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About Niko Tinbergen

Nobel Prize

Nikolaas Tinbergen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, jointly with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, ‘for their discoveries concerning organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns’.

Objective study of animal behaviour

Niko Tinbergen played a crucial role in the development of ethology – the objective study of animal behaviour. His legacy was a school of renowned researchers in this field, including Gerard Baerends, Richard Dawkins and Desmond Morris. He was a gifted observer, who could answer his questions with simple, elegant experiments on animals in their natural environment. Those questions concerned the causation (both internal and external to the organism), ontogeny (development), function (survival value) and evolution of behaviour. As an excellent teacher and writer, he was able to enthuse and inspire his students and colleagues. Yet he also saw the importance of educating non-academics and wrote, for example, more than a hundred articles for the popular nature conservation journal De Levende Natuur. There are even a few delightful children’s books, which he wrote in weekly instalments during the two years he spent in the German internment camp in Sint Michielsgestel. Originally intended for his own children, two of these books were later published in print (Klieuw: De Geschiedenis van een Zeemeeuw and Jan Stekel).

Niko Tinbergen’s life

Niko Tinbergen was born in The Hague on 15 April 1907, the third child in a family of five. His father was a high school teacher of Dutch. Niko loved sports and was fanatical about skating and hockey, even playing in the Dutch national hockey team. He was also an active member of the Dutch Youth Association for Nature Study (NJN) and was further inspired by the work of the field biologists Heimans and Thijsse, including their contributions to the highly popular Verkade albums (in which children collected the picture cards that this company gave away with its biscuits and chocolate products). At first, however, he was not attracted to the idea of studying biology at university.

Then in 1925, encouraged by his biology teacher, Abraham Schierbeek, and a family friend, Paul Ehrenfest, he went on a three-month trip to an ornithological field stationon the Curonian Spit near Kaliningrad. The spectacular bird migration, extensive sand-dune complexes and herds of elk changed his mind, and he decided to study biology – at Leiden University. During this period, he devoted considerable time to observing nature in the Meijendel dunes and laid the foundations for behavioural research on the herring gull, which would remain a source of fascination throughout his life.

Inspired by the work of Karl von Frisch and Henri Fabre, he chose the homing behaviour of the beewolf as the topic of his PhD dissertation: how does this digger wasp find its way back to its nest. He characteristically used simple experiments to tackle this problem. His dissertation was ultimately a very thin book, because in 1932-1933 he and his wife Lies Rutten were offered the opportunity to join a Dutch meteorological expedition to Greenland, organised in the context of the International Polar Year. The beauty and space of the Greenland landscapes left an indelible impression on him.

After returning to Leiden, he was appointed to the position of assistant in the Zoology Department. Working closely with his students, he continued his research on the beewolf, the herring gull and several other animal species. A new line of research was the stickleback, which had the advantage that it could be studied indoors. Niko and his students used models to conduct experiments that enabled them to analyse sticklebacks’ behaviour. In 1936 he met Konrad Lorenz, who was in Leiden on the invitation of C.J. van der Klaauw, the designer of zoology at Leiden University. This became the start of a lifelong friendship and mutual inspiration. Konrad Lorenz was not someone who liked to engage in precise experimentation, but rather in exciting ideas and broad visions.

In 1938, Niko went on a working visit to various institutes in the United States, where he gave many lectures and held some intense discussions. This visit must have had a powerful influence on the content of An Objectivistic Study of the Innate Behaviour of Animals, which was published in 1942 and is undoubtedly one of the jewels in Tinbergen’s oeuvre. It describes the state of the art in the field of behaviour organisation.

After the Second World War, he resumed his research. This included the well-known project involving models of herring gull beaks, which were used to analyse the begging response in gull chicks. A series of lectures, many of which were given on trips to other countries in the post-War period, formed the basis for The Study of Instinct, which was actually only published in 1951. In 1948, Niko established the important international journal Behaviour.

By then he had been appointed as a full professor at Leiden University in 1947. Just over two years later, he accepted the invitation of marine biologist Alister Hardy to exchange Leiden for Oxford. In 1955 he became a naturalised British citizen. Ethology was a new concept for Oxford, and indeed for England as a whole, and – thanks to Niko Tinbergen – it grew into an extremely popular discipline. Many excellent PhD studies led to its further development. Oxford already had a fine reputation in the area of evolutionary research, dating back to Charles Darwin, and contacts with David Lack, among others, led to greater emphasis on the evolutionary approach within behavioural biology.

Tinbergen’s book The Herring Gull’s World was published in 1953. He also continued to write his popular science articles for De Levende Natuur, even while in Oxford, and constantly added to his long list of academic publications. In his later period, he began to reflect on how the discipline might make a contribution to society. The results of this reflection included a Human Sciences course and publications on autism, some co-authored by his wife.

Nikolaas Tinbergen died in Oxford on 21 December 1988 at the age of 81.

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