Book review – Animal Behaviour: A very short introduction – Tristram D. Wyatt

Yoran Gerritsma (University of Groningen) and Jeroen Alkema (Wageningen University) have written a review about the book that was written by Tristram Wyatt, one of the invited speakers of our 25th meeting.

Dutch below

Tristram D. Wyatt (2017) “Animal Behaviour: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press ISBN: 9780198712152


Tristram Wyatt is a senior research associate at the department of Zoology and emeritus fellow of the Kellogg College, University of Oxford. His expertise is in the field of the evolution of pheromones, both on a molecular as well as on a behavioural level. Next to ‘Animal Behaviour’, Wyatt is the author of the book ‘Pheromones and Animal Behaviour: Chemical signals and signatures’. He also gave a TED-talk titled: ‘The smelly mystery of the human pheromone’.


‘Animal Behaviour’ is divided in different chapters, such as ‘How behaviour develops’ and ‘Winning strategies’. In these chapters, Wyatt leads you through the wonderful world of behavioural biology, a world that often surprises you as it consists of so many interesting phenomena. Take the example that not only primates and humans make use of tools, but crows do it as well! With interesting examples and clear language he leads you through how (we think that) the behaviour of animals is put together.

Although the cover states that a wide variety of animals is discusses in the book, it struck me that examples with insects are in the majority (statistically speaking this is not very striking, as 70% of all animal species belong to the group of insects). However, the examples with insects are great examples that shows that we can, even on that level, study fascinating behaviour (for example, the bee dance in chapter 5).

In my opinion, two issues have not been highlighted enough. The first topic is cooperative (or social) behaviour, of which there are a plenty of beautiful examples. In the book, the concept of eusociality, a reproductive division of labour, is briefly addressed. The (only!) explanation given here is that the more related individuals are, the higher the chances are that it will help in breeding. An overview of further theories would certainly have been appropriate.

The second topic that was missing is the field of animal personality, one that has gained quite a reputation in recent years. There is an increasing realisation that there is variation between individuals, and that behaviour is much less flexible than we originally thought. An explanation of this phenomenon had certainly enriched the book.

A very interesting, and unexpected, part of the book was the part about the welfare of captive animals. Herein, examples were shown about hunting dogs, octopi and chickens. The example with chickens concerned letting animals choose themselves; do chickens prefer to live in housing with thick floor wiring or thin floor wiring? For the answer, I refer you to the book!

Still, with the (very) limited number of pages, Wyatt provides us with a clear and easy to read overview of a quite complex topic, which I have to commend him for. In conclusion, ‘Animal Behaviour’ is recommended for both the experienced behavioural biologist as well as the (possibly unexperienced) enthusiast!

By: Yoran Gerritsma, MSc, Behavioural & Physiological Ecology (BPE), University of Groningen

For those interested the TED talk by Tristram Wyatt


Animal Behaviour: A very short introduction – Tristram D. Wyatt (By Jeroen Alkema)

It may be titled as a very short introduction to animal behaviour, yet Wyatt manages to be comprehensive within the limited amount of pages he’s been given. As any behavioural biologist will tell you, behaviour can be studied from a wide range of perspectives. In fact we dip our toes in many an ocean of different research fields. Genetics, neuroscience, and cell physiology to name just a few, are difficult to any layman without even considering behaviour. Wyatt’s main strength in this book lies in his capacity to reduce the required knowledge of these fields to the bare minimum, while still keeping the reader interested. By doing this he’s able to talk about more complex aspects of behaviour instead of sticking to classic examples and field studies. As a Drosophilist I would have loved to see some more in depth writing about the current genetic tools. However I’m content to settle for the acknowledgement that Drosophila is cutting edge.

Wyatt writes from the perspective of a scientist, an expert, and a novice. He bridges the lack of knowledge some of his readers may have with anecdotes, clear analogies, and comedy. This makes the book a pleasure to read even if you consider yourself an expert in the field. I am particularly fond of his Finding Nemo example. In a section on sex determination he describes that the anemonefish (Amphiprion) can change sex to maintain their size and sex based hierarchy system. He closes this paragraph with the observation that in the Disney film Finding Nemo, Nemo’s dad would have just stayed home to change into a female. His analogies also relate to his personal, experiences. This takes the reader along with Wyatt, instead of being given the feeling they are reading a textbook for class. In one example, where he explains how associative memory and negative reinforcement works, he reminisces about being turned away from gin by a bad experience he has had. It’s a shame I haven’t had a chance to talk to him after having read his book. I could have told him that the bitter taste so clearly found in gin is a by-product of his countrymen (the British) failing at impersonating our far superior (Dutch) Jenever. Hopefully he’ll one day find the Dutch courage to try this better version of the liquor which is less bitter.

