Animal Behavior Research Paper Topics

25 Outstanding Dissertation Ideas On Animal Behavior


There are a number of great dissertation ideas you can explore when writing on animal behavior. A great topic can certainly make your dissertation much easier to write as you can use your enthusiasm towards the topic to help drive your motivation. Here are 25 outstanding ideas worth consideration:

  1. Discuss with is known about animal play, specifically focusing on domestic animals like cats and dogs.
  2. Analyze elephants’ abilities to feel empathy towards other species and the ways in which they communicate the feeling.
  3. Why is animal play in domesticated animals so contagious? How are dogs specifically so quick to adapt to playful situations?
  4. Provide a critical analysis of the recent studies suggesting that animal minds are richer and more complex than what was previously known in science.
  5. Study the effects of animals that are ill and need care at home. Do they respond differently to needed care because of instincts that urge them to be active?
  6. Analyze the argument recently made suggesting that dogs may have developed a sense of humor? Do some breeds have it while others don’t?
  7. What are the long term effects of animals born into captivity in their abilities to nurture or raise future generations of their species?
  8. Why do certain animals react to foster care better than others? What are the most important factors of foster care that could improve the chances of survival?
  9. Provide an analysis of territorialism in some domesticated species? For instance, why do some cats protect entire areas surround homes from other cats?
  10. Why do felines bring their recently caught prey to the doorsteps of their owner’s homes? Is there a message that they are trying to convey?
  11. Why is the study of animal behavior important to us as humans? Do you think that understanding behavior helps in understanding ourselves?
  12. Provide a detailed analysis on the treatment of animals in different parts of the world. Do animals in different regions behave differently with one another because of the way they are treated by humans?
  13. Do you think humans hurt other animals for the simple scientific classification reason of speciesism?
  14. Analyze the ways in which some animals more effectively identify their offspring through sound instead of sight.
  15. Examine how animals behave when they lose either an animal companion or a human in death.
  16. How do animals respond to different environmental factors around the world? For instance, climate, terrain, altitude and urbanization.
  17. What can be learned by the way pack animals form their communities and assign specific roles based on ability and skill?
  18. How do elephants in the wild behave differently from those born in and kept in captivity?
  19. What can be learned from marine life that is confined within the parameters of an observational tank?
  20. Provide a critical analysis on how animals reintroduced to the wild adapt socially with those who were born in the wild?
  21. How have migratory habits in wild animals changed as a result of human interaction and development?
  22. Provide an overview of evolution in terms of causes and consequences of behavior plasticity.
  23. Compare and contrast animal personality in captivity versus the personality in the wild.
  24. Provide an ethical view in support of or against zoos and wild animal parks designed for the public?
  25. Provide a critical analysis of how female animals choose their mates based on motor performance across different behaviors.

Emilie C. Snell-Rood

I outline how understanding the mechanism of behavioural plasticity is important for predicting how organisms will respond to rapidly changing and novel environments. I define two major forms of behavioural plasticity: developmental and activational. Developmental plasticity refers to the capacity of a genotype to adopt different developmental trajectories in different environments. Activational plasticity refers to differential activation of an underlying network in different environments such that an individual expresses various phenotypes throughout their lifetime. I suggest that the costs and benefits of these two forms of behavioural plasticity may differ: developmental plasticity is slow, but results in a wider range of more integrated responses. Furthermore, the neural costs associated with activational plasticity may be greater because large neural networks must be maintained past an initial sampling and learning phase. While the benefits of plasticity are realized in variable environments, I argue that fine-grained and coarse-grained variation may differentially select for activational and developmental plasticity, respectively. Because environmental variation experienced by an organism is largely determined by behaviour, developmental plasticity may still evolve in fine-grained environments if niche choice results in coarse-grained 'realized' variation. Behavioural plasticity should impact evolution in novel environments because it increases the chances of survival in these environments. Developmental behavioural plasticity may be particularly important for diversification in novel environments because it can impact not only survival, but also the development of signals and preferences important in mate choice. Future areas of research on behavioural plasticity and rapid environmental change include stress as a mechanism underlying rapid integrated responses and life history perspectives on predicting developmental versus evolutionary responses. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Andrew Sih

