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Unit information: Behavioural Ecology in 2018/19

Please note: It is possible that the information shown for future academic years may change due to developments in the relevant academic field. Optional unit availability varies depending on both staffing and student choice.

Unit name Behavioural Ecology
Unit code BIOL20104
Credit points 10
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2D (weeks 19 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Cuthill
Open unit status Not open


We recommend that students also study BIOL20001 Quantitative Methods in Biology or a course that the Unit Director deems to have provided comparable training in statistics. (To confirm the latter, please contact the Unit Director before choosing the unit.)



School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science



  • to provide a thorough grounding in the adaptive, or functional, approach to the study of animal behaviour.
  • to provide an understanding of the different ways to test scientific hypotheses about animal behaviour and the limitations of different approaches.
  • to provide a secure grounding for practical projects relating to animal behaviour.

Behavioural Ecology is all about why do animals do what they do, and how behaviour is adapted to ecological circumstances. This unit emphasises functional and evolutionary explanations of behaviour, rather than the investigation of mechanisms and development of behaviour covered in BIOL 20103 Acquisition of Behaviour. A complete understanding of behaviour involves both approaches, so we view this unit as complementary to BIOL 20103. Topics include: Foraging and resource acquisition, optimality theory, trade-offs and the organisation of behaviour, evolutionary games, sexual selection, mating systems, parental care, communication, territoriality and social organisation, co-operation and altruism. The practical part of the unit does not merely serve to illustrate material in the lectures, it covers additional topics best explained by hands-on experience.

Intended learning outcomes

After doing the Unit, we expect you to (1) appreciate the distinction between the different levels of analysing behaviour ("Tinbergen's four questions"), (2) be able to explain the basic principles behind the main theoretical models in behavioural ecology, namely optimality theory, game theory, sexual selection and kin selection, (3) be able to relate these models to the various types of behaviour they have been used to explain (N.B. the same models are applied to more than one lecture topic), (4) be able to devise simple ways of generating and testing hypotheses about the function of animal behaviour, and the limitations of different approaches.

Teaching details

  • 15 x 1 hour lectures
  • 3 x 3 hour lab/practicals, plus one optional revision class

Self-directed learning week. Students are expected to spend this time on directed reading, the content of which is relevant to the end of session exams.

Assessment Details

Attendance at practicals and completion of specified practical reports is mandatory.

Laboratory practical reports (40%). End of Session exam (60%).

Reading and References


Davies, N.B., Krebs, J.R. & West, S.A. 2012. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology. 4th edn. Blackwell Scientific.


Alcock, J. 2013. Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach. 10th edn. Sinauer. Older editions of both books editions are OK.