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Innate Behavior of Animals

Some behaviors are innate or instinctive -- they involve basic life functions, such as caring for offspring.

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Innate Behavior of Animals

Is this Blue-footed Booby actually dancing?

The courtship of the Blue-footed Booby consists of the male flaunting his blue feet and dancing to impress the female. During the dance, the male will spread his wings and stamp his feet on the ground. Are these birds born with this skill, or do they learn it?

Innate Behavior

Behaviors that are closely controlled by genes with little or no environmental influence are called innate behaviors. These are behaviors that occur naturally in all members of a species whenever they are exposed to a certain stimulus. Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced. They are also called instinctive behaviors. An instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time it is exposed to the proper stimulus. For example, a dog will drool the first time—and every time—it is exposed to food.

Significance of Innate Behavior

Innate behaviors are rigid and predictable. All members of the species perform the behaviors in the same way. Innate behaviors usually involve basic life functions, such as finding food or caring for offspring. Several examples are shown in Figure below. If an animal were to perform such important behaviors incorrectly, it would be less likely to survive or reproduce.

Examples of innate behavior

Examples of Innate Behavior. These innate behaviors are necessary for survival or reproduction. Can you explain why each behavior is important?

Intelligence and Innate Behavior

Innate behaviors occur in all animals. However, they are less common in species with higher levels of intelligence. Humans are the most intelligent species, and they have very few innate behaviors. The only innate behaviors in humans are reflexes. A reflex is a response that always occurs when a certain stimulus is present. For example, a human infant will grasp an object, such as a finger, that is placed in its palm. The infant has no control over this reaction because it is innate. Other than reflexes such as this, human behaviors are learned–or at least influenced by experience—rather than being innate.

Innate Behavior in Human Beings

All animals have innate behaviors, even human beings. Can you think of human behaviors that do not have to be learned? Chances are, you will have a hard time thinking of any. The only truly innate behaviors in humans are called reflex behaviors. They occur mainly in babies. Like innate behaviors in other animals, reflex behaviors in human babies may help them survive.

An example of a reflex behavior in babies is the sucking reflex. Newborns instinctively suck on a nipple that is placed in their mouth. It is easy to see how this behavior evolved. It increases the chances of a baby feeding and surviving. Another example of a reflex behavior in babies is the grasp reflex (Figure below). Babies instinctively grasp an object placed in the palm of their hand. Their grip may be surprisingly strong. How do you think this behavior might increase a baby’s chances of surviving?

A human baby's grasp reflex

One of the few innate behaviors in human beings is the grasp reflex. It occurs only in babies.


  • Innate behaviors are instinctive. They are controlled by genes and always occur in the same way.
  • Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.
  • Innate behaviors generally involve basic life functions, so it’s important that they be performed correctly.


  1. What are innate behaviors? Give an example.
  2. What would happen to an individual who poorly performs innate behaviors?
  3. What is an instinct?

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innate behavior Behavior closely controlled by genes that occurs naturally, without learning or practice, in all members of a species, whenever they are exposed to a certain stimulus; also called instinctive behavior.
instinct Ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time it is exposed to the proper stimulus.
reflex Rapid motor response to a sensory stimulus in which nerve impulses travel in an arc that includes the spinal cord but not the brain.
stimulus Something that triggers a behavior.

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