A key issue in animal behaviour is the need to understand variation in behavioural responses to human-induced rapid environmental change (HIREC) such as habitat loss, exotic species, pollution, human harvesting and climate change. Why do some individuals show maladaptive behaviours, while others show adaptive responses to evolutionarily novel situations? At present, we lack a unified conceptual framework for generating predictions and guiding empirical and theoretical work on this critical question. Drawing from the concept of ecological traps, I suggest that a conceptual framework for explaining this variation should include four main points: (1) behavioural responses (adaptive or not) are the result of cue-response systems, or behavioural 'rules of thumb'; (2) limited or imprecise, unreliable information often underlies suboptimal behaviour; (3) the organism's behavioural flexibility affects its response to novel situations; and (4) evolution (and development) in past environments has shaped cue-response systems, responses to imperfect information and degree of behavioural flexibility to be adaptive in past environments, but not necessarily in novel environments. The degree of match/mismatch between past environments and novel environments altered by HIREC is thus a key to explaining adaptive versus maladaptive behaviours. I suggest several existing frameworks that address these four points, and are thus potentially useful for explaining behavioural responses to HIREC: signal detection theory, adaptive plasticity theory, extended reaction norms and cost-benefit theory on variation in learning. I further discuss more complex aspects of reality that would be useful to add to these existing frameworks. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Daniel Sol | Oriol Lapiedra | Cesar González-Lagos

While human-induced rapid environmental changes are putting many organisms at risk of extinction, others are doing better than ever. This raises the question of why organisms differ in their tolerance to environmental alterations. Here, we ask whether and how behavioural adjustments assist animals in dealing with the urbanization process, one of the primary causes of biodiversity loss and biotic homogenization. Based on a literature review, we present both theoretical and empirical arguments to show that behavioural adjustments to urban habitats are widespread and that they may potentially be important in facilitating resource use, avoiding disturbances and enhancing communication. While a growing number of studies report behavioural differences between urban and nonurban animals, very few studies directly address the underlying mechanisms. In some cases, the changes in behaviour occur very rapidly and involve learning, and hence can be attributed to behavioural plasticity. In other cases, however, it cannot be ruled out that behavioural differences between urban and nonurban animals result from natural selection or nonrandom sorting of individuals by behavioural traits that affect dispersal, habitat selection or establishment. Because the urbanization process is expected to continue to threaten biodiversity in the near future, there is some urgency to improve our understanding of the mechanisms through which behaviour helps animals to cope with such environmental alterations. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Niels J. Dingemanse | Max Wolf

Behavioural traits are characterized by their labile expression: behavioural responses can, in principle, be up- and down-regulated in response to moment-to-moment changes in environmental conditions. Evidence is accumulating that individuals from the same population differ in the degree and extent of this form of phenotypic plasticity. We here discuss how such between-individual differences in behavioural plasticity can result from additive and interactive effects of genetic make-up and past environmental conditions, and under which conditions natural selection might favour this form of between-individual variation. We highlight how spatial or temporal variation in the environment, in combination with competition among individuals, can promote adaptive individual differences in plasticity; and we detail how differences in plasticity can emerge as a result of selection pressures induced by social interactions or as a response to between-individual differences in state. We further discuss both ecological and evolutionary consequences of individual differences in plasticity. We outline, for example, how individual differences in plasticity can have knock-on effects on the rate of evolution; and how such differences can enhance the stability and persistence of populations. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Hans Slabbekoorn

