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Animal Behavior
Animal Behavior

Sensing and Responding to the Environment

Most animal behavior is based on an animal’s desire to survive. The chances of survival are not very good for an animal that cannot find food or hide from predators. A couple of things have to happen for an animal to survive.

First, an animal has to sense its environment. Animals sense the environment with body parts called sensory organs, such as eyes, ears, and noses. We humans have five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Other animals use these same senses, but in different ways. Many animals have much better senses of smell and hearing than humans do. Sensory organs are vital for animals to find food, find mates, and avoid danger.

Second, an animal has to be able to respond to its environment to survive. Sometimes animals change their behavior based on experiences they have had in the past. This process of modifying behavior based on experiences is called learning. No, learning is not all books and memorizing facts—but you knew that already, right? There are other behaviors that are not learned, but are just ingrained in the animal throughout its life. This is called innate behavior, which means it does not vary based on experience and is fixed throughout an animal’s life.

Animals can learn in a few different ways. These include:

  • Habituation

  • Imprinting

  • Associative learning
Habituation is when an animal becomes desensitized to something that happens repeatedly and does not provide new information. For example, if a train goes by your bedroom window every hour, after awhile you stop noticing it. In the animal world, it is important for animals to habituate to non-threatening stimuli so they don’t waste energy hiding from things that can’t hurt them.

In some places, prairie dogs have become habituated to humans and do not raise an alarm when humans are near because they have learned that humans do not harm them. They look out for more dangerous animals, like raptors and coyotes.




Imprinting is when an animal learns to recognize one individual or object as its parent. Imprinting is common in birds. Baby birds do not know who their mother is when they first hatch. They imprint on the first moving object near their nest shortly after hatching and follow it around. There is only a short window of time in which a baby bird can form the bond used to imprint. It is possible for a bird to imprint on something that is not their mother, such as another species. In the fairy tale The Ugly Duckling, a baby swan imprinted on a mother duck.


Ducklings follow their mother around after imprinting on her.

Associative learning is when an animal makes a connection between experiences. If you ate sushi you bought at a convenience store and then became violently ill, you would probably decide not to eat sushi from there anymore. This is an example of associative learning—you associated eating sushi with getting sick, and learned to avoid that situation in the future.

The same situation applies to animals eating poisonous snakes or caterpillars. If a bird eats a bright orange caterpillar and then vomits, it learns to avoid orange colored caterpillars. This is an example of operant conditioning, which is when an animal changes its voluntary behavior based on the outcome of previous behavior. In the poison caterpillar example, the bird avoids a behavior that resulted in something bad happening, like being punished or getting sick. Operant conditioning can also work the opposite way, too—if a pigeon sits in front of a park bench and gets fed sunflower seeds, it returns to that same park bench because it associates that spot with food.

You may have heard of Pavlov’s dog, which is a classic example of associative learning. In a nutshell, a scientist named Ivan Pavlov rang a bell before feeding his dog over and over again so that the dog associated the bell with food. Eventually, he could ring the bell and the dog would salivate even without any food appearing. This is an example of classical conditioning, which is when an internal response (expecting food/salivating) is triggered because of an association with a stimulus (bell ringing).

The key difference between these is the animal acting on its own in operant conditioning. A rat that learns to pull a lever that makes food appear is an example of operant conditioning, demonstrated by B.F. Skinner. A dog that associates its owner picking up a leash with going on a walk is showing off classical conditioning.

Animals vary in their abilities to associate experiences. Some species can learn to tell apart sounds but cannot distinguish among different colors, and other animals learn best with scent.

Brain Snack

Many toxic animals like snakes, frogs, and caterpillars have warning coloration—colored skin or scales that is bright red or orange. These animals take advantage of operant conditioning to remind potential predators that they taste bad and will make them sick. These animals have obviously never tastes Skittles.
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