In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Behavioral Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Evolutionary Biology Behavioral Ecology
John P. Swaddle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0015


Behavioral ecology is the integrative study of how and why behavioral mechanisms and processes mediate organisms’ interactions with their biotic and abiotic environment, thereby structuring many ecological and evolutionary processes. The behavior of organisms links physiological and molecular genetic systems with the external environment of organisms, which places the ecological study of behavior at the heart of how evolution operates in nature. The field of behavioral ecology emerged from two academic fields: ethology and sociobiology. Ethology represented the first concerted effort to study behavior in a scientific way, but it was largely descriptive and field-oriented. This field was revolutionized by scientists’ responses to Niko Tinbergen’s structuring of animal behavior around four specific topics: causation, function, development, and evolutionary history (or phylogeny). Sociobiology, although a politically charged topic for several decades, brought explicit cost-benefit analyses and a functional evolutionary perspective on how animals interact with each other in natural environments. Although this field was short-lived, perhaps due to its controversial formulation of modern human behavior, and how some people interpreted that in terms of cultural norms, sociobiology still helped inform the emergence of behavioral ecology as a core evolutionary discipline that viewed organisms as an integral part of natural habitats. Because behavioral ecology is an inherently evolutionary subject, much of the way in which practitioners study behavioral ecology is structured around evolutionary mechanisms and adaptive explanations of behavior. Behavioral ecologists have made many contributions to theoretical explanations of evolutionary mechanisms, as well as illustrating how evolution works on contemporary time scales. It is important to recognize that behavioral ecologists attempt to explain the functional evolution of behaviors in all types of organisms, not just animals, making the field taxonomically broad. There are many ways to parse the behavioral mechanisms and processes of ecology and evolution. These have been separated into the domains of (a) foraging and survival strategies, (b) sociality and social structure, (c) breeding and reproduction, (d) movement and dispersion, and (e) communication and cognition.

General Overviews

Despite behavioral ecology being an extremely vibrant and popular merger of ecology and evolution, there have been surprisingly few texts dedicated to a general overview or synthesis of this field. Cited below is a reasonably comprehensive list of texts, starting with the classic but also substantially revised Davies, et al. 2012. This book covers all (and more) of the topics introduced in this bibliography and can be expanded by works that focus specifically on animal behavior, such as Alcock 2013, Dugatkin 2013, and Breed and Moore 2010. The latter of these three is an online encyclopedia that expands in great detail on each of the topics reviewed in this bibliography. Currently, the only real competitor offering a broad overview of behavioral ecology is the textbook Westneat and Fox 2010. When comparing earlier editions of Davies, et al. 2012, dating back to the 1980s, to the more recent editions of Westneat and Fox 2010, it is obvious how more integrative and evolutionarily focused the field of behavioral ecology has become. Almost all subfields of behavioral ecology explicitly attempt to explain the evolution and expression of behavior using molecular and physiological mechanisms, while explaining these within the context of ontogenetic processes and phylogenetic inertia. This strong evolutionary flavor is reflective of how behavioral ecologists approach their field, and it makes them, at times, distinctive from animal behaviorists. It should be noted that all of these texts are quite frequently updated, and readers should be aware that more recent versions might be available.

  • Alcock, Jon. 2013. Animal behavior: An evolutionary approach. New York: Sinauer.

    This has been a long-standing popular alternative to Davies, et al. 2012 in behavioral ecology courses, as Alcock frames much of the study of animal behavior in terms of evolutionary processes.

  • Breed, Michael D., and Janice Moore. 2010. Encyclopedia of animal behavior. London: Elsevier.

    A collection of short articles, by academic leaders, of the study of animal behavior. Articles range from being focused on behavioral domains, as in this article, to classic study systems (e.g., zebra finch, guppies), major contributors to the field (e.g., Niko Tinbergen), and landmark studies. This encyclopedia provides very broad coverage and is available online and in print.

  • Davies, Nicholas B., John R. Krebs, and Stuart A. West. 2012. An introduction to behavioural ecology. 4th ed. Oxford and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    For a long time this was the only formal behavioral ecology textbook, and it has now been updated to a fourth edition. This has expanded the view of behavioral ecology beyond animals to include microbes and plants, which also have definable behavioral strategies that affect their ecology and evolution.

  • Dugatkin, Lee A. 2013. Principles of animal behavior. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton.

    Like Alcock 2013, Dugatkin takes an evolutionary approach to explaining behavioral mechanisms and processes, and he covers a broad array of animal-based behavioral ecological studies.

  • Westneat, David, and Charles Fox. 2010. Evolutionary behavioral ecology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    One of the few textbooks that addresses behavioral ecology in a comprehensive way. Written with advanced undergraduates in mind, Westneast and Fox frame behavioral ecology in terms of evolutionary processes and outcomes.

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