Organism Observations

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: AI Influence and Organism Observations / View Guide
Researchers have observed Japanese tits (Parus minor) fluttering their wings to noiselessly tell mates to enter the nest first. It is the first known case of symbolic gesture in a nonprimate animal.

Directions for teachers:

Direct students to zoo or aquarium websites that have live feeds of animals. These live feeds can be found through a web search of “zoo” or “aquarium” and “live stream” or “webcam.” The feed you choose should ideally be a 24-hour live stream and should provide multiple camera angles of the animals in question. Ask students to choose an animal, spend time observing the animal, and record their observations about the animal’s behaviors. While the observation periods are adjustable, we recommend that the students record their observations for 15 minutes twice a day for at least three days. If students access 24-hour live streams or ones active during daylight hours, they should be able to make their observations at various times. One of the observation times should occur during class and the second observation time can occur as homework. Once students have completed and recorded their observations, ask them to answer the questions in the second section of the activity in small groups or as a full class. Then, ask students to read the Science News article “By fluttering its wings, this bird uses body language to tell its mate ‘after you’” and answer the last set of questions.

Directions for students:

Follow the prompts in the “Be an animal scientist” section. Then, answer the questions in the second section as directed by your teacher. Read the Science News article “By fluttering its wings, this bird uses body language to tell its mate ‘after you’” and answer the questions in the third section (“What can we learn?).

Be an animal scientist

1. Find a 24-hour live feed from a zoo or aquarium or a feed that broadcasts throughout most of your day. Choose an animal to observe. Create a plan for how you will record your observations. There are a variety of ways scientists record animal behaviors, from listing behaviors and tallying their frequencies to writing down each behavior along with the time it occurred. Describe how you plan to record your observations and identify the information that you will be tracking.

2. Watch the live feed at least for at least 15 minutes twice a day on three consecutive days, taking notes about your observations. What is the animal doing? What do you notice about its body language? Record what times you make your observations.

3. Once you have completed your observations, look for any patterns in the animal’s behavior. Summarize these behaviors and patterns in a bulleted list. Include as much detail as possible to describe these behaviors, including the environment in which the behaviors occurred. Keep your summaries as objective as possible. Try to record facts only and keep any assumptions about the animal from influencing your observations.

Reflect on your observations

1. Why is it important to make your observations at the same times every day?

Observing the animal at the same times every day is important because it introduces a controlled variable to the study. Animals may be more active at certain times each day, so recorded behaviors can vary significantly depending on when the animals are observed. Keeping consistent times makes it easier to identify patterns in the animal’s behavior.

2. Why is it important to keep an observation objective when it comes to animal behaviors? What could happen if you began to make assumptions about the reason behind the animal’s behavior?

If you begin to make assumptions about animal behaviors, you may miss aspects of the animals’ behavior or misunderstand why it occurs. For example, you could end up anthropomorphizing the organism you are studying. That would mean using a motivation for a human behavior to explain an animal behavior that seems similar. This could lead to making incorrect conclusions about why an animal’s behavior is occurring and a misunderstanding of the animal’s interactions with other organisms and its environment.

3. What information regarding animal behaviors are you not able to collect using video footage?

Video footage omits information because the position of the camera is fixed in place and does not show the surrounding environment. This means that if something were to happen out of view of the camera and the animal were to react, I would be able to record the behavior but not the events that came before the behavior. Also, the video footage doesn’t include audio, so any behaviors related to vocalization would not have been recorded.

4. Did you face any other challenges in observing animal behavior on live streams? If so, what were they?

Student answers will vary. Possible answers may include the following: It was raining during my observation and droplets on the camera made it hard to see the animals clearly. The animal I was watching moved very little and I struggled to pay close attention during the 15-minute observation period. The animal I chose was not always in the camera frame so sometimes I was just watching an empty zoo habitat. Animals were often far away from the camera and the resolution was so low that I could not clearly see what they were doing.

5. What do you think you would be able to learn by watching the animal for a longer period of time?

By watching the animal for a longer time, I would be able to collect more data. This additional data could provide a broader picture of how the animal’s behavior changes over the course of the day and may make it easier to identify any patterns in the animal’s behavior. I might also be able to identify factors that contribute to the animal’s behavior or identify how an animal’s behavior is beneficial to its survival.

6. How might your data differ from a behaviorist observing your identified animal in its natural habitat?

The data I collected were from an animal in captivity (a zoo). This animal may perform different behaviors than its wild counterpart, as the zoo animal may not need to engage in certain behaviors to survive. For example, animals under the care of humans may not need to watch for predators or search for food.

7. What challenges might a behaviorist experience when collecting data in the field?

To get a full picture of an animal’s behavior in its natural habitat, a behaviorist would have to set up a successful field cam or spend long periods of time in the field to collect data. Both the scientist and field cam would be subject to the elements, which could hinder data collection. Behaviorists in the field may get tired and miss important behaviors.

What can we learn?

1. Read the Science News article “By fluttering its wings, this bird uses body language to tell its mate ‘after you’.” What are some similarities and differences between the scientists’ study and yours? How did the scientists make their discoveries?

The scientists noticed a pattern of behavior exhibited by Japanese tits and increased their observations of the birds to gather more data. This larger pool of data helped scientists identify that wing fluttering was a common behavior exhibited across several individuals in the species. The scientists spent a lot more time observing the birds than I did during my observations. The scientists also had a larger sample size, and their sample population was a wild population.

2. Look back at the patterns of behavior you identified in the first section. Are there any behaviors you noticed that you would be interested in learning more about? Before making any conclusions about the reasons behind the animal behaviors, what additional data would you need to collect?

Student answers will vary. Students should note that they would need to observe the animal for longer periods of time and observe more individuals of that species before making conclusions about the purpose of the animal behavior. Specifically, students would need to observe animals within multiple populations to determine whether the behavior is isolated to that one animal, population, or environment.

3. What can we learn about animal behavior using observations? Are there limits to what we can learn? Why or why not?

Observing animal behavior is mostly about identifying patterns. Yes, there are limits to what we can learn. Scientists make hypotheses about why animals exhibit certain behaviors based on context from their observations. Varying the conditions that animals experience through experimental tests can allow scientists to evaluate these hypotheses.