Ethology is a branch of biology that focuses on animal behavior. It originated in European zoology in the 1930s and revolved around the study of instinctive and fixed-action patterns of behavior. Ethologists study the animal’s behavior in its natural environment rather than in a laboratory. Ethology paved the way for comparative psychology. Specifically, ethologists and comparative psychologists use similar methods to study the behavior of animals, human or nonhuman. The main distinction between the two sciences is that ethology is a biological science and attempts to reduce behavior to biological and physiological characteristics whereas comparative psychology is the study of the role of learning as an explanation of behavior.

Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz, and Niko Tinbergen are credited with developing ethology. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1973. Although the early pioneers of ethology differed from the comparative psychologists in their views of behavior, by the 1960s the two sciences had gained mutual respect for each other’s work. The 1970 article by Robert Hinde, “Animal Behaviour: A Synthesis of Ethology and Comparative Psychology,” did much to further the cooperation.

Karl Von Frisch

Karl von Frisch was curious about the behavior of honeybees after they had found a food source. He developed a way to look inside the hive after a forager bee arrived from ingesting food. He saw the forager bee make a straight run, circle halfway around, then cross to the opposite side in a figure eight pattern. After observing the forager, the worker bees left the hive and ended up at the food site of the “dancing” bee. Von Frisch proclaimed that the dance pattern provided encoded details of the location of the food. He believed the straight line indicated the direction of the food in relationship to the sun while the speed and duration of the dance conveyed the distance to the food.

Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz was interested in social stimulation and motor patterns of precocial birds. Precocial birds are able to leave the nest soon after hatching. Although they are able to feed themselves, the young birds stay close to the mother. They must, therefore, become attached to the mother very soon after hatching or face the possibility of becoming separated and not surviving. Lorenz studied goslings and discovered that they would become attached to any moving object during certain times after hatching. He termed this behavior imprinting, and the short period of time in which it developed was called the critical, or sensitive, period. He demonstrated that goslings would follow a variety of stimuli as long as it moved. For instance, the goslings became attached to a large ball, a decoy duck, and to Lorenz himself. Many introductory psychology and biology textbooks contain a photograph of Lorenz being trailed by several goslings. Imprinting is found in many species of birds including ducks, geese, chickens, quail, and turkey. Lorenz repeatedly replicated the findings that imprinting occurs only during a very short time, it occurs very rapidly, and it is irreversible.

Niko Tinbergen

Niko Tinbergen was a colleague of Lorenz. He spent many hours in the field observing behavior before moving into the laboratory to study the cause and adaptive function of the behaviors. For instance, Tinbergen studied releaser mechanisms and sign stimuli of instinctive behavior. Unlike the comparative psychologists, Tinbergen believed that certain survival behaviors are innate, and he was interested in finding the mechanism that stimulated these behaviors. For instance, he found that the herring gull chick pecked on the orange spot on the parents’ bill. The orange spot, termed the sign stimuli, was the releaser mechanism that stimulated pecking. The pecking, in return, provided the chick with food from the parent.


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  4. Lorenz, (1937). Imprinting. Auk, 54, 245–273.
  5. Tinbergen, N. (1953). The herring gull’s world. London: von Frisch, K. (1947). The dances of the honey bee. Annual Report of  the  Board  of  Regents  of  the  Smithsonian Institution (Publication 3490, pp. 423–431). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.