Urbanization leads to homogenization of avian communities through local extinction of rare bird species and increasing numbers of the same common urban bird species over large geographical areas. Successful city birds often persist through some sort of behavioural plasticity that helps them survive and reproduce close to humans, in built-up areas, with all the typical urban feasts and hazards. In this review, I address whether behavioural plasticity of the acoustic phenotype can be an additional factor in explaining which species end up as urban survivors. Anthropogenic noise has been shown to negatively affect avian distribution and reproduction, especially for species that rely on relatively low-frequency songs for mediating territorial conflicts and attracting partners for mating. Spectral differences between songs of city and forest populations of the same species and correlations between individual song frequency use and local noise levels suggest that many successful city species shift song frequency upward under noisy urban conditions. Experimental evidence has confirmed the ability of several species to show rapid spectral adjustments as well as perceptual benefits of singing at higher frequency in noisy habitats. However, empirical evidence of fitness benefits for birds showing the ability and tendency of noise-dependent spectral adjustment is still lacking. Furthermore, depending on the species and the underlying mechanism for spectral change, there may also be fitness costs through a compromise on signal function. These two aspects are only two of many remaining avenues for future studies. The acoustic phenotype of urban birds provides a great model system to study fundamental processes such as causes and consequences of environmentally induced signal changes, 'cultural assimilation', and the relationship between phenotypic and genotypic evolution. Furthermore, the current and expected rate of urbanization remains high at a global scale, which will lead to further spread in time and space of artificially elevated noise levels. This should guarantee the continued interest of scientists, politicians and conservationists for many years ahead. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Laure Cauchard | Neeltje J. Boogert | Louis Lefebvre | Frédérique Dubois | Blandine Doligez

Although interindividual variation in problem-solving ability is well documented, its relation to variation in fitness in the wild remains unclear. We investigated the relationship between performance on a problem-solving task and measures of reproductive success in a wild population of great tits, Parus major. We presented breeding pairs during the nestling provisioning period with a novel string-pulling task requiring the parents to remove an obstacle with their leg that temporarily blocked access to their nestbox. We found that nests where at least one parent solved the task had higher nestling survival until fledging than nests where both parents were nonsolvers. Furthermore, clutch size, hatching success and fledgling number were positively correlated with speed in solving the task. Our study suggests that natural selection may directly act on interindividual variation in problem-solving performance. In light of these results, the mechanisms maintaining between-individual variation in problem-solving performance in natural populations need further investigation. © 2012.


Matthew A. Wale | Stephen D. Simpson | Andrew N. Radford

Acoustic noise has the potential to cause stress, to distract and to mask important sounds, and thus to affect behaviour. Human activities have added considerable noise to both terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and there is growing evidence that anthropogenic noise affects communication and movement patterns in a variety of species. However, there has been relatively little work considering the effect on behaviours that are fundamental to survival, and thus have direct fitness consequences. We conducted a series of controlled tank-based experiments to consider how playback of ship noise, the most common source of underwater noise, affects foraging and antipredator behaviour in the shore crab, Carcinus maenas. Ship noise playback was more likely than ambient-noise playback to disrupt feeding, although crabs experiencing the two sound treatments did not differ in their likelihood of, or speed at, finding a food source in the first place. While crabs exposed to ship noise playback were just as likely as ambient-noise controls to detect and respond to a simulated predatory attack, they were slower to retreat to shelter. Ship noise playback also resulted in crabs that had been turned on their backs righting themselves faster than those experiencing ambient-noise playback; remaining immobile may reduce the likelihood of further predatory attention. Our findings therefore suggest that anthropogenic noise has the potential to increase the risks of starvation and predation, and showcases that the behaviour of invertebrates, and not just vertebrates, is susceptible to the impact of this pervasive global pollutant. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Andreas P. Modlmeier | Carl N. Keiser | Jason V. Watters | Andy Sih | Jonathan N. Pruitt

The concept of keystone individuals offers a unifying framework to study the evolution and persistence of individuals that have a disproportionately large, irreplaceable effect on group dynamics. Although the literature is teeming with examples of these individuals, disparate terminologies have impeded a major synthesis of this topic across fields. To allow a strict classification of potential keystone individuals, we offer herein some general terminology, outline practical methodological approaches to distinguish between keystone individuals and generic individuals that only occupy a keystone role, and propose ways to measure the effect of keystones on group dynamics. In particular, we suggest that keystone individuals should be classified as 'fixed' or 'episodic' according to the duration of time over which they impact their group. We then venture into the existing literature to identify distinctive keystone roles that generic and/or keystone individuals can occupy in a group (e.g. dominant individual, leader or superspreader), and describe traits that can give rise to keystone individuals. To highlight the ecological implications, we briefly review some of the effects that keystone individuals can have on their group and how this could affect other levels of organization such as populations and communities. In looking at their diverse evolutionary origins, we discuss key mechanisms that could explain the presence of keystone individuals. These mechanisms include traditional Darwinian selection on keystone-conferring genotypes, experience and state- or context-dependent effects. We close our review by discussing various opportunities for empirical and theoretical advancement and outline concepts that will aid future studies on keystone individuals. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Simona Kralj-Fišer | Wiebke Schuett