There is something to be gained for everyone in this book. A complete novice is treated to a simplified understanding of the field of behaviour, with not the faintest hint of being patronized. This is mainly achieved by a methodic rather than a fact-to-fact explanation. For example, he manages very well to explain how olfactory communication and the function of kairomones work without mentioning these things by name. Wyatt explains a wide range of principles in the field of behavioural biology. Which he does through clear writing supported with appealing graphs, drawings, and pictures. With his examples he stays away from the clichés. So if you are the most knowledgeable of ethologists, you are still treated to some examples and images you may not have been familiar with. As a student of behaviour I would really like to pick Wyatt’s brain about my own work after reading his book. Perhaps someday I’ll get the chance to do so over a glass of Jenever.

Jeroen Alkema is a PhD student in the Entomology group at the University of Wageningen
Yoran Gerritsma is a PhD student at the Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life sciences at the University of Groningen




In het boek ‘Animal Behaviour’ leidt Wyatt je door de wondere wereld van gedragsbiologie, een wereld die je vaak verbaasd omdat er zoveel interessante phenomenen in voorkomen. Neem nou het feit dat niet alleen primaten en mensen gebruik maken van gereedschap, maar kraaien dit ook doen! Wyatt legt met interessante voorbeelden en goed schrijfwerk uit hoe (wij denken dat) het gedrag van dieren in elkaar steekt.

Hoewel er op de voorflap gesproken wordt van een wijde varieteit aan dieren die besproken zullen worden in het boek, viel het mij dat de insecten in de grote meerderheid zijn (statistisch gezien is het niet heel opvallend, gezien 70% van alle diersoorten behoren tot de groep insecten). Echter zijn de voorbeelden met insecten geweldige voorbeelden dat er zelfs op dat niveau zulk interessant gedrag te bestuderen valt (zie de bijendans in hoofdstuk 5).

Naar mijn mening zijn twee onderwerpen niet genoeg belicht. Het eerste onderwerp is het cooperatieve (ofwel sociale) gedrag, waarvan er toch prachtige voorbeelden zijn. Er wordt hier kort gesproken over eusocialiteit, oftewel soorten met een reproductieve taakverdeling, en hier wordt als (enige!) uitleg gegeven dat hoe hoger de verwantschap, hoe groter de kans dat iemand je helpt. Een belichting van andere theorieën, e.g. de verschillende vormen van reciprociteit, was zeker op zijn plaats geweest.

Het tweede onderwerp dat miste is het recent erg populair wordende veld van de dierlijke persoonlijkheid. Er wordt steeds meer focus gelegd op het feit dat er variatie is in het gedrag tussen individuen, en dat gedrag dus veel minder flexibel is dan wij aanvankelijk dachten. Een aankaarting van dit fenomeen had het boek zeer zeker verrijkt.

Een erg interessant, en onverwacht, onderdeel van het boek was het stuk over het welzijn van dieren in gevangenschap. Hierin kwamen voorbeelden naar boven van onder andere jachthonden, octopussen en kippen. Hier wordt de focus gelegd op de keuze van het dier zelf, gezien onze keuze voor het dier niet altijd de keuze van het dier zal reflecteren. Wij kunnen ons voorstellen dat kippen graag buiten zijn, maar toch zien we dat zij zich weinig begeven in open velden (waarschijnlijk een artefact van hun voorouders, die predatie riskeerden door zich te begeven in open vlakten). Een belangrijk punt is hier dat het dier natuurlijk niet altijd zal kiezen voor wat het beste is voor zichzelf; als je een hond de keuze geeft over brokken of chocolade zal hij een voorkeur uiten voor de zoetigheid. Chocolade is echter giftig voor honden! Het is zaak om bij het welzijn van dieren niet de keuze van het dier boven zijn gezondheid te stellen.

Na dit commentaar moet ik wel stellen dat Wyatt erin geslaagd is om een overzichtelijk en leesbaar overzicht heeft kunnen maken van het toch wel complexe veld van de gedragsbiologie. Concluderend, ‘Animal Behaviour’ is een aanrader voor zowel de ervaren gedragsbioloog alsmede de (mogelijk onervaren) enthousiasteling!

Door: Yoran Gerritsma, MSc, Behavioural & Physiological Ecology (BPE), Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

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