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Behavioural Ecology

  1. Reinmar Hager,
  2. Beatrice Gini

Published Online: 16 JUL 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003217.pub2



How to Cite

Hager, R. and Gini, B. 2012. Behavioural Ecology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 16 JUL 2012


Behavioural ecology investigates how animal behaviour is adapted to the physical and social environment of individuals. Over the past 40 years behavioural ecology has been established as a field of research in which both empirical and theoretical studies analyse how evolution has shaped animal behaviour through the process of natural selection. The underlying premise is that individuals adopt strategies (behaviours) that maximise their fitness, that is, the contribution of their genes to future populations. Behavioural ecology seeks to understand why a specific behaviour confers a fitness advantage to an individual given a set of ecological and social conditions. The adoption of methods from genetics, physiology, bioinformatics and developmental biology has greatly expanded the tool kit with which questions in behavioural ecology are addressed.

Key Concepts:

  • Behavioural ecology is the study of how animal behaviour is adapted to the physical and social environment through natural selection.

  • Key concepts in behavioural ecology are the comparative approach, game theory, the optimality approach.

  • Animals are assumed to tradeoff between costs and benefits of different behaviours, for example between maximising food intake or reproduction at a given time.

  • Competitive interactions often evolve into evolutionary stable strategies, situations where frequency-dependent dynamics are in equilibrium.

  • Conflicts exist between species, between members of a species and between genetic elements within individuals; these often result in arms races where exploitation and defences evolve progressively in response to each other.

  • New molecular, genetic and bioinformatic tools are opening up new questions in behavioural ecology, for example in phenotypic plasticity and epigenetics.


  • evolution;
  • behaviour;
  • fitness;
  • optimality;
  • evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS)