Building a model of nonhuman animal behaviours

Operationalizing definitions of animal behaviour: building an ethogram.

Defining animal behaviour requires careful observation and the use of measurable markers to quantify those behaviours. Recent calls for consistency in defining and coding animal behaviour have stemmed from variation in how behaviours are defined within and across species, which could have implications for reproducibility and comparability of results.

Lately, I have been working with mentors and experts in ethology to carefully craft an ethogram—a repertoire of animal behaviours and their definitions. This ethogram will be used to code video-recorded behaviour of the grizzlies of the Atnarko Corridor in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, Nuxalk Territory.

Some particular behaviours have proven challenging to define. Bodies of literature in ethology shed light on how to tease apart fine-scale behaviours, which can be important depending on the research question. For example, consider the array of ways animals may exhibit alertness, such as routine and induced vigilance, multifunctional looking behaviours, and monitoring—all of which, if coded, must have measurable markers. The gait literature has also helped me to operationalize definitions of grizzly locomotion.

After multiple iterations and revisions of our ethogram, I am starting to feel increased confidence in it’s application and enjoy reliving the field season as I code our video-recorded focal samples—sampling behavioural events—of Atnarko Nan (grizzly bears in Nuxalk language).

A subadult grizzly flees downstream after encountering a dominant adult.
A subadult grizzly flees downstream after encountering a dominant adult. Photo by Kate Field.

Kate Field is a PhD Student at the University of Victoria and a Raincoast Conservation Foundation Fellow. Her work is made possible through the support of BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation. This article was first published at the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab.

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