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Unit information: Behavioural Ecology in 2021/22

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 Life Sciences

Description including Unit Aims


  • 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 Information

Lectures, directed reading, research and/or problem-solving activities; practical exercises and independent study.

Assessment Information

Coursework (40%) plus summative written assessment (60%) with one essay question to be selected from a choice of two.


If this unit has a Resource List, you will normally find a link to it in the Blackboard area for the unit. Sometimes there will be a separate link for each weekly topic.

If you are unable to access a list through Blackboard, you can also find it via the Resource Lists homepage. Search for the list by the unit name or code (e.g. BIOL20104).

How much time the unit requires
Each credit equates to 10 hours of total student input. For example a 20 credit unit will take you 200 hours of study to complete. Your total learning time is made up of contact time, directed learning tasks, independent learning and assessment activity.

See the Faculty workload statement relating to this unit for more information.

The Board of Examiners will consider all cases where students have failed or not completed the assessments required for credit. The Board considers each student's outcomes across all the units which contribute to each year's programme of study. If you have self-certificated your absence from an assessment, you will normally be required to complete it the next time it runs (this is usually in the next assessment period).
The Board of Examiners will take into account any extenuating circumstances and operates within the Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes.