… because we don’t know what they are like at all.

A paper I'm currently reading. Notes in margin are how wild animals would translate the lines.

Coping and coping strategies: a behavioural view by Beat Wechsler, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 1995, vol 43:123-134.