An animal behaviorist is a scientist who studies, interprets, and predicts the activity of animals in nature and captivity. The field of animal behaviorism is very broad, and professionals with a wide variety of specialties may hold the title of animal behaviorist. Some scientists work primarily in laboratories, studying microscopic organisms and biological tissue from larger specimens. Others observe animals in their natural habitats to learn about how and why they behave the way they do. The work of behaviorists contributes to our understanding of evolution, biology, ecology, and dozens of other related scientific fields.
Animal behaviorists compare the influence of genetic adaptation and environmental pressure on the evolution of species. They explain the factors that contribute to the interactions, survival tactics, and reproductive and feeding habits of different organisms. For example, an animal behaviorist might want to understand why male birds of a particular species perform such elaborate mating rituals. By performing years of field observation and hypotheses testing, he or she would gather data about what characteristics females tend to prefer when selecting mates, such as louder songs or more colorful tail feathers.
Most animal behaviorists split their time between field studies, lab work, and researching previous findings. It is common for a behaviorist to specialize by working with a particular species or population of animals, but some scientists document the behavior of many different animals in a set geographical area. Sociologists and anthropologists who study humans may also be classified as animal behaviorists, as their research techniques are very similar to those employed by scientists who work with other types of animals.
Regardless of an animal behaviorist's area of specialty, he or she employs the scientific method and unbiased research techniques in every project. Scientists attempt to control variables in labs and account for environmental factors in the field that might affect their observations. They analyze data, record results, write scientific papers, and submit their findings to peer-reviewed journals.
The requirements to become an animal behaviorist can vary based on the type of work a person wants to do. A person who wants to work as an assistant researcher at a university, zoo, or nonprofit environmental group can usually obtain an entry-level job with a bachelor's degree in a biological science. A PhD and a postdoctoral fellowship usually need to be completed to become a lead researcher in any setting. Professionals who have the appropriate education and training generally enjoy rewarding, productive careers in the field.