I was trained as a wildlife tracker starting in my teen years, and one of the most important things I ever learned about animal behavior is that you can never truly know an animal without looking at the environment it lives in.
In fact, when it comes to animal behavior, very often the first thing you need to look at isn’t the animal itself – but the environment.
In order to predict why animals act the way they do, you need to be able to answer the question – How does environment affect animal behavior?
So here’s the big picture:
Environment affects animal behavior by changing the availability of survival resources like food & shelter, as well as situational things like proximity to human activity.
Sometimes the same species of animal will behave completely differently in a forest environment compared to an urban environment.
Some animals are completely unable to adapt to changes in environment, while others do it quite successfully.
A great example is Coyotes.
Coyotes are a type of animal that is incredibly adaptable to a wide variety of different environments.
You’ll find them living in big dense forests, open plains & farmlands, deserts, and even in the middle of big cities.
But the actual strategies they use to find food, shelter, and avoid danger can sometimes be dramatically different in each of these situations.
It’s interesting to notice that even though Coyotes are capable of adapting their behavior, there are still some environments where they seem to do better than others.
Have you ever seen a really scraggly looking Coyote?
In some environments they look almost sick & weakly, then in other environments, they seem to be thriving.
These differences help us understand why Coyotes sometimes behave completely differently in a forest environment vs open farmlands vs urban populations.
And it’s not just Coyotes… All different types of animals are affected by their environment.
If you can get really good at predicting how animals will be affected by their environment, it goes a long way to making you a much better tracker and naturalist.
Your predictions about animal behavior will become a lot more intuitive just by looking at your surroundings.
Here are 5 important behaviors that are affected by environment:
1. Fear Response
One of the most obvious ways that environment affects animal behavior is by their level of interaction with humans.
Some animals really thrive in city environments.
Coyotes, raccoons and other scavengers can sometimes carve out a really effective niche because cities are filled with tons of wasted resources free for the taking.
Yet this is also a situation that sometimes dramatically changes the normal fear response that wild animals have towards people.
Black bears for example… In the wilderness, will almost always run away as soon as they sense humans in the area.
But in places where there are lots of humans edging up against bear territory, it’s possible for bears to become desensitized to human activity.
If people get lazy about locking up their garbage, or actually start feeding the bears (which is a horrible idea), they can become much more curious and eventually aggressive.
This can sometimes make a normally harmless animal quite dangerous.
You’ll see desensitized fear behavior in city squirrels and songbirds that are sometimes shockingly comfortable approaching people with food.
With small animals it’s not such a big deal…
But it becomes more of a problem when this happens with larger animals like bears, coyotes, even tigers & mountain lions!
2. Territory Size
Because different environments have different availability of food resources, sometimes animals require larger or smaller territories in order to successfully meet all their needs.
For example… In places with high food density like a city, or a grassy vole paradise you might find that territory size can be a lot smaller, with much larger & more robust populations.
Animals are always trying to conserve energy. They never want to work harder than is absolutely necessary to ensure their survival.
This means that animal behavior is intelligently responsive to the relative abundance or scarcity of whatever resources they need.
So let’s get inside the mind of an animal and think about what they need in order to survive…
- Food (and sometimes water).
- Nesting/Shelter site, opportunities to burrow, etc.
- Safety/Protection from predators or danger.
- Someone to mate with.
It’s actually not that much if you think about it! But here’s the important thing to realize about territory sizes…
The biggest LACK in resources, is always the greatest driver of behavior.
This means you could be in an environment that has tons of food, but if there’s a lack of nesting locations, the territories can still be quite large.
Whenever you explore a new environment, you should always look at what are the biggest opportunities for animals… but also look for what’s lacking.
In a city environment – You might find lots of scavenging opportunities, but less safe havens to raise young.
In a forest – There’s a lot more security and shelter, but this also works in favor of your prey, potentially making it more difficult to find food.
In an open landscape – You’re much more subject to dramatic swings in resources through the seasons. The dry & wet seasons can sometimes offer completely different levels of survival.
This is why if you compare the size of animal territories in a city, to animals out in the country, you’ll sometimes notice dramatic differences.
To learn more about different types of landscapes that affect animal behavior, check out my book – The Forest Field Guide… Grab a free copy here!
Diet can sometimes change quite dramatically depending on the environment you’re in.
