Study of animal behavior and LESCA

Herein I will briefly introduce the historical development of studies on animal behavior, commenting how LESCA fits in in terms of methods and approaches used.

From the XVIII to the XIX centuries, two schools of thought have discussed about the best way to study animal behavior. Physiologists like Charles Bell (1744-1842), François Magendie (1783-1855) and Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) were the precursors of the mechanist school, a group of people that fiercely defended the empiricism and the experimental approach. They were actually following a strand of thought that had its roots back in the XVII century, in the works of René Descartes (1596-1650). All these studies would influence scientists like Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and several others. These scientists were interested in finding general laws of behavior, and they were mainly interested in proximate, and specifically developmental questions. This school argued that a rigorous control of the experimental conditions was crucial, so that research had to be done in laboratory conditions. This group included some famous researchers of the “Experimental Psychology” crew, like William James (1842-1910), Edward Thorndike (1874-1949), John Watson (1878-1958) and Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990). These were known for their studies on conditioning and learning as a whole, using vertebrates as models.

In parallel to the group above, some were studying animal behavior in a distinct manner. They would watch animals during their rides in the field and would occasionally take notes. They were not so worried about behavioral laws that would be valid for any taxon but were rather exactly interested in the variation among species. These were the so called naturalists, like Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), Fritz Muller (1821-1897), Henry Bates (1825-1892) and even Charles Darwin (1809-1882) among several others. The following century, a very important contribution was given by Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), scientists that won the Nobel Prize of Medicine (since there is no prize for “Ethology”) for their brilliant studies on animal behavior. Working predominantly in the field and sometimes with an experimental approach, these researches have been considered the founding fathers of ethology.

Tinbergen established the famous “four questions about behavior”: what are the exogenous and endogenous factors that trigger behavior, how a behavior develops in an individual, what is the adaptive value of a behavior and, finally, how this behavior has originated and has been modified throughout evolutionary history. In the system of Edward Wilson, the first two questions would fit among the “proximate questions” and the last two among the “ultimate questions”, or what John Alcock has called the “how” and “why” questions. Proximate questions were the main focus of studies by researchers from the fifties until the beginning of the seventies. Among the possible reasons for that are the discussion about instincts vs learning in the establishment of behavior (a discussion about proximate questions), and the lack of understanding of ethologists at that time about selection in the level of individuals instead of group selection (a discussion about ultimate questions). After the acceptance of the works of George Williams (1926-2010) about selection at the level of the individuals, the end of the controversy “instinct vs. learning” and maybe because of the influential works of Edward Wilson (like “Sociobiology, 1975”), the amount of papers on ultimate questions has increased.

In today´s world, behavioral ecologists are also interested in the proximate causation of behavior, and neurobiologists and cognitivist psychologists (which study mainly proximate questions) have also used the comparative method and an evolutionary approach. The discussion about which approach is better, like there used to be when naturalists debated against experimental psychologists, is obsolete and makes no sense anymore.

So, how does LESCA fit in this context? Our research interests fall into two main groups: sensory ecology and behavior of arachnids. In the first one, we investigate proximate questions when we test, for example, the important sensory modalities for an animal to find a sexual partner. However, we deal with evolutionary questions when we try to understand how sensory structures have changed within a specific lineage. In the second research area, we deal with proximate questions when we describe the behaviors and structures with which predators capture their prey and with evolutionary questions when we show the adaptive value of some defensive mechanisms.
In terms of methods, we use, for both research areas, techniques that are somehow similar to those used by naturalists when we observe and describe behaviors in the field, and techniques that remind experimental psychologists when we conduct behavioral experiments in rigorously controlled conditions. Additionally, we also use morphology and chemical analyses to answer questions.

We reject the idea that one approach or technique is more important than another. We believe there are biologically interesting problems to be solved in both proximate and ultimate fields and that the descriptive and experimental methods are equally useful depending on the question you wish to answer. The union between these approaches and techniques help contributing to a better understanding of the most diverse aspects of these fascinating animals that surround us.


Alcock J 2003. A textbook history of animal behavior. Animal Behaviour 65: 3-10.

Alcock J & P Sherman 1994. The Utility of the Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy in Ethology. Ethology 96: 58-62.

Cézilly F 2001.Things have(n’t) changed! Behavioural Processes 55: 65-66.

Danchin E, LA Giraldeau & F Cézilly 2008. Behavioural Ecology: An evolutionary perspective on behaviour. Oxford University Press.

Hogan JA 2005. Causation: the study of behavioural mechanisms. Animal Biology 55: 323-341.

Lehner PN 1996. Handbook of ethological methods, 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.

Ryan MJ 2005.The evolution of behaviour, and integrating it towards a complete and correct understanding of behavioural biology. Animal Biology 55: 419-439.

Schoenfeld WN & HS Baron 1965. Ethology and Experimental Psychology. Science 147: 634-635.

Segerstrale U 2000. Defenders of the truth: the battle for science in the sociobiology debate and beyond. Oxford University Press.

Thierry B 2007. Behaviorology divided: Shall we continue? Behaviour 144: 861-878.

Thierry B 2010. Darwin as a student of behavior. Comptes Rendus Biologies 333: 188-196.

Tinbergen N 1963. On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20: 410-433.

Vauclair J 1996. Animal cognition: an introduction to modern comparative psychology. Harvard University Press.

Williams GC 1966. Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wilson EO 1975. Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

highslide wordpress