Konrad Zacharias Lorenz

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Konrad Zacharias Lorenz


Austrian Zoologist and Ethologist

Konrad Lorenz is most well-known as a founder of the field known as ethology, and for his research into animal behavior. As the study of animal behavior became more extensive after the turn of the century, Lorenz and other scientists helped to establish ethology as the systematic study of the function and evolution of behavior. His behavioral research focused mainly on social structure and instinctive behaviors, including imprinting, in which newly hatched birds become attached to the first moving thing they see.

Lorenz was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 7, 1903, as the second of two sons to a well-known orthopedic surgeon and his wife. As a youngster, Lorenz studied at a private elementary school and at one of the city's finest secondary schools. His interests in animal behavior began and flourished at his family's summer home in Altenburg, Austria, where he kept numerous pets. His interests expanded when, at the age of 10, he read about Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) theory of evolution. Following his father's wishes, Lorenz went to New York's Columbia University for premedical training, and transferred to the University of Vienna to continue his medical studies. There, he also took up zoology, and began to conduct informal animal-behavior studies, such as observing his pet bird and keeping a comprehensive diary of its activities. The diary was published in an ornithological journal in 1927. A year later, he earned his medical degree from Vienna University and became a professor's assistant at the university's anatomical institute. In his 1982 book The Foundations of Ethology, Lorenz noted that the methods used in evolutionary comparison and comparative morphology "were just as applicable to the behavior of the many species of fish and birds I knew so thoroughly, thanks to the early onset of my love for animals."

After receiving his medical degree, he continued his studies in the zoology program at Vienna University, earned his Ph.D. in the field in 1933, and turned his full attention to animal behavior studies. From 1935-38, he spent what he called his "goose summers" at the Altenburg family home. There, he conducted detailed observations of greylag geese, and demonstrated that newly hatched geese would readily accept a foster mother—even Lorenz himself. He termed this behavior "imprinting." He found that another bird species, mallard ducks, would imprint on him if he also quacked and squatted so that he appeared shorter.

In 1937, he accepted a position as lecturer of comparative anatomy and animal psychology at the University of Vienna, and three years later moved to the comparative psychology department at the University of Königsberg. His career was interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted into the German army and taken prisoner by the Russians from 1944-48. Upon his release, he went to the Max Planck Institute for Marine Biology as head of the research station, studying the physiology of behavior.

During the ensuing years of research into animal behavior, Lorenz and fellow scientist Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) investigated the triggers that led to a series of instinctive behaviors called fixed-action patterns. They called the triggering actions "releasers," and the responding action an "innate releasing mechanism." In 1973, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch (1886-1982), who described an elaborate communication system in honey bees, shared a Nobel Prize for their work in animal behavior.

One of a series of scientists who had a role in establishing the field of ethology, Lorenz is often credited as the person who synthesized the range of behavioral studies and who, with Tinbergen, helped to develop modern ethology, also known as comparative ethology, which encompasses observational field studies and behavioral experiments. Lorenz died on February 27, 1989, of kidney failure at his home in Altenburg.