biography, ethology, Konrad Lorenz
[Desmond Morris, Richard Dawkins]
animal behaviour, Zoology, Oxford University

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Niko Tinbergen
ethology - animal behaviour

Niko Tinbergen (Nikolaas Tinbergen) was born in The Hague, Netherlands, on 15th April 1907, as the third of five children to a schoolmaster and his wife. At school he was by no means notable for scholarship preferring to indulge in appreciating nature through diverse rambles by beach and by lakeside and also preferring to play field-sports.

As a boy he took a great interest in two small freshwater aquaria located in the backyard of the family home and was also made responsible, by one of his teachers at High School, for three saltwater aquaria. Alongside these practical involvements he also appreciatively read the works of two famous Dutch naturalists - E. Heimans and Jac P. Thijsse.

He was initially rather daunted by any prospect of studying academic biology at university level but, through the influence of friends who took him to wild coastal places full of migratory wildfowl, his interest was reinvigorated such that he resolved to attempt studies in Biology at Leiden University. Here he again seemed to be relatively unremakable as a scholar and only scraped through the final assessment that led up to his being awarded a Ph.D. in 1932.

Through a friend named Sidney Van den Bergh, he was offered the opportunity of joining the Netherlands' small contingent for the International Polar Year 1932-33, which was to have its base in Angmagssalik, the homeland of a small, isolated Eskimo tribe and he, together with the wife he had recently married, lived for two summers and a winter lived in close proximity to these Eskimos. This was followed by a minor academic post at Leiden where he was given responsibility for teaching comparative anatomy to undergraduates and for the organisation of a course in animal behaviour.

In 1936 Konrad Lorenz was invited to Leiden for a small symposium on "Instinct", and it was at this symposium that Niko Tinbergen first met Konrad Lorenz. The two men became friends such that the Tinbergens, who by now had a small son, were invited to an extended stay at the Lorenz home near Vienna. During this stay the two scientists got on very well and Tinbergen felt that his own more cautious critical sense balanced Konrad Lorenz extraordinary vision and enthusiasm. These months of harmonious and fruitful co-operation were followed by a lifelong friendship.

During the war he spent two years in a German hostage camp while his wife struggled to bring their family through difficult times. It was only in 1949 in the home of W. H. Thorpe in Cambridge that he again saw Konrad Lorenz who had himself suffered confinement after being captured by the Russians.

Post-war lecture tours on animal behaviour in the United States, and Britain, led to the publication of his The Study of Instinct (1951). Another outcome from this times was that he accepted a position offered by Sir Alister Hardy, the Head of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, that involved responsibility for establishing a centre of research and teaching in animal behaviour. He subsequently spent many years at Oxford where he researched and taught and was tutor to, amongst many others, Desmond Morris and Richard Dawkins. He also nurtured a newly founded journal called Behaviour and helped to foster contacts with American psychologists. He found that his field of studies was adapted somewhat by Professor J. W. S. Pringle who succeeded Alister Hardy as Head of the Department of Zoology in Oxford, and who sought to stimulate interest in helping to bridge the gap between ethology and neuro-physiology. A new inter-disciplinary Oxford School of Human Sciences was founded which stimulated Tinbergen's still dormant desire to make ethology apply its methods to human behaviour.

Niko Tinbergen was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962 and as a Foreign Member of the Netherlands Academy of Sciences in 1964. In 1973 he shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with two other zoologists, the German Karl von Frisch and his old friend Konrad Lorenz. Together, they were cited for their discoveries concerning the ways in which individual and social behavior patterns develop in groupings of animals.

Among his many publications important to the development of ethology are:-

The Study of Instinct (1951), The Herring Gull's World (1953), Curious Naturalists (1958), The Animal in its World Vol. 1. (1972), The Animal in its World Vol. 2. (1973), and Early Childhood Autism - an Ethological Approach (together with E. A. Tinbergen in 1972)

Of these it is The Herring Gull's World (1953) which describes the studies with gulls for which he is best known, including an examination of their food-begging techniques.

Nikolaas Tinbergen died in 1988.


Richard Dawkins
Selfish Gene
Stephen Hawking
Black Holes
Robert Winston
Human Instinct
Desmond Morris
Naked Ape
Konrad Lorenz
Niko Tinbergen
David Attenborough
Life on Earth


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Niko Tinbergen
ethology - animal behaviour