How to Create a Useful Ethogram: a Comprehensive List of Animal Behaviors
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How to Create a Useful Ethogram: a Comprehensive List of Animal Behaviors

This article is a guideline for creating a behavioral list for animal field observational work. It explains the necessity and use of the ethogram.

Animal studies field work can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a person’s life. I have done a great deal of both captive studies, done at a zoo, and field studies, done everywhere else. Though each situation is different there are some report structures that are constant.

Every behavioral study starts with the development of the ethogram. The ethogram is quite simply a list of observed behaviors as pertains specifically to your study subject. Some behaviors are common to every animal and some are species specific. The Lion Tailed Macaque ethogram listed below is the first one I ever created and I have worked off it ever since, changing the definitions and adding newly observed behaviors given whatever set of new variables that I was dealing with. Every ethogram is different for any given species. It has to be altered less for similar species, for example, it is easy to modify this ethogram to observe a different species of primate. It’s more work if you are observing platypuses, but the structure is the same.


The first heading is Behavior. This is a word that accurately describes the specific action being observed. This can be species specific and doesn’t have to have a universal definition. First on my list is aggression. This is a good place to start, understanding that gorilla aggression and rhinoceros aggression are going to be defined differently.

The abbreviation heading will be the short hand that you use for you field notes (see field note image below). The abbreviation is not standard from one report to the next but needs to be standard from one observer to the next given your particular study. One must understand that these behaviors and definitions are subjective and unique from one study to the next. They are based on the research design questions that prompt the study in the first place.

It’s the definition that most of my students have problems with. When defining a specific behavior, you want to use a descriptive an explanation as possible without using the word that it is trying to convey. Scientific language is best for this. It most also exclude other similar behaviors to be listed later in your ethogram. The reason for this is that when another group attempts to query your data for other reasons. Everyone is still on the same page. For instance a behavior such as biting must described specifically so as not to be confused with gnawing or oral grooming.

I have found through experience that each observation group should be responsible for creating an ethogram from scratch before comparing it to and modifying it to match previous groups even if they are observing the same subject. If the reports are to be compared, the ethograms need to match but simply handing a new group the old ethogram to work from creates continuity problems that can wind up wasting more time than just starting over. Your ethogram should appear in your final report as an appendix.

Below is my first ethogram. Read through it for an understanding of how this critical part of any wildlife study should be structured.


Lion Tailed Macaque

Behavior                 Abbreviation                 Definition

1) Aggression             (Agr*)                        General description for actions differing

                                                                    from: Threat (Thr), Attack (Att). Overt

                                                                    posturing and behavior associated with

                                                                    slapping, pushing, tackling, biting, and bothering.

2) Appease                (App*)                        General description for actions differing

                                                                    from: Lipsmacking (Smk), and Presenting

                                                                    (Pre). Behavior represented by one or more

                                                                    of the following: cowering, crawling, crying

                                                                    and slinking away.

3) Attack                    (Att*)                          Specific aggression behavior typified by a

                                                                    momentary pause, followed by a lunge

                                                                    toward the intended victim ending in a brief

                                                                    grapple to include biting and harassing.

                                                                    Also directed toward people at viewing glass.

4) Chase                   (Cha*)                        Continued pursuit of a specific individual

                                                                    across all parts of the enclosure for a duration of 1+ seconds.

5) Chin Thrust           (Chn*)                        Specific threat display. Actualized with a

                                                                    lowering of the head and jutting of the lower

                                                                    jaw toward another.

6) Dominance Display  (Dod)                      Behavior associated with the establishment

                                                                   and maintenance of the political hierarchy.

                                                                   Manifests as one of the following individual

                                                                   Behaviors or combination thereof: branch

                                                                   Shaking, continued and varied aggressive

                                                                   Behaviors (see above Agr), vocalizations,

                                                                   And agitated hopping in place and forelimb Waving.

7) Eat / Forage              (Eat)                     Substantive consumption of provided

                                                                   vegetation and Pro-plus Chow (Monkey biscuits)

8) Groom                      (Grm*)                   Identified by concentrated effort to find and

                                                                  remove parasitic organisms from ones self

                                                                  or from one another. More than that, there

                                                                  are political and social implications relating

                                                                  to interpersonal contact.

9) Inspect                       (Ins*)                   Visual and / or tactile probe of anus and / or

                                                                  genital region. Behavior also implies and an

                                                                  affirmation of the dominance hierarchy.

                                                                  Often observed in conjunction with presenting.

10) Lip Smack               (Smk*)                  Specific capitulatory act signifying

                                                                  acknowledgement of dominance. Rapid

                                                                  lower jaw movement accompanied by

                                                                  reduced profile and posture.

11) Locomoting             (Loc)                    The act of moving about the enclosure for

                                                                  any number of reasons. Typified by

                                                                  quadrapedal (walking on all fours) motion.

                                                                  Bi-pedal (walking on only the hindlimbs)

                                                                  Movement is annotated by a capital ‘B’ in

                                                                  front of the abbreviation i.e. (B-Loc)

12) Masturbate           (Mas)                      Gripping and pulling of the erect penis not

                                                                  always culminating in ejaculation.

13) Mounting              (Mnt*)                      Inferred reproductive behavior without

                                                                  actual copulation. One individual

                                                                  approaches another from behind and rubs

                                                                  his genitals near the anus of another for 1 to

                                                                  5 seconds. An aberration appears with the

                                                                  use of a third limb(usually the left hindlimb)

                                                                  to further grasp the intended by the same

                                                                  leg. For this a ‘T’ is added i.e. (T-Mnt*)

14) Open Mouth         (Opm*)                    Specific form of threat display. Individual

                                                                  spreads jaws wide apart to display teeth to

                                                                  intimidate another subject. Display is

                                                                  accompanied by steady eye contact and head bobbing.

15) Out of Sight           (Oos)                     Subject under observation is beyond

                                                                  observers field of view.

16) Play                       (Ply*)                     Any number of scampering, jumping

                                                                 swinging and rolling around behaviors not

                                                                 associated with aggression or threat actions.

17) Presenting               (Pre*)                  An individual shows his anus to a more

                                                                dominate male to be sniffed and poked as a

                                                                show of supplication.

18) Stationary            (Sta)                      Individual sits on ischeal callosities,

                                                                immobile save for some head movement and scratching.

19) Threat                 (Thr*)                     Associated with non-contact posturing.

                                                                Typified by staring and eyebrow lifting.

20) Foot biting            (Fbi)                     Either hind limb is brought up in front of

                                                               the face then attacked with forelimbs and teeth.

Here is a scanned image of a set of field notes from a different project using many of the same abbreviations. I am sure to write another article about field note construction but for the purposes of this article you can see the importance of having established short hand or abbreviations in a field scenario.

As an educator and scientist, I invite anyone who is studying animals in the wild or in captivity to use this ethogram with no fear of copy write laws or other such nonsense. Should you need further direction or assistance feel free to email me with your questions at or, if you like, you can send me your phone number and I will contact you to discuss it further. In the name of furthering education and conservation I am at your disposal as a consultant of field work methodology.

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