A Reading List in Animal Behavior, Part 1

I am frequently asked about readings in animal behavior.  One of the nice things about practicing in a region like Seattle is that our audience is so well educated.  So not infrequently I have clients who want to learn more, want to read more about animal behavior.  Most often, they want to read more about what we call Applied Animal Behavior.  Applied animal behavior is the relatively new field which deals with the behavior (and misbehavior) of our companion animals based on a scientific approach that extends from the modern academic field of animal behavior, or ethology.  Ethology was historically based in Europe, and is a field of biology and psychology, that is, it is a sub-discipline of evolutionary biology.  The basic precepts of ethology are that behavior has a genetic, and thus evolutionary, basis, overlaid with environmental influences (learning and experience), that we can best learn about the behavior of animals by learning about the behavior of close and distant relatives in natural environments which allow the expression of species- (or in the case of dogs, breed)-typical behaviors.  It is an approach that traces its roots, like all the rest of modern biology, back to Darwin in the mid-1800’s, and one that has been revolutionized, again like many topics in biology, by the DNA/genetics revolution.  The mapping of the entire dog genome at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in recent years has begun to confirm the long-standing assumptions of ethology.


So here I present a highly personal reading list in ethology.  In this entry, I suggest some reading in basic ethology, and in a later entry, I will focus in readings in applied animal behavior.  These are sort of readings, both basic and applied, required of students of this field, beginning at the undergraduate level and right on through graduate or board-certification work in ethology.  These are the books that my students, graduate and undergraduate, read.  And these would provide the foundation for an excellent library in animal behavior.


General Readings in Animal Behavior and Ethology: Textbooks


I have not listed years because there are many editions: the more recent, the better, but any will do.  These are the basic textbooks in animal behavior, with Alcock and Drickamer being the most advanced “serious” texts.  Klopfer’s book is a little different, taking a historical and personality approach to the basics of behavior.


Alcock, J.  Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach

Drickamer, L. et al.  Animal Behavior: Mechanisms, Ecology and Evolution

Goodenough, et al.  Perspectives on Animal Behavior

Maier, R.   Comparative Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary and Ecological Approach

Klopfer, P.:  An Introduction to Animal Behavior: Ethology’s First Century

(a very readable introduction to the history of modern animal behavior)




To understand modern animal behavior, you need to understand evolution, and these books will give you a great start to a huge scientific discipline.


Brackman, A.: A Delicate Arrangement

(a description of the relationship, or lack thereof, between  Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace)

Darwin, C.: The Origin of the Species

(the classic that started it all, not an easy read and not the best introduction to evolution as we now understand it: read it for the historical perspective)

Dawkins, R.: The Selfish Gene

(a wonderful and thought-provoking book about the implications of modern Darwinism)

Dennett, D.: Darwin‘s Dangerous Idea

(a very recent book by a philosopher of science about the deeper implications of Darwin’s view of evolution)

Gould, S.J.: (numerous collections of essays)

(sometimes controversial, always entertaining: take some of it with a grain of salt)

Stone, I.: The Origin

(an historical novel about Darwin’s life: a great introduction to his life and times)


Personal Accounts


I put these here to provide a very accessible introduction to how ethologists think and work.  Many of these have been best-sellers in the population literature, but all provide a glimpse into the world of the modern animal behaviorist.


Fossey, D.: Gorillas in the Mist

(one of “Leakey’s Women,” along with Goodall and Galdikas, this and the next two books illustrate the payoffs to patient, time-consuming field work and the risks of attempting to do science without training)

Galdika, B.: Reflections of Eden

(Leakey student’s study of orangs in Indonesia)

Goodall, J.: In the Shadow of Man

(Leakey student’s study of chimpanzees)

Heinrich, B.: Ravens in Winter

(fascinating and eccentric study of a difficult-to-study species)

Lorenz, K.: King Solomon’s Ring

(very readable insight into the early days of ethology, one of my most recommended readings in behavior)

Mowat, F.: Woman in the Mist

(a different, and more objective, view of Fossey’s work and life with gorillas)

Schaller, G.: Year of the Gorilla

(story of the early work with wild gorillas which laid the groundwork for Fossey)

Tinbergen, N.: Curious Naturalist

(the life and studies of one of the founders of ethology)

Wilson, E.O.: The Naturalist

(autobiography of the brilliant Harvard scientist who established the direction of much of behavior research for years to come: winner of several book awards)




These are books that delve into the details.  These are more advanced, a little “thicker” than most of the books listed above (except maybe the textbooks), but these show you the details, and the future, of research and learning in animal behavior in general.


Axelrod, R.: Evolution of Cooperation

(very readable intro to game theory and the evolution of social behavior)

Lehner, P.: Handbook of Ethological Methods

(the bible for methodology in animal behavior research)

Mech, L.D.: The Wolf

(detailed report of a long-term wolf research program)

Poundstone, W.: Prisoner’s Dilemma

(a biography of an interesting character, John Von Neumann, who invented game theory, and the application of games to human behavior)

Wilson, E.O & B. Holldobler: The Ants

(the main resource on ant behavior: readable too!)

Wilson, E.O.: Insect Societies

(everything you wanted to know about ants, bees, and wasps, and probably more)

Wilson, E.O.: Sociobiology: A New Synthesis

(the book that started an entirely new field)


So that’s my reading list for general animal behavior… later, I will present a similar sort of list but more specifically directed at applied animal behavior, from both an academic and a popular view.  Feel free to leave me a comment if you have a favorite book to recommend, or a question about a book you’ve seen or read, or a specific topic in animal behavior for which you would like a reading recommendation.  Time to read!

About drjimha

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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