An accessible introduction to animal behaviour


Scott, G. (2004) Essential animal behavior. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK. xii + 202 pp., figs, line diagrams, colour photographs, index. Paperback: price £22.99, ISBN 0632057998.

For some time there has been a two-tier structure, of ‘general’ and ‘advanced’, to the accessibility of the study of animal behaviour via the textbook literature. Comprehensive books (e.g. Krebs & Davies, 1993, 1997; Alcock, 2001) detail the science of animal behaviour and how its study is complemented completely by that of ecology and evolution. However, even those books that claim to be introductory texts may prove too daunting for the entirely uninitiated reader. What the subject needed was a book that provided a true starting-point for its appreciation: one that would allow the reader to put aside common misconceptions about what the study of animal behaviour entails and to develop the understanding and desire to progress to those more complex texts. I feel that Graham Scott has achieved this with Essential animal behavior.

By ‘accessible’ I refer to both the layout and content of the book. Scott follows a logical progression in considering animal behaviour. It is important to consider behaviour in terms of survival value, as adaptations with genetic origin. Scott discusses behaviours as adaptations at the beginning of the text. This flows appropriately into a chapter outlining the role of the nervous system in controlling animal behaviour. It is very useful to present behaviour in terms of the control that the nervous system has, in part, on the patterns of behaviour. Understanding that sensory reception and nerve transmission, in addition to environmental interaction, play a vital role in the evolution of behaviour is a huge step towards appreciating the complexity and nature of the subject. The following two chapters continue the reader's journey through the general theory by discussing the motivation, organization and development of behaviour. In considering the development of behaviour, Scott completes the overview by revisiting in more detail the interplay between genetic inheritance and the environment in the evolution of behaviour.

The structure of the book is characterized by the successful use of a variety of didactic tools. Each chapter opens with its key points that act as learning objectives and closes with a summary box and questions for discussion. This structure of presentation is employed successfully in the classroom and affords the learners a greater element of control over their own progress. In addition to this increasingly popular teaching structure, each chapter includes a contents box that serves as a keywords section. Chapters are interconnected by the use of subject links where relevant and selected topics are explained in greater depth as focus points. Concepts are highlighted further by the use of sections that provide conveniently brief definitions and explanations of the important terms and issues such as the nature–nurture debate.

The two features that I found the most useful, despite the reservations mentioned below, were the carefully selected case studies and ‘application’ boxes. Although the text lacks traditional citation, all key references are presented either as clearly highlighted additions beside the body of text, as extended case studies, or, where the reference provides an example of applied animal behaviour, as the subject of an extended description detailing its application. Although traditional and influential work is discussed, for example Tinbergen (1963), Scott's book embraces the most recent research to the full, explaining concepts and theories using up-to-date, clear and relevant examples, such as the excellent work on wood ants, including Graham & Collett (2002).

I feel, however, that there are also some less positive points to identify. I personally found the otherwise excellent ‘focus on’ and ‘case study’ boxes occasionally distracting. Their purpose is fitting, but they might work better if restricted to one page and, where appropriate, condensed further. From a pedantic point of view, I hope that the publishers correct some errors that have managed to elude scrutiny in this first edition. These include the forgivable consecutive duplication of words and the slightly more noteworthy reference to voluntary limb-loss at a breakage plane in response to predator attack as automoty instead of autotomy.

All things considered, Scott has successfully removed the more challenging trimmings of animal behaviour while maintaining the most crucial aspects of the subject. He provides a concise and rounded grounding in the understanding of animal behaviour without detriment to its value or scope. The book is an ideal introductory text that should inspire readers to explore the subject further, whether they be A-level students having just finished their optional unit in mammalian physiology and behaviour or third-year undergraduates about to embark on their behavioural ecology module.