Research on animal personality variation has been burgeoning in the last 20 years but surprisingly few studies have investigated personalities in invertebrate species although they make up 98% of all animal species. Such lack of invertebrate studies might be due to a traditional belief that invertebrates are just 'minirobots'. Lately, studies highlighting personality differences in a range of invertebrate species have challenged this idea. However, the number of invertebrate species investigated still contrasts markedly with the effort that has been made studying vertebrates, which represent only a single subphylum. We describe how investigating proximate, evolutionary and ecological correlates of personality variation in invertebrates may broaden our understanding of personality variation in general. In our opinion, personality studies on invertebrates are much needed, because invertebrates exhibit a range of aspects in their life histories, social and sexual behaviours that are extremely rare or absent in most studied vertebrates, but that offer new avenues for personality research. Examples are complete metamorphosis, male emasculation during copulation, asexual reproduction, eusociality and parasitism. Further invertebrate personality studies could enable a comparative approach to unravel how past selective forces have driven the evolution of personality differences. Finally, we point out the advantages of studying personality variation in many invertebrate species, such as easier access to relevant data on proximate and ultimate factors, arising from easy maintenance, fast life cycles and short generation times. © 2014 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


John C. Wingfield

Coping with perturbations of the environment such as severe storms and other climatic extremes, habitat degradation, changes in predator numbers, invasive species and social disruption is one of the most essential physiological and behavioural processes. The palaeontological record shows that organisms have had to cope with environmental perturbations throughout the history of life on Earth. These ancient processes show highly conserved mechanisms, but also great flexibility in responses to social and physical environment challenges. Adrenocortical responses to perturbations can trigger a coping response called the emergency life history stage (EHLS). However, if the adaptive value of the ELHS declines because of trade-offs with other life history stages such as breeding, then the adrenocortical response to acute perturbations (stress) can be modulated. Mechanisms involve allostasis and reactive scope with three foci of regulation: hormone secretion, transport and response. It is now well known that modulation of the adrenocortical responses to perturbations occur through gene-environment interactions during development and throughout the life cycle. These modulations involve individual differences in gender, age, experience and condition as well as latitudinal, altitudinal and hemispheric variations. Dramatic consequences of human-induced rapid environmental change such as increasing frequency and intensity of environmental perturbations will likely have implications for continued adaptation to extreme events. Note that modulation of the stress response also involves three major processes: modulation of robustness (i.e. become more resistant to acute stress); modulation of responsiveness (i.e. modulate the actual response to stress for more flexibility); and modulation of resilience (i.e. how quickly and completely the recovery is after the perturbation has passed). Mechanisms underlying these modulations remain largely unexplored. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Lynne U. Sneddon | Robert W. Elwood | Shelley A. Adamo | Matthew C. Leach

© 2014 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. The detection and assessment of pain in animals is crucial to improving their welfare in a variety of contexts in which humans are ethically or legally bound to do so. Thus clear standards to judge whether pain is likely to occur in any animal species is vital to inform whether to alleviate pain or to drive the refinement of procedures to reduce invasiveness, thereby minimizing pain. We define two key concepts that can be used to evaluate the potential for pain in both invertebrate and vertebrate taxa. First, responses to noxious, potentially painful events should affect neurobiology, physiology and behaviour in a different manner to innocuous stimuli and subsequent behaviour should be modified including avoidance learning and protective responses. Second, animals should show a change in motivational state after experiencing a painful event such that future behavioural decision making is altered and can be measured as a change in conditioned place preference, self-administration of analgesia, paying a cost to access analgesia or avoidance of painful stimuli and reduced performance in concurrent events. The extent to which vertebrate and selected invertebrate groups fulfil these criteria is discussed in light of the empirical evidence and where there are gaps in our knowledge we propose future studies are vital to improve our assessment of pain. This review highlights arguments regarding animal pain and defines criteria that demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether animals of a given species experience pain.


