Viewing animal behavior in the wild is time consuming, can be costly, and often yields few results compared to the time required. This assignment encourages students to explore animal behavior through online videos while developing research and critical-thinking skills. The approach allows students to get a field-like experience from a lecture-based class and enhances knowledge about behavior of animals beyond the students’ geographic area. In addition, this assignment is consistent with the AAAS's vision of change in undergraduate biology teaching. This assignment is appropriate for both college and high school biology classes that cover animal behavior, ecology, or conservation.

Animal behavior is a rewarding field, and one that many students find fascinating. As the proliferation of animal behavior shows on television attests, it has broad appeal; it may even be a gateway to biology for students who otherwise may not be interested. Unfortunately, it is a difficult topic for some classes to study in the field for a variety of reasons, including transportation issues and the vagaries associated with fieldwork. However, there is a wealth of video recordings of animals online. Many of these are videos of cute kittens or amusing dogs, but there are countless recordings of animals performing behaviors in their natural habitats. These videos are taken by professionals and nature enthusiasts alike. In general, web content is increasingly integrated into classrooms to benefit learning, engage students, and share with them the vast resources that are available online. The study of animal behavior stands to benefit greatly from this trend.

We have developed an online assignment that involves the use of existing videos for a college animal-behavior course. This assignment can act as a substitute for a lab portion of a class, and it can easily be modified to suit high school biology instruction. Additionally, this assignment can be as broad or as focused as the instructor desires. We have provided suggestions for various ways to implement the exercise, but these are by no means exhaustive and we encourage instructors to modify the exercise as needed.

This assignment has multiple stages and therefore can stretch across most of the semester as students develop hypotheses, return to them, and refine them as their understanding of animal behavior grows. The goal, as the assignment evolves and students critique each other's work, is for students to build their critical-thinking skills and apply them to the course material through their analysis of the videos. Instructors should monitor these discussion boards to ensure that discussions are constructive and are not reinforcing misconceptions.


One of the main objectives of this assignment is to expose students to a variety of animal behaviors. The assignment addresses the AAAS's Call to Action, in that it fosters an active and inquiry-driven learning environment, focuses on conceptual understanding and application of material, relates the content to the “real world,” and pushes students to find a topic and/or species that they are passionate about (AAAS, 2010).

Another objective of the assignment is to hone skills that are necessary in the college environment as well as in future jobs. Most students have ample experience in searching the Internet, and therefore this allows them to use skills they have already acquired to enhance other skill sets such as library research, critical thinking, and writing. In small classes, it can also involve oral presentation.

The use of videos allows students to experience a field-type exercise in a lecture-based class. It also gives students the ability to examine the behavior of nondomestic animals from all over the world, that are active at all times of day (and night), and encourages enthusiasm and participation through the use of Internet resources. For large classes, this exercise allows an added measure of flexibility as students can choose an animal or topic of special interest for further scrutiny. However, both students and the instructor should be aware of the limitations associated with using these short videos. Often, the viewer will not know the weather, season, time, or how the recorder interacted with the animal in the video. These conditions may be important for formulating hypotheses and for explaining the behavior. They may also provide a useful springboard for further discussion about the potential role of these variables.

Because this exercise is organized around the core principles of animal behavior, students will also benefit from this assignment by exploring those fundamentals through an exciting source. Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen (1963) came up with a set of four questions to better understand behavior at various levels. Since that time, these questions have provided the framework for animal behavior (for a recent explication, see Bateson & Laland, 2013):

  • What is the cause (mechanism) of the behavior?

  • How does a behavior develop?

  • What is the survival value (adaptive significance) of the behavior?

  • How did the behavior evolve from ancestral forms?

Using these questions, Internet videos, and library resources, students can create and test hypotheses about the behaviors they see online.


Few materials are needed for this assignment, and most are readily available to most students:

Implementation of the Assignment

When introducing the assignment, the instructor should communicate the goals and expectations to the students. For example, instructors should explain that only videos of wild animals will be accepted. The assignment occurs in four stages so that students will not attempt to finish it in one evening, and so that other students can participate in online discussion. We summarize the stages below.

View & Post Video

The first task for students is to start viewing videos online. During this process, students must think about and ask Tinbergen's four questions about the behaviors they are viewing. If a student is interested in one question more than others, they may ask how the videos fit that question; if a student is interested in a certain set of organisms, then how do the available videos pair with specific questions? Once the student has surveyed the videos and has an idea about the kinds of videos on offer and which ones are interesting, they should choose a video and post the link to the video on the discussion board. A brief, approximately two-sentence description of the video should be included with the link to ensure that no other students use the same video. In a large college class, the students can be given a list of topics based on textbook chapters or syllabus areas. The video can then be categorized by the topic. Depending on the course content, some instructors may wish to limit videos to those that are accompanied by scientific narrations about the behavior and its purpose. This would simplify the assignment, which for some classes may be desirable. Another option for instructors would be to have students choose a topic and/or species at the beginning in order to have a more focused search for videos.

