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Observations and Ethograms – what DO animals do all day?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

Studying Animal Behaviour

The hardest thing about studying animal behaviour, is first understanding what’s going on, and then working out what it all means.

The issue I see very often, is people being too anthropomorphic. This is a posh word for when people place human emotions on animals, and it’s something we are all guilty of. Have you even given a dog a treat and then seen him lovingly chew on it, tail wagging, and said ‘oh look how happy he is!’. Implying an animal is happy, sad, grumpy etc. is a dangerous thing to do in some circumstances, because without recognising signs of discomfort or distress, you could be causing unnecessary stress – and you know, that’s ILLEGAL.

To get to grips with genuine and accurate behavioural understanding, you need to first have some idea about what you’re looking at. You also need a simple but effective system for recording what you observe an animal doing. Finally, you are going to need to interpret behaviours, and back up what you are saying.


So you’ve selected an animal that you have some understanding of, to some degree. As a bare minimum, knowing if the animal is a predator or prey species, how they find their food, how they select a mate and how they fend of predators is a good start.

Now you need to observe and record your animal’s behaviour. Physical observations are ideal, but videoing is better. You need to work out how much footage to get and what pattern of recording you will follow. Will you check behaviours every minute for an hour? Every hours for a day? Every 3 hours over a weekend? Or maybe just record all of the behaviours seen in a couple of minutes. For the last option, video footage means you can go backwards and forwards, and not miss a single thing!

Other reasons for using video footage include being able to skip forwards to the time intervals you agreed on, being able to provide evidence if (and when…) you are questioned about your findings, and also because a human presence, sitting (or standing if you’ve got that kind of stamina) will automatically change the results, as that animals is almost definitely going to react to you. At least with a camera, they will soon habituate as it will not be sneezing, eating, etc.


You will need to prepare yourself an ethogram. Do not panic, they are easier to put together than those bar charts they made you do in primary school. Your ethogram will have to reflect your observation style. There are a number of things you can include, but really you should keep it as simple as possible to ensure you can follow along for the greatest amount of time.

  1. Minutes/ time /interval – this is used to record the time, or the stage that you observed or recorded the behaviour. If you know you will be looking at each minute over an hour, you can put minutes 1-60 down on your table!

  2. Behaviour – This can be an overall heading for what you identify the behaviour to be. This can be simple, and stright forward, such as ‘grazing’, ‘rearing’, ‘urinating’, etc.

  3. Description – this is vital for an ethogram so that you can record exactly what it is you saw, so that if you have interpreted it incorrectly, you can go back and assess your notes. This section needs to be factual, detailed and explicit. For example, for rearing, you would describe the animal’s body being propelled upwards by the front legs, which lift into the air, while the rear legs stay planted on the ground.

  4. Behaviour type/ category – by estimating which category that the behaviour falls into, it will assist you later on when you interpret the data – giving you a better idea of why they do this behaviour. Rearing could be a play, or an aggressive behaviour. Eating is an ingesting or maintenance behaviour. Allogrooming is both a social and a maintenance/ grooming behaviour, as an example.

  5. Code/ reference/ abbreviation – this can be used so that when you are discussing the behaviours later, you do not have to type the behaviour out every time, and you can use the reference. For example, for feeding, you could use FDG. For urinating, you could use ELI-U (elimination, urinating). For play fighting, you could use PF. It’s up to you, it’s your ethogram!

  6. Study specific headings – if your study is looking at something specific, you may want somewhere to take notes of specific observations. For example, if you are looking at behaviours in different areas, a location heading might be useful. If you want to determine behaviours based on different food stuffs, you may want to include ‘type of food’ as a heading.

  7. Notes – I think it is always helpful to have a notes box or column, for you to add any additional observations. You never know if you spot something you feel is abnormal; it would be wise to note this down in case it pops up as an anomaly. If you find that the animal is demonstrating resting behaviours every time you look on your interval, but they are doing back flips between, I would recommend putting this in comments!

  8. Animal reference – when you perform an observation study, you will be either looking at an individual or a group of animals. For a sheep ethogram, for example, you would usually monitor the entire flock, if it is a manageable size. If you are observing (and are able to observe) a small number of animals, you may want to label them and make specific notes about the individual during the ethogram. You are likely to see at least one in a group performing a slightly different behaviour, particularly in groups like meerkats, where individuals have different roles. This is where an animal reference may come in handy.

  9. Reference – for those of you who will be using literature to back up your findings, I find having a place for the reference helps prevent missing citations (and therefore plagiarism risks), but also clearly demonstrates that you are proficient in using academia to enhance your work. It is a concise way to add citations, keeping your description box free of all that detail!

  10. Frequency – some people prefer to prevent repetition and once they’ve added the behaviour, they simply fill in a tally of frequency. This is a great idea if you suspect you will be noting down many types of behaviour, but also if you are someone who does a lot of preparation, to prevent too much scribbling in the field, or in front of a computer watching a video for hours after.

  11. Video reference – if you are using video footage, you may want to include a time stamp as proof or as an example of when the behaviour was seen. There is an example of this later on.

Ethogram Layout Examples

Here I will paste some images I have found, demonstrating different layouts of ethograms. Click the images to go to the source. Further down, I have provided an example of my own ethogram with a link to the video provided to me by my MSc professor. I am not going to comment on, or evaluate the ethograms below; I will let you make your own mind up on them!