You’ll notice the most adaptable species tend to be omnivores because they have more options about what to eat.
This includes animals like canines, bears, raccoons, skunks, etc.
These are all animals that can happily eat meat or fruits & vegetables, or even scavenge up whatever happens to be around, which makes them especially well suited for urban landscapes.
A common misconception is that omnivores always eat both meat and vegetables.
In actual practice, you might sometimes find certain populations that eat almost exclusively fruits & vegetables.
While others will eat mostly meat.
Very often these dietary “preferences” are not actually a choice, so much as an adaptation to whatever is available in that particular environment.
An animal’s diet can even change from year to year, or season to season as prey species like voles, mice, rabbits & squirrels go through booms & busts in their population sizes.
There’s a common saying in animal tracking that if you want to find the predators, then first you need to find their prey.
Have you ever noticed you can go years without seeing a particular animal species, and then suddenly you start seeing them all over the place?
Very often this is not actually a random occurrence, but rather a secondary effect of fluctuating food sources.
Dietary differences can also show up as dramatic changes in what animals eat during fall when certain fruits & harvest crops are in abundance.
Pay attention to these bumps and dips in animal activity, because very often it’s telling you something about your environment.
These are patterns you can use to better predict how animals are using the landscape!
An animal might be vegetarian in autumn, then a carnivore in winter… and some places simply have more food overall to begin with.
4. Daily Habits
It’s important to remember that animals are a lot like people…
They have daily habits and routines that change depending on what makes the most sense for their environment.
I learned from tracking deer that one of the things they love is having dense, sheltered forests right next to residential neighbourhoods.
This enables them to adopt a daily routine of feeding on the abundant human created landscaping at night, while retreating to the safety of forest during the day.
This daily rhythm however, can sometimes be completely different from deer who live far away from human civilization.
It all just depends on what enables them to conserve the most energy while providing for their survival needs.
Another interesting thing about daily habits – A lot of animals that are commonly believed to be nocturnal, only actually behave that way when they share their environment with humans.
In the wilderness, it’s not uncommon to find animals that are sometimes thought to be nocturnal, actually up and doing all their work during the daytime.
Animals take these things into account when deciding about wakeup times, sleeping times, feeding times, etc.
Effect of Predators on Daily Habits
Another big driver of these daily habits is whether or not an animal is being hunted.
In some places where predator populations have died off, you’ll notice that deer numbers can become incredibly abundant.
And since there’s no predators to pressure them into moving, they tend to roam lazily around a small core territory whenever they feel like it.
I remember when I was a young kid, my family would take trips to a place called “The Pinery” Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.
Every time we went for a visit, we would see deer all over the place.
In some environments, there can be so many deer that their feeding patterns actually change the composition of the native forests by preventing young saplings from developing in a normal way.
Park biologists sometimes go to great lengths by fencing off sections of the forest in order to allow things the freedom to regenerate.
If however, you were to reintroduce the historical predators like Wolves and Eastern Cougars into the area, those deer would have to adopt different movement patterns and travel longer distances to ensure their survival… thus causing the forests to regenerate in a more balanced way.
5. Family & Herd Size
Different environments can even affect herd behavior by changing the size of their groups.
For example: In a sheltered forest environment with lots of hiding spots, you’ll observe that many deer species live in small bachelor herds or female groups of 3-8 individuals… or sometimes even alone.
But when you get out into an open plains environment, you’re much more likely to see these animals forming larger groups.
Herds in a open grassland can get incredibly large because they don’t have the protection of dense forest & brush. They have to create their own protection by relying on strength in numbers.
If you think about it, none of this is rocket science to figure out. It’s all pretty much just common sense.
Just think in practical survival terms about what it would be like to be an animal in all these different situations, and you’ll notice you have pretty good instincts about how their behavior might change.
Here are 8 questions you can ask yourself to explore the relationship between environment & animal behavior:
- What kind of landscape are you in? (Read The forest field guide for help with this)
- What food opportunities are available here?
- How does this place change during spring, summer, fall & winter?
- How much human activity is here?
- Where are the best nesting sites for birds, prey species, and larger mammals?
- Where is the nearest water?
- How often do you see animals here?
- How would you behave differently here if you were an animal?
Practice observing nature… ask yourself these questions… and you’ll notice that your natural instincts become very sharp!
So now what are YOU observing about how environment affects animal behavior?