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Animal Behavior Terms

Get down with the lingo


An interaction between two individuals competing over resources.

Ambush Predator

An animal that sneaks up on prey so it can capture them and eat them for dinner. Ambush predators do not chase prey for very long, if at all, but rely on the element of surprise.


An action an animal carries out in response to a stimulus or situation. As we all know, actions speak louder than words.


Cryptic coloration that lets an animal blend into its surroundings. Many prey animals use camouflage to hide from predators, but predators can also be camouflaged.


An animal that eats meat as its primary food. Ribs, wings, burgers…need we say more?

Classical Conditioning

A type of learning in which an animal associates one stimulus with the occurrence of a second stimulus. Before the animal learns to associate them, the first stimulus produces no response in the animal but the second stimulus does. After conditioning, the animal learns that the first stimulus means the second stimulus is coming, and the first stimulus will provoke the animal’s response to the second stimulus.


The use of signals to transfer information between individuals. Cell phone signals are one type of communication, but auditory and visual are other common forms.


Active at dawn and dusk. The advantage to being active at those times of the day is that it is cooler than the middle of the day. The dim light makes prey less likely to be caught, but there is still enough light for herbivorous animals to locate food.


Active in the daytime. Most birds are diurnal—they get up with the sun and sleep during the night. This is opposite of nocturnal.


A complex social structure in which only certain groups reproduce, with other groups caring for offspring and helping find food.


Searching for and acquiring food. For most animals, this is slightly more involved than digging around in the back of the fridge.


An animal that eats only plants, just like your vegetarian friends. There are not a lot of tofu burgers in the wild though, so herbivores mostly eat leaves, fruits, and seeds.


A behavior that is fixed, not learned. This type of behavior happens in the same way in all individuals in a population; it does not vary. Animals are born with the ability to do innate behaviors. As Lady Gaga puts it, they were born this way.

Intersexual Selection

Selection based on one sex choosing to mate with the other based on some trait. Usually, this involves females mating with males that have some trait that represents good genes and good fitness, like colorful tails (birds), big dewlaps (lizards), or nice teeth (humans).

Intrasexual Selection

Mating success based on males competing with other males for the right to mate with females. In elephant seals, only the biggest and baddest male gets to mate with all the females on a beach.


A non-directional change in movement in response to a stimulus. This may be a change in speed in response to light


A long-distance move from one location to another that happens regularly. For example, many birds migrate south in the winter, and return to their more northern homes in spring.


Mating with only one partner. This usually refers to one mating season rather than for life—most animals find new mates in different seasons.


Death rate. Sorry to be grim, but death is part of life. Most animals act to minimize mortality if they can help it.


Active at night, like owls, bats, and vampires.


An animal that eats meat and plant-based food. Humans are omnivores by nature, but some people choose to be herbivores—also known as vegetarians or vegans.

Operant Conditioning

A type of learning in which an animal associates a reward or negative experience with one of its behaviors. Reading this whole Shmoop chapter and then getting an "A" on the test could be an example of operant conditioning.


Chemical signals passed between individuals of the same species. This can be used for mating, telling each other where food is, or sounding an alarm.


Mating with multiple partners. Sorry, we forgot to warn you that this Shmoop chapter is filled with scandal.

Sensory Organs

The body parts used to take in signals from the environment: ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and things used to feel (fingers/paws/whiskers).

Sexual Selection

When mating success depends on a specific trait. If female bluebirds will only mate with the brightest blue male bluebird, sexual selection for bright blue coloration is going on.


A stimulus passed from one animal to another. It could be vocal, visual, chemical, or physical.


Living and breeding in groups. Many birds, mammals, and insects are social. Reptiles are typically not social.


A thing or event that causes a reaction in an animal. Light, noise, and the Loch Ness monster are all examples of stimuli.


A jumping display that a prey animal uses to signal its fitness to a predator. Stotting is used by prey to show off their musculature. It also indicates how fast they can run, in hopes that predators will give up the chase before they start.


A taxis is a movement that is directed toward a stimulus. Contrast to kinesis, which is non-directional. Taxis is singular, FYI—it is pronounced similarly to "taxes." Got it? Good, because the plural actually is spelled taxes, and pronounced the same way.

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