Nikolaas Tinbergen

(1907 - 1988)

Compiled by Wendy Hamilton (May 2001)

Tinbergen Biography
Time Line

Nikolaas Tinbergen was born in The Hague, Netherlands, on April 15, 1907. As a young boy, he was not interested in academics, neither high school nor college, so he scraped by, doing just enough to pass. He spent much of his time just observing the abundant wildlife in their natural habitat of Holland.

Opposed to attending college, Niko's father sent him to spend time with a famous experimental biologist, Professor J. Thienemann who shared with him "the massive autumn migration of birds, the wild Moose, and the famous Wanderdünen." ( Tinbergen, 1975). Soon after returning to Holland, Tinbergen made the decision to study biology at Leiden University. After he completed his years there, he became engaged to Elisabeth Rutten. Knowing that he would have to soon support this woman, he decided to use his chance study of Beewolves (digger wasps)and their remarkable homing abilities. Next, he and his new wife left with a small group from the Netherlands for two years to live with a small isolated Eskimo tribe in Angmagssalik.

Upon his return to Holland, Niko took a minor instructor's job where he was to teach comparative anatomy and to organize a course in animal behavior for undergraduates. He engaged in a lot of fieldwork and further studies on Beewolves, insects, and birds at this time, and he made his famous observation of stickleback courtship. Tinbergen developed a lifelong habit of carefully observing animals in their natural environment. It has been through the work of Niko Tinbergen that the study of Ethology has gained much respect and legitimacy.

In 1936, Konrad Lorenz was invited to Leiden for a small symposium in "Instinct." Tinbergen and Lorenz met and automatically "clicked." Niko and his wife accepted an invitation to stay with the Lorenz's for four months. This is where their lifelong friendship and allied research became so strong. Tinbergen became a student of Lorenz, but they both learned equally as much from the other. Tinbergen explained their working relationship as, "Konrad's extraordinary vision and enthusiasm were supplemented and fertilized by my critical sense, my inclination to think his ideas through, and my irrepressible urge to check our 'hunches' by experimentation" (Tinbergen, 1975).

Following their initial research expedition, Tinbergen spent another full and intense year of work with Lorenz. Their colaboration was interrupted for two years because of WWII, but soon after they were invited to the United States to lecture on their findings in animal behavior. Next, Tinbergen joined the faculty at Oxford, where he published many books, both on his own and combined with other's works, including The Herring Gull's World (1953) and Curious Naturalists (1958). In 1973, along with Karl Von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, he became the first behaviorist to win the Nobel Prize in medicine/physiology for their "discoveries in the field of the organization and occurrence of individual and social behavioral patterns" in the animal world (Associate Press, 1988).

Tinbergen spent the later years of his life using ethological methods to study the socially important disease, Early Childhood Autism, with his wife and Professor Jerome S. Butler. He found this to be the most important and meaningful research of his life. Tinbergen said: " I have become a kind of missionary .. leaving my birdies along and applying my hard-won expertise to solving a human problem." (Gale Literary Databases, 1999). "My only regret is that I am not ten years younger so that I could be more actively join him (Dr. Bruner) in developing his center of child ethology in Oxford" (Tinbergen, 1975).


Tinbergen and Lorenz saw it essential to study an animal in its natural environment. It is now known as the Ethological Approach. Two major components of animal behavior are Fixed Action Patterns and the Innate Releasing Mechanisms. A fixed action pattern (FAP) can be described as a complex behavior that is a triggered response to relatively complex stimuli (releaser). After the stimulation, it does not require any more stimuli for the continuation of the event. This can be demonstrated by Lorenz's work with the Greylag goose. When a Greylag's egg is removed from her nest, she will extend her neck and roll it back in with her bill. When the egg is removed once the neck extension and rolling movement has already started, the goose will still continue as if the egg were still there. An innate releasing mechanism (IRM) links the sensory system to the motor system so that the releaser activates the FAP. This can be demonstrated with newborn animals. The red dot on a Herring Gull's beak that releases the food begging response of the young. In turn, when a young chick pecks at this red spot (releaser), it triggers her to feed the young (FAP).

