A guide to help you through the jungle

The Oxford Dictionary of Animal Behaviour

November 17, 2006

A common assumption is that the lives of animals are prosaic compared with our own. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take, for instance, leafcutter ants. Leafcutters are South and Central American "agriculturalists". They cultivate fungus in elaborate underground chambers by feeding the fungus with freshly cut plant material. A mature leafcutter colony can contain millions of "citizens" and is organised around a caste system that is the ant version of professional associations - some ants care for fungal gardens, some collect plant material, some are bodyguards whose job it is to defend the foragers, and some are soldiers whose job it is to defend the colony or do the heavy lifting. The soldiers are Arnold Schwarzenegger ants - they can be up to 16 times the size of other ants in the colony and have monstrously large heads. Ants leave chemical trails to tell other ants where to go, and not go, to find food. These chemicals, called pheromones, are released by many animals in addition to ants for purposes that range from alarm to territory demarcation and to mate attraction.

To learn more about pheromones, symbioses and a multitude of concepts critical to the study of animal behaviour, consult The Oxford Dictionary of Animal Behaviour , written by David McFarland, former head of the animal behaviour research group at Oxford University. The dictionary is suitable for secondary-school students, college undergraduates and amateur naturalists.

It provides a reasonable beginner's introduction to some of the more important terms in animal behaviour research. Its entries cross-reference one another, making it easy to understand and relatively jargon-free, and examples are utilised to illustrate some of the harder concepts such as "Kin selection", "Heritability of behaviour" and "Anthropomorphism".

It will, unfortunately, disappoint practising ethologists, evolutionary biologists and psychologists, as well as the sort of readers who find themselves weak at the knees upon discovering a formidable-looking new dictionary or encyclopaedia in their favourite bookshop. This work is far from comprehensive, the explanations of terms are basic and its list of recommended reading is painfully short.

Dictionaries, some people might think, are just for reference. But those of us who love dictionaries and encyclopaedias recognise them as treasures to be prized almost as highly as the best works of fiction and nonfiction.

Excellent topical dictionaries and encyclopaedias include The Dictionary of Anthropology , edited by Thomas Barfield; The Encyclopedia of Evolution , edited by Mark Pagel; and Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference , by Elizabeth Schneider. The two academic volumes contain rich entries that provide enough historical detail to understand the conceptual importance and development of a term, highlight the contributions of key researchers and provide extensive lists of references to all the classic papers and books; while each entry in the volume on vegetables contains information about identification, cultivation and use in the kitchen. I suppose it could be argued that a deficiency of comprehensive volumes is that they might intimidate the novice or that they lack concision in so far as they provide neither short summaries nor easy access. But where these greater books fail, The Oxford Dictionary of Animal Behaviour succeeds.

Jessica Flack is a research fellow in evolutionary biology and behaviour, Santa Fe Institute, US.

The Oxford Dictionary of Animal Behaviour

Author - David McFarland
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 222
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 0 19 860721 0

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