The Animal Behaviour Research Group began in 1949 when Niko Tinbergen came to Oxford from the
University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Niko quickly attracted the ‘Hard Core’ as they called themselves –
including Martin Moynihan, Mike Cullen, Esther Cullen, Aubrey Manning and Desmond Morris – who worked
on animals as diverse as fruit flies, gulls and sticklebacks. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Niko and his
students would escape from Oxford to field sites in the Serengeti in East Africa and the sand-dunes at
Ravenglass on the Irish Sea coast in what is now Cumbria. Ravenglass at that time was home to the
largest black-headed gull colony in Europe and it was here that many classic gull experiments and
observations were carried out. Notable group members from this time included Hans Kruuk, Ian Patterson
and Mike Norton Griffiths.
In 1961, the ABRG (without Niko, who remained in the old Zoology building next to the Museum) moved to 13 Bevington Road, a tall detached house with 14 rooms, a tiny much used kitchen, fish tanks in the basement, an aviary of gulls in the garden and a chaotic atmosphere that is remembered with great nostalgia by those who worked there. In 1971, the entire group moved into the new Zoology-Psychology building in South Parks Road, now called the ‘Niko Tinbergen Building’.
In 1973, Niko was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch.
1976 saw another landmark in the history of the ABRG: the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which in its own way continued the emphasis on evolution that Niko had pioneered. The arrival of W.D. (Bill) Hamilton in 1984 until his untimely death in 2000 kept the ABRG firmly in the forefront of evolutionary studies.
When Niko retired in the mid 1970s, he was succeeded by David McFarland, whose interests in quantitative ethology and modeling gave a new direction to the research interests of the ABRG. The study of motivation, another long-standing research theme of the group from the days of Niko’s The Study of Instinct (1951), now expanded into robotics and decision-making.
The current interests of the ABRG now include animal welfare, the biomechanics of flight and spider webs, vision and the mechanisms of homing. The diversity of questions, approaches and animals that characterised its beginnings are as much in evidence now as they ever were.
A more detailed history of the group is to be found in Hans Kruuk’s book:
Niko’s Nature: A Life of Niko
Tinbergen and his Science of Animal Behaviour (2003) Oxford University Press.