Ethology is the study of animal behaviour and behavioural ecology is the study of the survival value of behaviour. It is called “behavioural ecology” because the way in which behaviour contributes to survival and reproduction depends on ecology. Thus, in order to answer questions about the way a particular behaviour (e.g. territoriality) contributes to survival we need to have background information on aspects of the animal’s ecology the kind of food it eats, and its availability, density of competitors, predators, nesting or denning requirements and so on. These ecological pressures will determine whether territoriality is favoured and will enhance the animal’s survival or be detrimental to it. The behavioural ecologist therefore adopts a functional approach to animal behaviour, trying to explain it in terms of the animal maximising its gene transfer to the next generation within the constraints of its ecology. Behavioural ecology requires a thorough knowledge of three major disciplines; evolutionary theory, ethology and ecology.
Ethologists and behavioural ecologists may find employment in purely academic posts at universities and museums but, because of the functional aspects of the discipline, can also be employed in research posts within organisations concerned with conservation or management of animal populations be it aimed at maintaining sustainable yields of harvested species (e.g. fish or game animals) or in controlling populations of pests such as disease-bearing insects or predators of domestic stock.
Any aspect of animal behaviour may be investigated, the most common being foraging behaviour, group living (particularly in terms of predation and predator avoidance), territoriality, mating systems, parental care, co-operation and communication