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The in situ study of animal behavior (ethology) can provide a plethora of valuable information about species that should be used to ensure the welfare of ex situ populations. Understanding species specific instinctual behaviors and the ways in which these animals learn allows animal care managers to design appropriate housing (area size, climate control, substrate, etc.), as well as meet social (population size and diversity, etc), and behavioral (reproduction, feeding, grooming, etc) needs.

The ex situ study of animal behavior provides an unprecedented opportunity to gain a more detailed understanding of a species sensory, cognitive, and physiological capabilities that would be nearly impossible to ascertain in the in situ environment. The garnering and understanding of this information has direct applications towards the development and implementation of in situ conservation strategies.

Behavior Advisory Group

The Behavior Scientific Advisory Group (BAG) is responsible for providing behavioral advice/input to the various AZA Taxon Advisory Groups, and Species Survival Plan® Programs. The BAG often provides advice on specific behavioral issues, develops guidelines and programs to enhance animal care, guide and brings the value of behavioral research to the forefront, and improves behavioral monitoring and record keeping, all of which serve to enhance animal well-being.

Instinctive Behaviors

Instinctive behaviors, also called fixed action patterns, can be simple or complex and do not require learning or prior experience for their expression (e.g. the cocoon-spinning spider performs ~ 6000 identical movements each time it creates a cocoon).

Learned Behaviors

Learned behaviors are behaviors that become modified in response to specific experiences. The primary ways through which behaviors are learned are through imprinting, insight, observation, and associations.


Imprint learning occurs within a distinct and short timeframe, depending on the species, and is irreversible. Imprinting occurs when an animal develops an attachment to a specific animal, person, or object that elicits adult behaviors towards that to which it has attached (e.g. Goslings which imprinted on and directed courtship behavior towards Lorenz instead of other geese).

Observational learning

Observational learning, or modeling, occurs when a behavior is learned by watching others conduct the behavior (e.g. termite fishing by chimpanzees).

Associative Learning

Associative learning occurs when one stimulus is associated with another. Classical conditioning (Pavlov) is a learning process that occurs through the development of an association between an introduced stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus (e.g. a dog learns to salivate to the sound of a bell after the bell had been paired with food). Operant conditioning is a learning process that occurs through the development of an association of a behavior and the consequences that behavior evokes (e.g. a manatee learns to stay stationed upon a target if he is reinforced each time he remains motionless at the target). Behaviors learned through operant conditioning are maintained or modified by their consequences, while behaviors learned through classical conditioning are not.

Insight learning

Insight learning occurs when there is the ability to solve problems or to perform appropriate behaviors spontaneously (e.g. a chimpanzee spontaneously stacked boxes to create a makeshift ladder to obtain food suspended above him).