Oh, Behave!

Adults have probably told you to behave more than once. They usually want you to stop doing something undesirable. Maybe you were making faces at the dinner table or goofing off in the classroom. In science, behavior is the way an animal or person responds to others and the environment. Plants also show various behaviors, as do non-living things such as magnets, electricity, and the weather.

Behavior in the Animal Kingdom

The behavior of animals is most familiar. A behavior can be as simple as avoiding something unpleasant or seeking out something pleasant. Single-celled organisms such as paramecia seek food. This is a behavior. A paramecium will also try to avoid predators. More complex animals have more complex behaviors. Some birds, for example, dance, prance, and display their feathers in courtship rituals. The male that does the best job of catching the eye of the female wins her as a mate. Behavior includes pretty much everything that helps an animal survive. Communication, interaction with others, and reactions to the environment are all behaviors.

Staying Planted

Plants have various behaviors, too. Plants show that behaviors aren’t always the result of choices a living thing makes. For example, plants can’t uproot themselves and move to a sunnier spot, but they will grow toward the sun. Growing toward the sun is a behavior that helps plants survive.

Predictable Properties

A magnet doesn’t choose to attract metal, but that’s how it behaves. Scientists are able to make predictions about the weather thanks to the way air behaves at different temperatures. Because electricity always flows through a conductor, such as a metal wire, we are able to use electricity to light and heat our homes. These behaviors are dependable, which makes them useful to us. Elements have specific melting, freezing, and boiling points and so do compounds such as water. Water in its solid form (ice) melts at 0° C. At 100° C, water boils and turns into a gas called water vapor. Why are we able to count on these substances behaving in these ways? Because their physical properties direct their behavior.

A substance’s chemical properties also affect its behavior in predictable ways. The element iron, for example, changes to form a new substance—rust—when exposed to moisture and oxygen. Gold, on the other hand, does not change at all when it comes in contact with moisture and oxygen. This is because its chemical makeup is different from the chemical makeup of iron.

Forces Beyond Our Control

An object’s behavior may also be controlled by outside forces. The force of gravity, for example, has an effect on the behavior of everything on Earth. It’s because of gravity that water flows downhill, plant roots grow down, and your feet stay planted firmly on the ground.

If non-living things began behaving in unusual or unpredictable ways, we’d have many troubles. For instance, we count on gravity to pull everything toward Earth. Otherwise, we might go floating off into space! We expect certain weather patterns because of the predictable behavior of the atmosphere. Changes in that behavior might harm crops, dry up water sources, or cause severe storms.

Basic Instincts

Behaviors in animals can be voluntary or involuntary. If someone throws a ball of paper at you, you raise your hand to catch it or bat it away so that it doesn’t hit you. This behavior is an instinct. Instincts are not things you choose to do. They are behaviors that happen without you even having to think about them.

Animals are born with the instincts to do certain things such as eat, sleep, and avoid pain. The brain and nervous system control instincts (and all behavior). Here’s an example. When it’s dark outside, a cat’s brain directs its pupils to open wide. This allows as much light as possible to enter the eyes. This helps the cat to see.

Learning to Be Choosy

Other animal behaviors are learned and voluntary. Humans learn behaviors such as walking, talking, and sharing. Voluntary behaviors are behaviors a person or animal chooses to do. You choose whether or not to raise your hand and answer a question in class. A tiger chooses the right moment to pounce on prey. Voluntary behavior can also be influenced by the environment and by others. A giant panda, for example, will walk farther if it can’t find enough bamboo to eat in one area. People smile at other people they like.

The Key to Survival

Behavior is basic to the survival of living things. Plants and animals have adapted to behave in ways that help them find food, give birth to more young, and avoid harm. The more successful the behavior, the more successful the animal will be in life. An example is “playing possum.” When threatened by a predator, a Virginia opossum will fall over and stop moving. Its breathing slows way down. The predator may be fooled into thinking that the possum is dead and will then leave it alone. Once the danger has passed, the opossum gets up and goes about its usual business. This behavior has helped opossums survive for at least 70 million years. In fact, opossums have been around longer than almost any other mammal.

For the Good of the Group

Behavior is also an important part of animals’ social structures. Wolves, for example, live in complex social groups called packs. The wolf-in-charge is known as the pack leader or alpha male. Other pack members follow his lead in hunting and in everything else the pack does. A pack leader will remain in charge as long as he is healthy and makes good choices for the pack. Wolves must work as a group and share the jobs of hunting and raising pups. Cooperative behavior is important if the pack is to thrive.

Human social interactions aren’t so different from those of wolves. Wolves communicate with body language and barks. We communicate with words. We also live and work in groups (families, communities, and nations, for example). We must cooperate to get along well in life. This is why behavior that is not acceptable can be a problem for individuals and others. You can think of rules and laws as “behavior guidelines.” People agree that certain behaviors are so undesirable that they need to be outlawed. Stealing and hurting others are two such behaviors. Desirable behaviors are those that help everyone get along and be happy.

Studying Behavior

What we know about behavior of both living and non-living things comes from observation and scientific experiments. Physics is the study of the behavior of matter and energy. Chemistry is the study of how chemicals behave and interact. The behavior of the stars and planets is part of the work of astronomy. Some behaviors of non-living things are so dependable that there are scientific laws that describe the behaviors. For example, English scientist Isaac Newton (1642–1727) developed the laws of motion. One law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s why you can count on a toy car rolling away from your finger if you push it.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Animal Behavior

Behavior of animals and humans isn’t quite as certain and predictable as, for example, the laws of motion. But through careful observation, scientists have made many important discoveries. British zoologist Jane Goodall learned about chimpanzee behavior by quietly watching them for many years. She was the first to discover that chimps use tools. She also learned that they hunt and eat meat.

Scientists also discovered that crows use—and even make—tools. As an experiment, scientists put a treat inside a box. Then, they gave the crows nothing but a stick that was too short to reach the treat. Inside another box, though, was a longer stick. The crows surprised scientists by using the short stick to reach the longer one. Once they had the longer stick, they were able to reach the treat in the box.

Behavior and Conservation

Studying animal behavior may help conservationists protect rare animals from extinction. For example, knowing that young birds will follow the lead of human caretakers is helping whooping cranes learn to migrate even though there are no adult whooping cranes to teach them. The birds follow a human “parent,” who flies the migration route in a small plane. They travel more than 1,600 km. Having more migrating cranes in the wild may help this rare bird survive.

Behavior and Social Problems

The study of human behavior crosses many areas of science. Doctors and psychologists study how the brain directs behavior. Sociologists study social behavior. One thing people who study behavior do is try to understand why people have conflicts. They may also study what causes dependence on drugs or alcohol or why criminals break the law.

Understanding behavior is important for understanding ourselves. It is the key to understanding how people deal with problems such as climate change, poverty, war, and disease. Learning how to treat behavior problems can help people live happier, more useful lives.