Jess Isden | Carmen Panayi | Caroline Dingle | Joah Madden

Individuals exhibiting a high level of cognitive ability may also exhibit more elaborate traits and so gain higher levels of mating success. This suggests that selection may act on cognitive performance through mate choice. Studies investigating this relationship have tended to focus on single cognitive tasks, or tasks that are closely related to existing natural behaviours, and individuals are frequently tested in captive conditions. This can introduce test artefacts and may tell us more about selection on specific display behaviours that we imagine being particularly cognitively complex, rather than a general cognitive ability. We tested free-living male spotted bowerbirds, Ptilonorhynchus maculatus, that exhibit elaborate sexual displays which appear to be cognitively demanding. We describe a method for testing individuals in the wild, without the need for constraint or captivity. We looked for evidence of a general cognitive ability in males by assaying their performance in a series of novel tasks reflecting their natural bower-building behaviour (bower maintenance) or capturing more abstract measures of cognitive ability (colour and shape discrimination, reversal learning, spatial memory and motor skills). We related performance in these tasks to their mating success. An individual's performance in one task was a relatively poor predictor of performance in any other task. However, an individual's performance across tasks could be summarized by a principal component which explained a level of total variance above which has previously been accepted as evidence of a general cognitive ability. We found no relationships between an individual's overall performance, or performance in any single task, and mating success. Our results highlight the need for further investigation of whether selection on cognition in bowerbirds is exerted through mate choice. We offer this as an example of how classic cognitive tasks can be transferred to the wild, thus overcoming some limitations of captive cognitive testing. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Kerryn D. Carter | Jennifer M. Seddon | Celine H. Frère | John K. Carter | Anne W. Goldizen

Many species exhibit fission-fusion dynamics, yet the factors that influence the frequent changes in group size and membership in these species have not been widely studied. Social ties may be influenced by kinship but animals may also form preferred associations because of social attraction or may only associate because they have similar habitat preferences. We investigated the association patterns of 535 wild giraffes, Giraffa camelopardalis, in Etosha National Park, Namibia using behavioural and genetic data from individually identified giraffes. We collected 726 records of group composition over a 14-month period and calculated pairwise association indices, which were tested against a null model. We found that female-female pairs, but not male-male pairs, showed both preferred and avoided relationships. We tested whether females' relationships could be explained by the degree of relatedness between pairs and whether pairs overlapped spatially. Correlations between matrices of pairwise associations, spatial overlap and relatedness showed that female-female associations were strongly correlated with amounts of spatial overlap and pairs that exhibited preferred relationships were more closely related than would be expected by chance. However, only about one-quarter of the variation in observed associations could be explained by spatial overlap and relatedness and therefore much of this variation may have been related to individual social preferences. © 2012 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Jonathan N. Pruitt | Lena Grinsted | Virginia Settepani

Understanding how colony-level behaviour is determined is of evolutionary significance because colony-level traits can influence individual fitness and group success. Here we explore how the composition of individual behavioural types within colonies influences colony-level behaviour in the social spider Stegodyphus sarasinorum. First, we tested whether S.sarasinorum show stable individual differences in behaviour (i.e. individual personalities) and whether aspects of individuals' behaviour are correlated across contexts, in the form of a behavioural syndrome. As documented in many other animals, S.sarasinorum showed stable individual differences in behaviour that were repeatable across time, and correlated across contexts (i.e. aggressiveness, boldness). Second, we tested for and confirmed the presence of consistent intercolony variation (i.e. colony-level personalities) in collective foraging behaviour. Third, we generated artificially reconstituted colonies of known group size and personality composition to test for associations between colonies' personality composition and their collective foraging behaviour. In experimental colonies, we found that the average phenotypes of colony constituents were associated with colony-level behaviour, where colonies composed of smaller and bolder spiders were more responsive during foraging. However, the single best predictor of colony-level behaviour was the behavioural type of the single most extreme individual, where the boldness score of boldest individuals explained 66-69% of the variation in colony-level behaviour. Together, our results suggest that variation in the personality composition of social groups may be an important driver of variation in colony-level personality. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Damien R. Farine

