What Are Animal Instincts?

Contributor: Roxann Penny. Lesson ID: 12771

When you are hungry, do you have to be told to eat? When you touch a hot stove, do you have to think about removing your hand? Instinct tells us (and animals) what to do without thinking about it!


Life Science

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

They say barking dogs never bite. Dress a dog up like those in the image above, and he will bark AND bite! Why do dogs bark? And, where do you put barking dogs?

Image - Video

How do animals know how to do certain things?

For instance:

  • How do dogs know how or when to bark?
  • How do geese know when it's time to fly south, or which direction is south?
  • How do beavers know how to build dams?

All animals are born with certain instincts that guide their behavior. An animal's instincts is the ability to know without thinking, the capability to automatically know how to behave or respond in certain circumstances. This "knowing" ability occurs naturally or instinctively to an animal, and is inherited from birth. That's why fish do not have to think about how to swim; instead, they simply know how to do so, just like beavers are born knowing how to build those amazing dams.

Of course, there are some behaviors that are learned over time. Just like people, some animals learn through observation and by simple trial and error.

In the wild, an animal's instincts can help it survive and thrive. At times, an animal's instincts serve as a warning system that alerts the animal of potential dangers. In other instances, an animal's instincts help it to care for its young, prepare for a long winter, and hunt for prey. Can you think of some more examples of how an animal's instincts may be helpful to the animal? Share your ideas with your parent or teacher.

Take a look at how instincts affect how animals behave. In this video presentation, Concepts in Nature Instincts in Animals, the presenter talks about how animals instinctively know how to behave, and notes the difference between instinctual behaviors and learned behaviors. While watching the video, make note of the types of instinctual behaviors mentioned.

Concepts in Nature Instincts in Animals (Altschul Group and Maslowski Wildlife Productions. Relevant clip ends at 6:29):

Image - Video


Here are a few questions for you to discuss with your parent or teacher after watching the video:

  • What is the main difference between an instinctive behavior and a learned behavior?
  • Why are instincts useful to animals?
  • Humans, like animals, also have instincts. Can you think of a time or a situation when you used your instincts? For example, if you accidently touched a hot stove, you would probably instinctively pull your hand away.

Before you continue, take a look at the answer to the riddle from the opening of the lesson: Question: Where do you put barking dogs? Answer: In the "barking" garage!

Once you have completed your discussion questions, continue to the Got It? section to test your understanding about animal instincts by observing and identifying different animal behaviors.

Image - Button Next