Complex Behavior


Ethologists are often careful to distinguish between learned and innate behaviors, but in reality the two are at extreme opposite ends of a single continuum.  Most overt behavior is neither 100% innate nor 100% learned.


Sometimes innate behaviors may be modified (or modulated) through practice and experience. In locusts, for example, the ability to fly is innate, but an older, experienced individual consumes less energy (per unit time) than a novice flier. This suggests that the older insect has “learned” to fly more efficiently. Similarly, learned behaviors may incorporate or depend upon elements of innate behavior. Indeed, the ability to learn, to associate, or to remember is almost certainly an innate feature of the insect’s nervous system. Schematically, it may be useful to think of a box that represents the boundaries of an animal’s ethogram. All behavior must occur inside the physiological limits of this box (e.g. a beetle larva does not have wings, therefore it cannot fly). Within the box, a set of innate behaviors can be simplistically represented by straight lines. By following a zigzag route, an insect can use only innate behavior to get from point “A” to point “B”. But a learned behavior, superimposed on this innate grid, might provide a “shortcut” that is more useful or more efficient. As in the locust example above, the innate ability to fly may be refined and improved through experience.

Go to   Innate Behavior

Go to   Learned Behavior