From his first observations of sticklebacks, Tinbergen has gained some valuable knowledge about reaction chains. A reaction chain is a natural response that begins with one initial stimuli and is then continued on by additional stimuli. These later stimuli are necessary to create the desired response. In the mating ritual of the stickleback, the male begins with a zigzag dance that in turn releases a special display movement of the female. There is a complex form that this ritual takes on, paying close attention to the appropriate stimulus. This dance can be changed and often responses and reactions overlap. There are deviations from the ideal sequence, but the actions are by no means random (Scott 1972).

Tinbergen's research on digger wasp's (Philanthus triangulum) homing abilities revealed that they build many different nests, but are always able to return to the correct nest. He showed the importance of visual cues that enables the female wasp to return to the nesting site. To feed, a wasp will fly from flower to flower in search of bees and will react to moving objects, but will not prey on anything but bees. It has to first sense the correct odor before it will sting and kill the bee (Tinbergen 1975).

Tinbergen is famous for his demonstration of the Hawk/Goose effect. When a goose or non-predatory bird flies overhead a chick will show no response, but if it is a hawk they chick crouched as if in danger. Initially they show signs of alarm behavior at all things overhead, but the chicks quickly loose their general fear for common birds and objects. This was initially thought to be an inborn ability to tell the difference, but it is now proven to be learned. It is a habituatory response of the chick. The chick begins by crouching at everything until it is determined that some overhead objects, like the goose, are harmless.

Although Tinbergen did post-doctoral research under Konrad Lorenz, they are very different in their interpretation of results. Tinbergen is famous for his in depth, field, and laboratory research and the way in which he tediously examined all of the information to verify theories. One of Tinbergen's strongest contributions is that he has found ways to test his own, and other's hypotheses by quite ingenious experiments. He examined the fixed action pattern in grey lag goose and the strength of the key stimuli by use of dummy eggs. He describes the difference between Lorenz and himself as," I am more pedestrian ¼ Lorenz writes a big book about aggression and comes up with very shrewd suppositions. But much of it is unproven. He shakes things up. I investigate. I worked on aggression in animals long before Konrad, but I was very cautious. I didn't write a big book about it" (Gale Literary Databases, 1999). A former Tinbergen student describes his methods of research as, "[Most biologists] wear a white coat or Wellington boots, one or the other. Tinbergen does both. In my book, that makes him the most important person in this field this century"( Gale Literary Databases, 1999).

In his final years, Tinbergen, along with his wife, began to study autism in children. He used his ethological approach to study these children. Since many of them do not speak, they have focused on the children's nonverbal behavior. Although, many members of the medical community have disagreed, Tinbergen argued that autism may be the result of the parents' behavior , as opposed to a genetic problem as previously thought. In addition to contributing a great deal in the field of animal behavior, Tinbergen sought to have Ethology include learning more about the human race. He spent nearly his whole life studying animals, yet saw his only redemption as the small amount of work he had put into studying humans and real problems at the end of his career.

Time Line
1907 Birth
1925 Studied with Professor J. Thienemann at Kurishe Nehrung
1932 Married Elisabeth Rutten
1932 PhD at State University of Leiden
1935 Given an Instructor's job at Leiden University
1937 Post doctorate work under Konrad Lorenz & Dutch Meterological expedition to Greenland
1949 Joined faculty of Oxford as a professor of animal behavior
1950 Published The Study of Instinct
1953 Published The Herring Gull's World
1958 Published Curious Nationalist
1973 Awarded the Noble Prize with Konrad Lorenz and Karl VonFrisch
1977 Retired from the faculty of Oxford
1988 Death

Associated Press. (1988, December 24). Nikolaas Tinbergen: Nobel Laureate in Medicine. The Boston Globe, Obituary, pp27.

Gale Literary Databases (1999) Nikolaas Tinbergen (Biography) Retrieved from theWorld Wide Web on September 28, 1999.¼&s=1&r=d&o=DataType&n=10&1=d&NA=tinbergen

Scott, John Paul (1972) Animal Behavior, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp 151-56.

Tinbergen, Niko. (1975) Autobiography: Nobel Laureates Retrieved from the World Wide Web on September 28, 1999. - 1973-3-autobio.html

Tinbergen, Niko (1975) The Animal and its World Vol. 1, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp 76-78, 103-105.

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