Ask Tinbergen's Question & Develop Hypothesis

Once the video has been posted, each student will need to ask one of Tinbergen's four questions about the video they have posted and develop a hypothesis in response to that question.

Support or Refine Hypothesis

Students should use peer-reviewed journals or other credible sources to support their hypothesis and determine whether anybody else has tested the same hypothesis for their focal species or for a closely related species. If they do not find support for their hypothesis in the literature, they should refine the hypothesis and include support for the refined hypothesis. Alternatively, students may suggest how to go about testing their hypothesis if it has not yet been tested. In all cases, they should use credible sources, citing references.

Critique Hypotheses

  • In large classes, after completing stages 1–3 for their own videos, students are encouraged to look through the videos and comments of their classmates. They should critically examine these and decide whether they have different ideas or if they agree with what was said. Students are asked to comment on four videos that their classmates have posted to facilitate a discussion. They should clearly state whether they agree or disagree with the hypothesis and include a new citation to support their comments. This comment can additionally address the extent to which the literature cited really supports the stated hypothesis. If a student has suggested a way to test a hypothesis that has not yet been tested in the literature, the critique may be more focused on the proposed experimental setup. Critiquing the hypotheses will illuminate which are well supported and which are not, and this can be tied in to a class discussion.

  • In small classes, students may present their videos, hypotheses, and discussion to the class. This can be used as a springboard for lively class discussion.


Following the guidelines of this assignment is important, and students should be graded on all aspects of the assignment. Instructors may want to set word counts, especially if the class is large. The assignment write-up should be fairly brief so that other students can read many of them and choose the ones on which they want to comment. Students will be graded on the following criteria:

  1. Categorization of the video: Categorize the video into one of the topics provided in the assignment instructions provided by the instructor.

  2. Description of the video: Briefly (two sentences) describe the video and provide a URL to the video so that other students can watch it.

  3. Tinbergen's question: Ask one of Tinbergen's four questions, applying it to the selected video.

  4. Hypothesis: Formulate a hypothesis that provides a possible answer to Tinbergen's question (item 3).

  5. Support for hypothesis: Citing credible sources, do one of the following: (a) provide support for the hypothesis (item 4), (b) refine the hypothesis, or (c) refute the hypothesis and put forward a different one.

  6. References: Be sure that cited references are appropriate and reliable (from peer-reviewed journals, major reference works, etc.). Cite references in the format indicated in the assignment instructions. Provide at least two references.

  7. Spelling, grammar, and format: Provide information in a clear, concise manner, paying attention to spelling and grammar.

Assignment Flexibility

This assignment was initially developed for a junior-level animal behavior course at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. This is a lecture class only and enrolls up to 150 students. The online discussion board allowed the students to view each other's responses on their own time and to participate in discussions about the videos. We have also adapted this assignment to fit the same class when it is taught in the summer and there are about 15–20 students. In this case, the students created a PowerPoint presentation of their video, Tinbergen's question, their hypothesis, and their support from the literature. This presentation then led to a class discussion about how Tinbergen's questions can be applied to the video and other hypotheses about the behavior. In short, this assignment can easily be adapted to fit any class size and could even work for an entirely online classroom. The assignment can also be adapted for high school students who are studying organismal biology.

Student Examples of Assignment

We are pleased to include the following actual sample exercises developed by our students.

First Example


Description: This is a video of New Zealand's kea (a parrot, Nestor notabilis) dismantling a car. The bird's large hooked beaks allows for great leverage when prying off various car parts.

Tinbergen's question: How does a behavior develop?

Hypothesis: The kea's knack for tearing off car components stems from associative learning due to its broad foraging ability.

Support: New Zealand's endemic alpine parrot is very curious and highly opportunistic. Their large, curved beak allows them to forage through dirt for grubs and roots, crack open eggs, pry through rocky openings, and even feed on live sheep (Huber & Gajdon, 2006). The curiosity of these birds has led individuals to encounter food objects that they learn how to open, pry, or dismantle with their beak. Learning from these various situations, the kea has begun to associate foraging situations in which they use their beak with the reward of food. Foraging in various situations with hundreds of potential food sources has conditioned the kea to associate the stimulus of foraging with their beak with the reward of receiving food. Picking apart loose car parts is just another situation that the kea associates with a reward (Huber & Gajdon, 2006; Breed & Moore, 2012).


Breed, M.D. & Moore, J. (2012). Learning. In Animal Behavior (pp. 125–150). Burlington, MA: Academic Press.

