Fieldwork and Laboratory Studies

Observation has been a very important method of studying mammal societies. One of the reasons that primate and ungulate societies are so well known is that they are large and active during the day, and so are easily observable. The observer must take great pains to be inconspicuous or, in some cases, to become a part of the subject's environment. Small mammals (and sometimes larger mammals) have been kept in enclosures and observed to learn more about their social lives. The observer maps movements, records activities and interactions, and analyzes the data that result.

Simple observation is enhanced by manipulating the subjects in various ways. Individual animals can be marked, or in some cases they can be identified by natural color patterns, scars, or other marks. These marked individuals can be followed, and their behavior and interactions with other individuals observed. Radios and radioactive tracer elements are sometimes implanted in individuals, and these individuals are followed in the field. Much can be learned about a species' social behavior by following the locations of such tagged animals. In addition, they are more readily locatable for direct observation.

Small mammal species that are not readily observable are trapped live, marked, released, and recaptured. Mutually exclusive use of certain areas, areas used in common, and patterns of multiple captures in individual traps are some types of information from trapping that can be interpreted in terms of social behavior. Experiments are sometimes carried out in the natural context. A group or a specific individual is presented with an artifi cial situation, and any reactions to it are recorded, often on film or videotape.

Laboratory studies are also used to supplement the field observations. Psychological and physiological capabilities of organisms can best be studied in the controlled confines of a laboratory experiment. These data, however, must always be put back in the context of the field observations to make a meaningful contribution to the understanding of the species' social behavior.

Computer simulations and mathematical models have been used to explore the possible reactions of social systems to various environmental pressures. As with laboratory results, it is important to test predictions generated in these ways against the social system in nature before assuming their validity. Comparative studies of all the above types are of great importance. Related species, or different populations of the same species, that occur in different regions are studied and compared; these studies are tantamount to reading the data from a natural experiment.

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