Nikolaas Tinbergen: biography of this Dutch ethologist

Nikolaas Tinbergen was a pioneering zoologist in the study of animal behavior and a historical figure of great importance in explaining the birth of a discipline such as ethology.

His scientific contributions have earned him many distinctions and today his discoveries are already part of the scientific heritage that has enabled us to better understand the behavior of animals in their natural environment.

In this article we will see a brief biography of Nikolaas Tinbergen and we will know what his major contributions to animal behavior science and research have been.

    Nikolaas Tinbergen: biography of this researcher

    Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) was a pioneering Dutch zoologist in the field of ethology., The scientific discipline responsible for studying animal behavior in its natural habitat. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, with Karl Von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, for his discoveries on the organization and obtaining models of individual and social behavior in animals.

    Tinbergen developed a strong interest in animals and nature at an early age, as a child he observed the behavior of birds and fish, which sparked his interest in biology. In 1932, he completed his doctorate with a thesis on the behavior of wasps, showing that they use landmarks to orient themselves.

    With Lorenz, Tinbergen laid the foundations for European ethology and proposes that the study of this discipline apply to both the study of animal behavior and that of human behavior, applying the same methodology. Additionally, they both hypothesized that all animals have a fixed pattern of action, a repeated and diverse set of movements, rather than reacting only on impulse in response to environmental factors.

    Tinbergen’s work in animal research was cut short by World War II, as he was taken prisoner and spent two years in a German hostage camp. After the war, he was invited to the United States and England to exhibit his ethological studies. In the English country, he settled as professor at the University of Oxford.

      The 4 big questions

      As a curious naturalist, Nikolaas Tinbergen always tried to understand the world around him and his work had a great impact on the development of ethology, both theoretically and practically. In ethology, causality and ontogeny represent “close mechanisms”, and adaptation and phylogeny represent “ultimate mechanisms”.

      Tinbergen systematized his interest in animal behavior and the explanation of these mechanisms into four broad questions based on Aristotle’s types of causation.

      1. Causality or mechanism

      How animal behavior occurs in terms of its mechanical or causal properties. It is about answering questions such as: what are the stimuli that provoke a certain behavioral response? How was this behavior changed by learning? How does behavior work at the molecular, physiological, cognitive and social levels? How are the different levels linked?

      2. Development or ontogeny

      Explanation of animal behavior in functional terms. Try to clarify issues such as: How does the animal’s behavior change throughout its life? How does behavior change with age? What early experiences are necessary for a behavior to occur?

      3. Adaptation

      How animal behavior influences survival and reproduction. It represents one of the ultimate or final causes; that is, the adaptive value and benefit of having some behavioral repertoire incorporated.

      4. Evolution or phylogeny

      It involves the historical sequence of changes that take place in a given evolutionary period. He tries to compare the behavior of a certain species with that of a similar species., Besides responding to how certain particular species might emerge, allowing one species to become a different species, and so on.

      Scientific Research

      Tinbergen and Lorenz together studied the behavior of birds. His only published joint study looked at the behavior of wild geese. In this sense, they observed how the geese, seeing an egg moved near the nest, used their beaks to roll it back to its place. If the egg was removed, the animal continued to generate the same motor behavior, as if the egg was still there. And if other objects of the same shape were used (like a golf ball), the exact same thing would happen.

      Another of Tinbergen’s research is that he led by studying the behavior of seagulls. For example, he observed that shortly after the eggs hatched, the parents removed the shells from the nest. After carrying out several experiments, he showed that this behavior had a certain function and was to protect the young from predators.

      He also studied the behavior and the tendency of young gulls to peck the red patch of the dominant gull’s beak, Behavior that prompts parents to regurgitate food in order to eat. Tinbergen carried out an experiment that offered young people a variety of cardboard gull heads that varied in shape and color of the beak. For each combination of shape and color, he measured the puppies’ preferences by counting the bites they gave at any given time.

      What Tinbergen discovered in his study of seagull puppies is that they were born with a preference for elongated yellow things with red spots that were incorporated as standard into their behavioral repertoire. In other words, seagull puppies are equipped with specific genes that determine and promote certain behaviors in a specific habitat.

      With such remarks it was like a new branch of knowledge has emerged which draws on two scientific disciplines, biology and psychology, Give birth to what we know today through ethology.

      His legacy

      Much of Tinbergen’s work has become a classic today, both in comparative psychology and in biology, including, in addition to those already mentioned, other studies by him on the behavior of spiny fish, wasps or butterflies.

      However, Tinbergen peaked in recognition by receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1973, which he shared with his colleagues Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. Out of curiosity, it should be noted that the money received for the prize that he used to help with research on childhood autism.

      Tinbergen has also received other accolades such as the Swammerdam Medal and several honorary degrees at prestigious universities such as Edinburgh and the University of Leicester. In addition, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society in England and a Foreign Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bolhuis, JJ (2004). Biography of a brilliant bird watcher.
      • Burkhardt, RW (2005). Models of behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and the foundations of ethology. University of Chicago Press.

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