Animal Behaviour: An Introduction (Online)


Why do animals behave the way they do? In this course we will look at the full range of behaviours found in the animal kingdom, from simple escape behaviours to complex tool use and their evolution.

The study of animal behaviour, less than 100 years old as a scientific discipline, has demonstrated that behaviours, similar to anatomy and physiology, have been shaped by evolution, while at the same time many behaviours show an astounding flexibility that allow individuals to learn and change throughout their life.

Thus the study of animal behaviour is not only shedding light on the range of fascinating behaviours found in nature, but it also increases our understanding of our animal companions and ultimately of ourselves. In this course, we will explore of a wide range of behaviours, while at the same time getting a comprehensive introduction to evolutionary thinking. During the course we will be using examples from a broad range of animal groups including, foraging in spiders, social behaviours in ants, learning in dogs and tool use in birds and mammals.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

1. Introduction to the study and definition of animal behaviour

  • What is the study of animal behaviour?
  • Tinbergen’s four questions
  • The sensory and nervous system

2. Evolution, genes and natural selection

  • Darwin and Wallace
  • Genetics and DNA
  • Natural selection in action
  • Genes and behaviour
  • Adaption

3. Foraging behaviour

  • Types of foraging
  • Camouflage and mimicry
  • Trade-off and co-evolution

4. Measuring and analysing animal behaviour

  • Steps involved in studying behaviour
  • Observing and recording animal behaviour
  • The risk of anthropomorphism
  • Using video and online resources in behaviour research
  • Finding and understanding scientific papers

5. Signals, communication and sexual selection

  • Animal senses
  • Signals and stimuli
  • Animal communication
  • Sexual selection and mate choice
  • Mating systems and strategies

6. Kin selection, inclusive fitness and social behaviour

  • Types of altruism
  • Group-living and cooperative breeding
  • The ants and their societies

7. Decision-making and evolutionary stable strategies

  • Long- and short-term decision-making
  • Motivation and the mechanisms of decision-making
  • Evolutionary stable strategies and game theory
  • Inter-individual conflict and the Hawk–Dove game
  • Cooperation, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and tit-for-tat strategies

8. Artificial selection, domestic animals and animal welfare

  • Domestication
  • Applied ethology and animal welfare
  • Getting information from animals on their welfare and suffering
  • Pets and human–animal interactions

9. Learning and memory

  • Habituation and sensitisation
  • Associative learning – classical conditioning
  • Associative learning – instrumental learning
  • Social learning
  • Higher forms of learning and animal teaching
  • Memory and brain structures

10. Animal cognition and tool use

  • Problem-solving, insight learning and intelligence
  • Examples of problem-solving in invertebrates
  • Examples of problem-solving in birds and mammals
  • Tool use
  • Self-awareness and theory of mind


To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £10 fee.

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

Assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail.

All students who successfully complete this course, whether registered for credit or not, are eligible for a Certificate of Completion. Completion consists of submitting the final course assignment. Certificates will be available, online, for those who qualify after the course finishes.


Description Costs
Course Fee £350.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


Dr Thomas Hesselberg

Thomas is a zoologist who has studied spiders, insects and worms for more than 15 years in both temperate and tropical climates. In addition to his teaching for the Department for Continuing Education, he is a lecturer in biological sciences at St. Anne's College.

Course aims

This course aims to explore the variety of different behaviours found in a broad range of animal groups, using a scientific and evolutionary approach.

This course will enable participants to:

  • Achieve an overview of the different types of animal behaviours and understand how proximate and ultimate explanations can be used to provide a theoretical framework.
  • Understand how evolutionary thinking and the scientific analytical approach are applied to the study of animal behaviour.
  • Apply this knowledge to analyse and understand behaviour in both wild and domestic animals.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be expected to :

  • Be familiar with a range of different types of behaviours found in both lower and higher animals and understand the theoretical framework used to explain evolution of these behaviours.
  • Understand how evolution has shaped behaviours in the long term through genetic adaptations, and in the short term, through enabling modifications of set behaviours by learning and behavioural flexibility.
  • Have the skills to analyse behaviours and understand the functional reasons behind the expression of these behaviours

By the end of this course students will be expected to have gained the following skills:

  • The ability to measure and analyse animal behaviours.
  • The ability to apply evolutionary thinking to the analysis of animal behaviour.
  • Research Skills: 1) The ability to read and evaluate scientific papers in animal behaviour. 2) The ability to understand and design experiments to test hypothesis in animal behaviour.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link:


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

10 weeks, 100 study hours at FHEQ level 4

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.