Amherst Magazine

Acting Like Animals


Ethan Clotfelter, associate professor of biology and neuroscience, answers questions about his course Biology 281: “Animal Behavior,” which Tracy Montgomery ’10 took while at Amherst.

Interview and photos by Rob Mattson

1490254
For a canine cognition experiment, the research subjects are the dogs of faculty and staff members. Bebop belongs to Amherst magazine designer Su Auerbach.

Who typically takes your “Animal Behavior” class?
Most[ly] seniors and juniors, with the occasional sophomore. Most are biology majors, though there are also neuroscience, environmental studies and psychology majors. Many are on a trajectory toward medical school or graduate school. I’ve had a few students go on to pursue their Ph.D.s in animal behavior or related fields. [The course] also helps students applying to veterinary schools, [which] are putting an increasing emphasis on training in animal behavior.

What do students learn?
[First] they learn about the role of genetics in explaining animal behavior. They learn a bit [about] neural and endocrine control of behavior and how these allow animals to keep track of time. The second part of the course deals with animals’ interactions with their environment. How do animals decide where to live and what to eat? How do they navigate through their surroundings to get from one point to another? Why do animals migrate or hold territories? The third section is about social, mating and parental behavior. In this part, we talk about the criteria animals use to select mates and what evolutionary forces select for different mating systems. We talk about social interactions among animals, particularly their behavior toward kin, and the evolution of altruistic and spiteful behavior. We wrap up the course talking about whether animals display something akin to what we would call “culture.”

1490255
Two of Clotfelter’s students at the home of Professor Jan Dizard (in blue shirt) and his dog, Dee

Do students conduct research?
Yes, [the course] has a laboratory component. Some of the labs are more prescribed. In other labs, students design their own experiments and execute them. A big part of the course is helping students to develop hypotheses and to critically test them, with an emphasis on experimental design and data analysis. Some labs are very popular, such as the falconry lab, the dog cognition lab or the dueling crayfish lab.

What role does animal behavior play in our lives as individuals and societies?
As long as humans (and our prehuman ancestors) have needed to hunt and fish, we’ve needed to understand animal behavior. Tracking animal movements such as migration has long been key to our survival. The early domestication of wild animals required an understanding of behavior. But even aside from this practical usage, an understanding of animal behavior gives us great insight into our own evolution.

When did you start observing and examining animal behavior?
I’ve always been fascinated by animals, but my academic interest in animal behavior didn’t really start until I was a senior in college, when I took a course much like this one. I knew almost instantly that this is what I wanted to study.

What’s the allure?
We’ve all watched nature shows on TV and been amazed. We’ve all been children and have wondered “Why do they do that?” I think the allure of this field, and of this class in particular, is that it appeals to this shared curiosity and childlike sense of wonder that we all have.