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Niko Tinbergen
Lorenz and Tinbergen1.jpg
Niko Tinbergen (left) and Konrad Lorenz (right)
Born (1907-04-15)15 April 1907
Died 21 December 1988(1988-12-21) (aged 81)
Nationality Dutch
Alma mater Leiden University
Known for Hawk/goose effect
Four questions
Awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1973)
Scientific career
Fields Zoologist, ethologist
Institutions Oxford University
Doctoral students Richard Dawkins
Aubrey Manning
Desmond Morris
Tinbergen good figure wiki2
Figure 1. Tinbergen's hierarchical model. Modified from The Study of Instinct (1951).

Nikolaas 'Niko' Tinbergen (15 April 1907 – 21 December 1988) was a Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz. Their discoveries were about individual and social behaviour patterns, and how they are triggered.

In the 1960s Niko collaborated on a series of wildlife movies, including The Riddle of the Rook (1972) and Signals for Survival (1969), which won the Italia prize in that year and the American blue ribbon in 1971.

Aspects of his life

Niko, who had two eminent brothers, Luuk and Jan, was a prisoner of war during World War II. His experience as a prisoner of the Nazis led to some friction with longtime intellectual collaborator Konrad Lorenz, and it was several years before the two reconciled.

After the war, Tinbergen moved to England, where he taught at the University of Oxford. He remained in England for the rest of his life. Several of his Oxford graduate students went on to become prominent biologists; these include Richard Dawkins, Marian Dawkins, Desmond Morris, and Iain Douglas Hamilton. He married Elisabeth Rutten and they had five children.

Supernormal stimuli

The body of Tinbergen's research focused on what he termed supernormal stimuli. This was the concept that an artificial object could be a stronger trigger for an instinct than the natural object for which the instinct originally evolved.

He constructed plaster eggs to see which a bird preferred to sit on, finding that they would select those that were larger, had more defined markings, or more saturated colour—and a dayglo-bright one with black polkadots would be selected over the bird's own pale, dappled eggs.

Tinbergen found that territorial male stickleback fish would attack a wooden fish model more vigorously than a real male if its underside was redder. He constructed cardboard dummy butterflies with more defined markings that male butterflies would try to mate with in preference to real females. The superstimulus, by its exaggerations, clearly showed what features were triggering the response.

Four Questions

He is well known for originating the four questions he believed should be asked of any animal behaviour, which were:

Proximate mechanisms:

  • 1. Causation (Mechanism): what are the stimuli that elicit the response, and how has it been modified by recent learning?
  • 2. Development (Ontogeny): how does the behaviour change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for the behaviour to be shown?

Ultimate mechanisms:

  • 3. Evolution (Phylogeny): how does the behaviour compare with similar behaviour in related species, and how might it have arisen?
  • 4. Function (Adaptation): how does the behaviour impact on the animal's chances of survival and reproduction?


Niko gave his Nobel Lecture on autism in children, which he and his wife had been researching for some time.

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