Image result for ethogram examples

Image result for ethogram examples

Image result for ethogram examples
Image result for ethogram examples

Image result for ethogram examples

Image result for ethogram examples

Image result for ethogram examples

Image result for ethogram examples

My ethogram – Zebra Behaviour In the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIpCVQxVeO0, zebra number 2 was observed for 1 minute, from 0.04 to 1.04. Please refer to table 1 below, for the ethogram.

Interpreting results

What can we tell from the ethogram though? That’s some intensive commitment, and time, after all, is precious. There must be a benefit from the ethogram, and that is down to your own interpretation. Submitting an ethogram is rarely enough, because describing behaviours is one thing, but processing this raw data is another. In a scientific, formal write up, I wouldn’t even expect to see the ethogram or field notes anywhere other than the appendix, unless otherwise explicitly stated. I have provided some bulletpoints about what I believe would be of value, to get your started on your discussion, and of course, provided a micro discussion from our very own zebra observation below.

  1. References to current literature – follow your high school PEA (point, evidence, analysis) or PEE (point, evidence, explain) to back up your findings. Make a statement based on what you saw, then provide evidence, then explain why. Evidence can be in the ethogram you’ve completed, but really solidify your claims with published studies and findings.

  2. Critique – highlighting strengths and constraints of your study will demonstrate your understanding of the work you performed. Consider even including an evaluation, such as a SWOT analysis, which will let your reader know that you’ve considered that what you are saying may not be based on 100% solid evidence, rather than letting them pick your work to pieces themselves. It also allows you to put together a study design, to plan for future work to enhance your studies.

  3. Process the data – why not take the times you’ve recorded and process them to work out which behaviours were performed most frequently, and which behaviours are less often observed? Using graphs and quantitative data will help you explain your animals behaviour. For example, you’d expect a herbivore to be grazing for long periods of time, and if you find that 70% of your time observations highlighted grazing, you are clearly doing something right. If you find that your data contradicts current understanding, then you’ve stumbled onto a potentially important bit of information which will allow for some great discussion.

  4. Making educated assumptions – assuming usually makes an ass of ‘u’ and me. But if you are using your own findings and literature, you can make bold statements if you’ve got the evidence to back it up. Stating that Dr Melons found in his 2003 study that the lynx prefers scratching on pine bark (12% time spent) to birch bark (4.5% time spent), it may explain why you saw less scratching behaviours (because your study was conducted where there were no natural trees, and only 2.7% of the time was spent on scratching).

Micro Discussion – how do you then interpret this behaviour?

The majority of time is spent on grazing, which is a vital behaviour for maintenance and survival. Females spend 70% of their time grazing, compared to just 36% of the time for males (Simpson et al. 2012).

In the natural ecosystem of the plains zebra, predation is the top contributor to population losses during dry seasons (Grange et al. 2015). The vigilance behaviours demonstrated as the zebra grazes will allow it to remain aware of its surroundings, and therefore spot any potential threats.

Reproductive state in zebra groups impacts the leadership dynamic of a harem. Lactating females in their lactating stage will determine movement of the entire harem, initiating due to their increased water and energy needs. This is a fluid dynamic seen in tightly knit and loosely bonded herds (Fischhoff, et al., 2006). This could explain why the zebra is free to move in the direction it chooses.

The only other significant time spent was on insect prevention, which suggests that this greatly contributes to the overall health and survival of the animal, and must be important if energy is spent on this behaviour.

Further info

I found this incredibly useful link from a practising animal behaviourist, who has even scanned in field notes! Have a look here: https://biology.knoji.com/how-to-create-a-usefull-ethogram-a-comprehensive-list-of-animal-behaviors/

For information about why we should accurately interpret animal behaviour, this article sums it up nicely, with good detail and examples. Visit here: https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/39/1/20/709962/Why-It-Is-Important-to-Understand-Animal-Behavior

For those students who wish to learn more about anthropomorphism, this article has an abstract which summarises some key points. Click here to find out more: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4535437?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

To get some information about producing reports and ethograms in a zoo environment (something which zoological researchers have to do as part of their role!), see Bristol Zoo’s pdf guide, available here: www.bristolzoo.org.uk/files/download/bb06fd4d850fe76


Fishhoff, I. R., Sumdaresan, S. R., Cordingly, J., Larkin, H. M., Sellier, M. and Rubenstein, D. I. (2006) Social relationships and reproductive state influence leadership roles in movements of plains zebra Equus burchellii. Animal Behaviour, 73:5, pp 825-831

Grange, S., Barnier, F., Duncan, P., Gailard, J., Valeiz, M., Ncube, H., Périquet, S. and Fritz H. Demography of plains zebra (Equus quagga) under heavy predation. Population Ecology, 57:1, pp 201-214

Klingel, H. (1969) The Social Organisation and Population of the plains zebra (Equus quagga). Zoologica Africana, 4:2, pp 249-263.

Lamoot, I., Vandenberghe, C., Bauwens, D. and Hoffman M. (2004). Grazing behaviour of free-ranging donkeys and Shetland ponies in different reproductive states. Journal of Ethology, 23:1, pp 19-27.

McDonnell, S. (2003). A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behaviour; The Equid Ethogram. The Blood-Horse Inc., Kentucky, U.S.A.

Simpson, H. I., Rands, S. A. and Nicol C. J. (2012) Social structure, vigilance and behaviour of plains zebra (Equus burchellii): a 5-year case study of individuals living on a managed wildlife reserve. Acta Theriologica, 57:2, pp 111-120.

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