MMB8003 : The Biological Study of Behaviour

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module aims to provide a thorough training in the skills and concepts required for the study of behaviour from a biological perspective. The concepts taught are equally applicable to students whose main interests are in human behaviour, and those whose main interests are in the behaviour of non-human animals. The module will also be of benefit to students who are likely to conduct behavioural assays with laboratory animals in the course of medical research. Students will gain an understanding of current research in behavioural science. They will also acquire skills in the use of mathematical models to predict behaviour, the recording and quantification of spontaneously occurring behaviour, the design and conduct of behavioural experiments, and working with laboratory animals. .

Outline Of Syllabus

The module consists of three four-week blocks. Each of these has content lectures and a practical, skills-based component embedded within it.

Block 1. The evolution of behaviour.
This block briefly outlines the conceptual foundations of the study of behaviour, including Tinbergen’s four questions and the relationships between them. It then explores how we can make predictions about behaviour from an ultimate evolutionary perspective, through an introduction to optimal foraging theory. Students will learn to modify and write mathematical models in Matlab, and use these to make predictions which could be tested against behavioural data. Students will do a formative (feedback, but no contribution to final mark) presentation of their findings during the week 4 session.

Week 1: Foundational concepts for the biological study of behaviour (content lecture)
Week 2: Optimal foraging theory (content lecture plus computer practical)
Week 3: Guided work on student’s modeling project (computer cluster)
Week 4: Discussion and presentation of results (interactive session)

Block 2. Experimenting with behaviour.
In this block, we will explore different ways to address questions of animal behaviour under controlled conditions. This includes studies of animals in the laboratory, but also experimental manipulations of animals under more natural conditions. The teaching sessions will be interactive discussions between the students and the lecturer, exploring the issues involved in conducting experiments aimed at better understanding the mechanisms underlying a range of categories of behaviour. In addition, the students will carry out a research project on laboratory mice, exploring mice’s perception and memory of objects and their context. The students will be inducted into the CBC in week 5, and thereafter work in pairs with their animals as their schedule permits. The results of their projects will be the topic of the written in-course assessment.

Week 5: Object recognition in mice: designing the study (Classroom plus visit to CBC)
Week 6: Animal navigation: how to get from A to B? (Content lecture)
Week 7: Social behaviour: all is fair in love and war. (Content lecture)
Week 8: Discussion of results

Block 3. The measurement of behaviour.
This block deals with how we can measure and quantify spontaneously occurring behaviour. Students will be introduced to the major types of behavioural sampling and coding, and be trained in the use of the Noldus Observer computer package. The practical component will involve the student devising and performing a simple observational project, which they will report in their oral presentation. We have a number of possible study systems available, including the mice from block 2, but also possibilities with humans, seagulls, rabbits, rats, and starlings, either live or from video.
Week by week breakdown TBC.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00Preparation and submission of mouse project
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion120:0020:00Preparing notes from lectures,seminars and reading
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00Revision and Preparation for Examinations
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion120:0020:00Preparation and presentation of computer model
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture62:0012:00Two Hour Lectures
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00Completion of observational project and presentation based on it
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesPractical62:0012:00Practically based classes
Guided Independent StudyReflective learning activity116:0016:00Additional Reading and Reflective Learning
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The interspersing of content lectures with practical exercises reflects the desirability at MRes level of imparting research skills as well as just knowledge of the literature. By intertwining the knowledge and skills components, we hope to engage students more deeply with a critical understanding of how the data in influential published studies are actually generated, and how the research question influences the choice of method. The blocks are designed to provide a variety of different approaches to behaviour, from the more ecological (block 1), to the mechanistic (block 2) and observational (block 3).

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written Examination601A60Unseen written exam, set by School
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Report1M20Report on mouse experiment
Report1M2015 minute oral presentation on observational study
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The unseen written exam will feature problem-based questions tapping the student’s ability to think critically about research questions, and propose approaches to answering them (for example, by designing a hypothetical experiment). The in-course written report and oral presentation assess the key skill which we are seeking to develop of analyzing data and presenting results in a clear way to a broad scientific audience, using appropriate software and formats.

Reading Lists