Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Ethology, Ecology and Critical Anthropomorphism

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


It is a human peculiarity, occasionally endearing but more often maddening, that no amount of proof suffices to convince those who simply do not want to know or accept the truth. - George Gaylord Simpson

Knowing how to care for an animal in captivity is more than just learning about the basics such as temperature requirements, the right substrate to use, what type of food they eat, and how to offer water. To really care for any animal in captivity, we need to know about how that species lives in the wild, how they make use of their environment, and the signs that indicate when we are doing it wrong.

Ethology is the study of animal behavior. It is a science, with its own body of work relating to how behavior is measured, quantified and documented. Animal behaviorist/herpetologist Clifford Warwick begins the Conclusions section of his paper, Reptilian Ethology In Captivity: Observations of Some Problems and an Evaluation of Their Ætiology, by talking about the why it is important for everyone who keeps animals, regardless of the setting (zoo, research lab, at home as pets), to be as knowledgeable about the natural behavior and biology of the species they keep:

It is not uncommon to discover that a keeper's knowledge of a species within his or her care is frequently lacking in either fundamental biological information or a comprehensive understanding of the species' natural ethology, or both. However, many highly conscientious herpetologists adopt a more responsible position and energetically gather material related to maintenance. It is extremely important to accumulate all available data and opinion pertaining to the natural history and captive management of a particular species prior to their acquisition. This may sound like an obvious course of action, but it is a philosophy which is not as widely and actively employed as is warranted. The common perception of the reptilia in general being an adaptable class in captivity, from an ethological perspective, is largely responsible for the neutrality of keepers in their assessment and provision for the behavioural needs of reptiles in artificial environments

Ecology is the scientific study of the physiological responses of individuals, the structure of populations, population dynamics, interactions between conspecifics and other species, and how they fit into their ecosystem, and how they may - or may not - adapt to changes in their environment or populations.

Anthropomorphism is the expression of human feelings and motivations to non-humans, including animals, and inanimate objects. Anthropomorphism in and of itself is neither good nor bad. How it is used by humans to refer to actions or motivations of non-human animals, however, may range from the ridiculous to injurious. What follows are examples of classical vs. critical anthropomorphism:

Classical Anthropomorphism ("Bambi-ism" or "Disneyization"):

"My iguana loves his hot rock. I know this because he lays on it most of the day and most of the night. Iguanas don't feel pain, so that's why he stays on there even though the skin on his tummy is all blistered and oozy."

Critical Anthropomorphism:

Iguanas, like all reptiles, have a specific thermal range they require to enable them to regulate their core body temperature by moving back and forth throughout the thermal gradient. Iguanas, like many reptiles, evolved as sun-baskers (heliotherms), needing to be surrounded by air of a certain temperature in order to raise their core body temperature. They then thermoregulate by moving back and forth between areas of warmer and cooler air temperatures. When heliotherms are presented with only thermal options: a hot rock and cool air, they remain on the hot rock until their body signals that them their core body temperature has been reached and so trigger a move to a cooler area. The reason the needed signal is not generated is because the blood warmed when flowing under the skin plastered to the hot rock circulates through the rest of the body which is not in contact with the hot rock, it rapidly cools down, so the internal organs and bulk of the blood never get warm enough to trigger the move. Reptiles do indeed feel pain, but their instinct to try to get warm enough may override the pain messages sent by the damaged nerves, and so they remain on the hot rock, vainly waiting to get warm enough to move.

The Disneyized version of the pet keeper's observation shows a complete lack of knowledge about iguana biology and a lack of common sense in failing to recognize that a burn is a burn, and even if it doesn't hurt, the wound itself requires treatment and an immediate change to keep it from occurring again. Keeping reptiles in shoe-box rack systems, or housing them within line-of-sight or chemosensory range of what they perceive to be predators or prey are other examples of herp keepers either not knowing or understanding the species' natural history and pathophysiology, or ignoring it for the sake of convenience in how they maintain their collection.

It is certainly a lot easier to keep herps if one just ignores things like natural history and biology. Espousing the use of ethology and critical anthropomorphism is certainly not a popular stance. I wrote a letter several years ago to the editor of Reptiles magazine, asking why they accepted so much advertising for products that were worthless or injurious to herps. I never received a reply. A couple of years later, a copy of a newsletter I edited for a nonprofit herp conservation organization was sent to this editor by one of the organization's directors. The editor called him and went on about how dangerous it was to have me associated with his organization - didn't he know I was an animal rights activist who might try to sabotage the organization's goals? This incident just underscores the point that, when it comes to business, money talks, and any concerns about animal welfare - their health and maintenance in captivity - is dismissed as some sort of Pollyana claptrap.

What follows are links to articles and books dealing with ethology and critical anthropomorphism. Many of them helped shape - or reaffirm - my own beliefs and understanding of the role of natural history and biology play in the care and understanding of captive animals. Some of the books are about animals other than reptiles, but are included because they are darn good reads as well as giving you an idea of what it's like to study animal behavior at the source: in the wild.

chemosensory range: within smelling distance, keeping in mind that reptilian tongues and vomeronasal organs are far more sensitive to what are commonly called pheromones and other biochemical markers than is the human sense of smell.

Ethology and Critical Anthropomorphism

Assorted Summer Musings: Anthropomorphism and Reptiles, by Melissa Kaplan

Classical vs. Critical Anthropomorphism, by Melissa Kaplan

Important ethological and other considerations of the study and maintenance of reptiles in captivity, by Clifford Warwick

Observations on disease-associated preferred body temperatures in reptiles, by Clifford Warwick

Reptilian ethology in captivity: Observations of some problems and an evaluation of their ætiology, by Clifford Warwick


Related Articles and Sites of Interest

Aesop after Darwin: The Radical Anthropomorphism of "The Far Side"

Animal Consciousness - from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Cognitive ethology: slayers, skeptics, and proponents - from Anthropomorphism, anecdotes, and animals: The emperor's new clothes?

Emotion and Phylogeny


Bibliography For Additional Reading

Life in a variable world - Behavior, welfare and environmental-design. Appleby MC. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 1997; 54(1): 1-19


Organizations and University Centers

American Behavior Society

Association of Behavior Analysis

Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies

Nebraska Behavioral Biology Group

Society for the Quantitative Analyses of Behavior


American Naturalist

Animal Behavior

Behavioral Ecology

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Brain, Behavior and Immunity

Ecological Research

Journal of Animal Ecology


Miscellaneous Related Information

Animals have complex dreams, MIT researcher proves

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