Grouping is a very common outcome of selection that operates on individual animals. Largely considered to be driven by immediate benefits, such as avoiding predators, animal groups often consist of individuals that are phenotypically more similar than expected from the population distribution. This suggests that the distribution and fitness of phenotypes may be shaped by multiple levels of selection operating along different axes of behaviour. Thus, quantifying assortative mixing, or the measure of association between similar individuals in social networks, should be a key component of the biologist's toolbox. Yet, assortment is rarely tested in animal social networks. This may be driven by a lack of tools for robust estimation of assortment, given the reliance of current methods on binary networks. In this paper, I extend existing approaches that calculate the assortativity coefficient of both nominal classes and continuous traits to incorporate weighted associations. I have made these available through a new R package 'assortnet'. I use simulated networks to show that weighted assortment coefficients are more robust than those calculated on binary networks to added noise that could arise from random interactions or sampling errors. Finally, I demonstrate how these methods differ by applying them to two existing social networks estimated from wild populations, exploring assortment by species, sex and network degree. Given the parallel theoretical developments of the importance of local social structure on population processes, and increasing data on social networks being collected in free-living populations, understanding phenotypic assortment could yield significant insight into social evolution. © 2014 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Marjolein De Rijk | Marcel Dicke | Erik H. Poelman

Parasitoid foraging decisions are often affected by community characteristics such as community diversity and complexity. As part of a complex habitat, the presence of unsuitable hosts may affect foraging behaviour of parasitoids. First, unsuitable herbivores may affect the localization of patches where hosts are present. Second, encounters with unsuitable herbivores in the food plant patch may affect parasitoid decisions during their searching behaviour in the patch. In this review, we outline the importance of the presence of unsuitable herbivores on the behavioural responses of parasitoids during both these foraging phases. Nonhosts feeding on a neighbouring plant or on the same plant individual the host is feeding from may affect odour-based searching by parasitoids in a way specific for the species combination studied. Feeding by specific host and nonhost-herbivore combinations may induce volatiles that are more, less or equally attractive compared to those from plants infested by the host only. Within the food patch, mixed presence of host and nonhost may reduce the number of hosts parasitized per time unit and reduce parasitoid foraging efficiency. Importantly, we show that a single nonhost species may have contrasting effects in terms of its effects on odour-based searching and patch residence decisions. We conclude that studying host searching behaviour at both phases of foraging is essential for our understanding of parasitoid foraging behaviour in natural and agricultural settings. We further speculate on the ecological context in which unsuitable herbivores affect either of the two phases of parasitoid foraging. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


Lucy M. Aplin | Ben C. Sheldon | Julie Morand-Ferron

Blue tits are famous for the 'milk bottle' innovation, which emerged at numerous sites across Britain in the early 20th century. However, overall we still know little about the factors that foster or hinder the spread of innovations, or of the impact of individual differences in behaviour on social transmission. We used a two-action and control experimental design to study the diffusion of innovation in groups of wild-caught blue tits, and found strong evidence that individuals can use social learning to acquire novel foraging skills. We then measured six individual characteristics, including innovative problem solving, to investigate potential correlates of individual social-learning tendency. Consistent with a hypothesis of common mechanisms underlying both processes, we fou nd evidence for a relationship between social learning and innovativeness. In addition, we observed significant age- and sex-biased social learning, with juvenile females twice as likely to acquire the novel skill as other birds. Social learning was also more likely in subordinate males than dominant males. Our results identify individual variation and transmission biases that have potential implications for the diffusion of innovations in natural populations. © 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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