At-Home Class: Animal Behavior Study

Scientists use animal behavior studies to understand why animals do what they do, predict how human actions will affect them and protect animals in the wild. Take a virtual visit to Great Lakes Aquarium and participate in authentic scientific inquiry using animal behavior study tools.

Grade Level: 9th – 12th

Duration: 45 – 60 minutes

Supervision Requirements: None

MN Standards:,,,,,,,; MS-LS2-2, MS- LS1-4, HS-LS8


  • Pencil & Paper
  • Printer (If you don’t have one, you can replicate the printable documents in the Setup section with pencil or pen)
  • Calculator


Print the following images, one copy per class participant.

Student Packet

Blank Graph Paper


Why Study Animal Behavior?

Animal behavior research is the study of how animals relate to their physical environment and to the other organisms in it – like how animals avoid predators, choose mates, care for their young, and find and defend resources. Whether you’re interested in training your dog, studying the spread of bacteria, catching a fish for dinner, managing wildlife habitat or tracking migrating butterfly populations, animal behavior research can answer questions about how animals interact with the stimuli and ecosystems around them.

In zoo and aquarium settings, animal behavior study helps animal caretakers and the greater scientific community better understand wild animals and support conservation efforts. Behaviors that are difficult to observe in the wild are easily visible in zoo and aquarium environments, and those observations help us predict how human actions will impact animals and their environments in the future. For animal care staff, behavior studies also aid in husbandry practices by indicating animals’ preferences in foods and habitats, comfort or stress levels in relation to their neighbors, and even the presence of an illness or injury.

Scientists study animal behavior in a variety of ways. In this lesson, you’ll be introduced to several tools – known as ethograms – that standardize the data collection process so that study results can be shared with other scientists and compared to other research around the world. This lesson will also give you a framework for developing models and outlining arguments to support claims about animal behavior.

1. Ad-Libitum Data Sampling

Description: Ad-libitum – or “at liberty” – sampling is an observation method where a researcher observes the behaviors of a specific individual for a set time period and writes what they observe. This is a good method for initial observations and question formation for later research, but the data it provides is limited in quantity and quality.

Procedure: Observe the Truk Lagoon exhibit for the duration of the 2-minute video below. While you watch, decide which individual fish you would like to focus on, and get a feel for what behaviors fish tend to exhibit.


Now that you’ve selected a fish to observe – your focal fish – get ready to make written observations on the ad-libitum data sheet in your student packet. While you watch the 5-minute video below, record as much detail as possible about your fish’s behavior during that time, using sketches and descriptions. It will be impossible to catch EVERY behavior, so simply try your best.


Evaluation: Consider the scientific value of ad-libitum data collection methods. Is your data useful? Could it be used to accurately answer questions about fish behavior? Would it be easy for someone else to understand and interpret your observations?

Application: Ad-lib data is used in animal behavior research as a starting point. You just observed a lot of behaviors. Looking back over your notes and sketches, consider what was most interesting or surprising during your observation. Now, develop an experimental question to give you more information on this focal fish species’ behavior. Be sure to include which observations led you to ask this question. Note: a good scientific question can be answered and tested through experiment and measurement. Avoid questions like “how long does this fish live” that couldn’t be answered in a few minutes of observation, or “why” questions, which are often too complicated and nuanced to answer with the methods we’re using today.

2. One-Zero Data Sampling

Description: In one-zero data sampling, a researcher records whether or not a behavior occurred within a set time interval of observation. If the behavior occurred, it receives a score of 1 in the researcher’s data table. If the behavior did not occur, it is given a score of 0. In this study, we will focus on the behavior of hiding. A fish is considered to be hiding when more than 1/4 of its body is inside, under or behind a structure in its habitat.

Procedure: In our research, we will be asking the question “where does this fish hide within its exhibit?” To answer that question, use the one-zero data table in your student packet. Before you watch the video, decide which locations you will consider “hiding locations,” and fill them in on your data sheet. Then, select an individual focus fish to observe in the video below.

While you watch the video, observe your fish and note whether or not it hides in each possible hiding location. While you observe, you will record your observation every 15 seconds, listing a “1” if your fish hid in that location during that interval, and list a “0” if your fish did not hide in that location. There will be a “beep” every 15 seconds to let you know it’s time to immediately record a 1 or 0 and then continue your observation


Collect More Data: Continue your research by watching the video again, asking a different question: either “Do different individuals of this species behave in the same ways?” (You will make observations of a second fish of the same species) or “Does species A use the same hiding locations as species B?” (You will make observations of a fish of a different species). Note: whichever question you choose, make a new data table, but use the same hiding locations you did in the first observation.

Compare: Can you answer your research question based on the observations you made? If more research is needed, what else would you have to do to find an answer? Use your graph paper (printable document in the Setup section above) to graph the total number of times each hiding spot was used by each fish during each observation session. Can you identify any differences, changes or trends?

Evaluation: Consider the scientific value of the one-zero data collection method. List two benefits and two constraints to using this method to capture animal behavior data.

Application: One-zero data collection is good for assessing the presence or absence of behaviors. For example, when new fish are added to an exhibit, an aquarist must make changes to accommodate the needs of the existing fish as well as the new addition. To make sure the animals have enough structure to hide in, an aquarist might use one-zero sampling to see if individuals are able to find hiding spaces, or they might use one-zero sampling to see where fish of different species prefer to eat their food and provide more or less food in a given area to meet those animals’ needs.

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3. Time Budget Data Sampling

Description: Time budget data sampling attempts to determine how much of an individual’s time is spent doing a specific behavior. This method requires more diligence and focus on the part of the researcher, but it provides more in-depth data on the focus animal’s behavior.

Pick a focus fish to observe in the video below. For our research, we will be asking the question “how much of this fish’s time does it spend chasing?” Find your Time Budget Data Sampling worksheet (printable link in the Setup section above). Set your timer to count up from zero to two minutes. Once you hit start, observe your focus fish closely. The moment it begins to chase another fish, check your timer and mark the time on your data sheet. The moment the fish stops chasing, check your timer and mark the time on the data sheet. Continue this process for the full 2-minute timer. Give yourself a break to clean up your data if it is hard to read. Make sure you can tell which marks indicate “chasing” and which indicate “stop chasing.” Next, conduct another trial: repeat the data collection process with another two minute timer. Your data sheet provides space to complete 4 trials. Each video starts precisely where the previous one ended, so you can find your example fish in the same location on the screen to pick up where you left off.





Review and Analyze Data: Determine the duration of chasing time for each trial by adding up all the chasing times in that trial (refer to the example below). For each trial, find out what percent time the fish spent chasing (Total seconds spent hiding divided by 120, which is the number of seconds in two minutes).

Reflect: Based on the data we collected, can we answer the question “How much time does this fish spend chasing?” From your observations and knowledge about this fish and the exhibit habitat it lives in, explain why your fish spent so much or so little time chasing. Consider habitat needs, body structure and the larger ecological community (the other plants, animals and structures in the exhibit). Use your student packet to write down your thoughts.

Evaluation: Consider the scientific value of time budget sampling. What are some benefits and shortcomings of this method of data collection? Also consider: in a true time budget study, the researcher would record all the behaviors of that animal, marking what time the animal started and stopped hiding, eating, resting, swimming, stretching, chasing, being chased and more! What are some challenges a researcher might face while collecting this kind of data? If you’d like to give it a try, find the All Occurrences Sampling worksheet in your student packet and observe a fish in any of the videos above.

Questions & Feedback

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Questions about this class or about sturgeon at Great Lakes Aquarium? Let us know at