Huber, L. & Gajdon, G.K. (2006). Technical intelligence in animals: the kea model. Animal Cognition, 9, 295–305.

Second Example


Description: The video shows a newly hatched queen honeybee (characterized in the video as a hairless female that is large and has an elongated abdomen) that is being swarmed by worker bees. The worker bees in the video are displaying queen retinue behavior.

Tinbergen's question: What is the cause of this behavior?

Hypothesis: I hypothesize that the worker bees displaying queen retinue behavior to the newly hatched queen is a behavioral response caused by a stimulus that is triggered by the queen honeybee.

Support: The performance of queen retinue behavior in worker bees towards the queen honeybee is considered social behavior. The particular retinue behaviors of the swarm interacting with the queen include antennating, grooming, and trophallaxis. The stimulus that has been found to trigger this social behavior is pheromones released by the queen throughout her lifetime. The pheromone linked to this specific behavior is queen mandibular pheromone, or QMP, and is secreted from queen mandibular glands. Once the queen is removed, the lack of QMP triggers worker bees to rapidly find a replacement for the colony. As displayed in the video, once the replacement is found, the QMP is present again. Worker bees then swarm and begin to rear and attend to the new queen.


Breed, M.D. (2010). Honeybees. In M.D. Breed & J. Moore (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (pp. 89–95). London, UK: Academic Press.

Third Example


Description: The video shows a horned lizard shooting blood from its eyes to deter a coyote predator. The defensive mechanism seems to have been effective in distracting the coyote to allow the lizard to escape.

Tinbergen's question: What is the survival value of this behavior?

Hypothesis: The behavior is important for the lizard's survival because it surprises the predator, which may allow a window for the lizard to escape. In addition, the blood may have an unpleasant smell or taste, which could further distract the predator from the lizard.

Support for hypothesis: My hypothesis is supported by Sherbrooke and Mason's journal article “Sensory modality used by coyotes in responding to antipredator compounds in the blood of Texas horned lizards.” The article describes observations and experiments performed to test whether coyotes were deterred by the squirting of blood from the orbital sinuses of the Texas horned lizard. The study concluded that Texas horned lizards squirted blood in response to some mammalian predators, that coyotes exhibited a startle response and/or avoidance behavior because of the blood, and that coyotes responded most often to squirts of blood plasma or whole blood from horned lizards (as opposed to saline or blood from spiny lizards) to the oral or nasal cavities. The study indicated that the aversion response in coyotes was mediated by nasal and oral receptors and that the aversion resulted in increased survival of the lizards.


Sherbrooke, W.C. & Mason, J.R. (2005). Sensory modality used by coyotes in responding to antipredator compounds in the blood of Texas horned lizards. Southwestern Naturalist, 50, 216–222.

Fourth Example


Description: The video depicts a cave swiftlet building a nest from a salivary secretion. These nests are used in bird's nest soup.

Tinbergen's question: How did this behavior evolve?

Hypothesis: These birds build nests using salivary secretions that will stick to the walls of the cave. I hypothesize that this behavior evolved multiple times in swiftlets.

Support for hypothesis: One study looked at four different traits of nests in swiftlets (if salivary glue was a main mode of support, whether or not feathers were used, the presence of other vegetation in the nest, as well as the proximity of the nests). They found that the behavior of using glue as support, as opposed to placing the nest on a horizontal surface, was found in different branches of the cladogram of swiftlets. This supports that the behavior evolved more than once within this related group. Interestingly, the only one of these four characteristics that appears on only one branch of the molecular phylogeny is the use of feathers in the nest.


Lee, P.L.M, Clayton, D.H., Griffiths, R. & Page, R.D.M. (1996). Does behaviour reflect phylogeny in swiftlets (Aves: Apodidae)? A test using cytochrome b mitochondrial DNA sequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 93, 7091–7096.

Student Comments

Below are some selected student comments about this assignment:

  • “It was cool to see all the different videos that the other students found and watch them through the lens of animal behavior.”

  • “This assignment was fun because I enjoyed spending hours watching animal videos. This assignment also helped me understand the material in real life experiences, and now I cannot watch an animal doing any activity without thinking of one of Tinbergen's questions.”

  • “This assignment was a great opportunity to take what we've been discussing in class and apply to something we have access to in the real world, similar to what one might find in a class with a lab. It was a simple, straightforward and engaging assignment.”

  • “I liked it because I was a little excited to see other people's comments on my video. Comments were definitely my favorite because it also meant I could watch videos of other animals. Like the howling mouse, this was cool!”

We thank all of the students who have participated in this assignment and given us feedback in order to shape this assignment into what it is today. We also thank Dr. Randy Moore and Ms. Kayla Brown for their helpful comments on the manuscript.


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