Tips for Creating Ethograms

When you are deciding upon the list of behaviors to record, or ethogram, there are some general principles you should follow.  These primarily apply to recording behaviors using interval and continuous methods but are helpful to consider for any sampling approach.

  1. Behaviors should be mutually exclusive.  When scoring behavior, you should only be recording one behavior at a time.  If an animal is performing several behaviors, for instance walking and eating, you’ll need to define which behavior is the more important to record and stay consistent with that priority.
  2. Behavior list should be exhaustive.  You should always be able to score something and should never intentionally leave missing values when recording behavior.  This can frequently happen when animals go out of sight or perform a behavior you haven’t defined.  To address this, you should include Other and Not Visible choices in your ethogram.
  3. Behavior definitions should be objective.  How you define the behavior should be primarily based on the physical description of behavior and not on the perceived (and potentially subjective) context. Even play behaviors, which often appear similar to hunting or social behaviors, typically have subtle physical differences to distinguish these contexts.  See Standardizing Your Ethogram for some ethogram examples you can use as a guide when creating your ethogram.


Defining Behavior Categories

We’ve found it helpful to define broad behavior categories to conceptually group an ethogram.  Some examples of categories you’ll see in our Lincoln Park Zoo Master Ethogram include Inactive, Feeding/ Foraging/ Drinking, Locomotion, Undesirable, Other Solitary, Social, and Not Visible.

Behavior categories can be helpful for training new observers on the ethogram by highlighting relationships between different types of behaviors and making an ethogram with many behaviors feel more manageable. 

In addition, you might need to add or remove behaviors during your study.  Although this can make comparing individual behaviors before and after this change challenging, you may still be able to compare broader behavior categories.  For instance, you may have started with one behavior called Feeding but later want to specify different foraging types like Browsing and Grazing.  As all behaviors would be grouped in the same category, you can compare more broadly the time spent Feeding/Foraging. 

Currently you cannot input these categories into ZooMonitor and need to maintain this list separately.


Standardizing Your Ethogram

Although you can create a custom ethogram for each species, it may be helpful to create a standardized master ethogram for your organization.  This master ethogram will allow you to quickly create new projects from this standardized list and help observers by ensuring similar behaviors have consistent terms across projects.  However, using a multi-taxa standardized ethogram does have tradeoffs though, as this ethogram will typically be less complex than an ethogram specific for a single taxa or species. 

You can define a master ethogram for your account using the Ethogram section of ZooMonitor (see Setting Up Your Account).  

For some detailed examples of standardized ethograms for single taxa or species, check out these resources:

A standardized ethogram for the Felidae: A tool for behavioral researchers  by Stanton et al.  – a detailed website describing behaviors of common marmosets.  – a detailed website describing behaviors of laboratory mice.