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Developing the concept of typical intensity in animal signals


Learning how to study animal behaviour
Desmond Morris Writer
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And I managed to get a First, which I had to have to get to Oxford where Tinbergen was with his research group. He'd just set up a research group at Oxford to study what was called Comparative Ethology. The discipline was against the old psychology. In fact, psychologists, animal psychologists, were our sort of... were our kind of friendly enemies because they were running rats in mazes, and all their experiments were to see what happened if you did this or that to a rat and then you ran it in the maze again to see if it was better or not. And to us, as ethologists, this seemed crazy because a rat is an animal that only really exists if it has a burrow system and no rat can set up its lifestyle without a burrow, and these poor old rats in the laboratory had no burrows so they weren't real rats. They were... I don't know what they were. We just... we just rejected all of animal psychology in a rather offhand way and said, that's nonsense, you've got to study the natural behaviour of the animal.

And Tinbergen's dictum was this: he said, you're going to do a three-year study – and I chose the ten-spined stickleback, a little fish, which had a fascinating reproductive life cycle – and in the first year, I don't want you to do any experiments, but I want you to do an ethogram. And I said, what's an ethogram? And he said an ethogram is a list of every action that that particular species makes. You must describe it, you must say when it occurs and what effect it has, and when you're finished, you will then know the entire behaviour repertoire of that species. That's what you do first. You don't rush into experiments. So I spent a year just sitting in front of aquarium tanks, watching these... and I had to set up the aquarium tanks as if they... full of waterweeds and... it had to be done in a naturalistic way. And I watched the fish go through their extremely complicated lifecycle with all sorts of elaborate patterns of courtship and fighting and parental care and so on. And I thought: this is a fascinating little fish, and I did my doctorate on it.

And I started... I realised now I had a serious appetite to do this kind of research and I began a whole series of studies of fish and birds. And what I was particularly interested in was to try and find out what were the origins of animal communication systems. How did animals communicate with one another? How did they display to one another? And the interesting thing was that, if you watched television – an animal programme on television or a film – people would talk about the animals doing a courtship dance. They'd say, oh look, the animal's bobbing up and down, that's... he's displaying to his female. Why was he bobbing up and down? Why... how had that evolved? That was my question. I wasn't satisfied just to describe, I needed to know how that particular pattern developed. You know, one bird would bob its head like this, another one would wag its head like this, another one would bow down and there are all these different movements. How did they come about?

And it was a study that I wrote up as a paper called 'The Origin of Social Signals' which I was most pleased with because I was able to trace back to the origins how these different things arose. A lot of them were intention movements, where a bird was about to take off and then stopped, about to take off and then stopped – so you get a bird doing this, and it was a series of intention movements which had become ritualised into a dance, and this was the courtship dance of that species. And so I was studying these... the origins of these signals and all these strange movements. And people hadn't done this before – it was all new research, it... we felt like pioneers.  We were all looking into these things and nobody had really looked at this before – they had just said they dance they hadn't sort of asked, why do they flap their wings like that or bob their head like that?  And we were trying to find the roots of all those actions, and it was very exciting research.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Niko Tinenberg

Duration: 4 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014