Behavioural ecology is the study of the ecological and evolutionary bases for variation in animal behaviour, answering proximate and ultimate questions of why animals behave the way they do. The laboratory setting enables the isolation and control of specific variables, the removal or randomisation of confounding factors and simplifies the tracking of an individual's behaviour. Laboratory experiments, in parallel and in comparison with field studies, are valuable for answering specific questions and certainly most ecological investigations can benefit from a combined experimental approach. Here we focus on four model areas of behavioural ecological research: mate selection, nepotism, foraging and dominance. Using both vertebrate and invertebrate examples we consider the advantages and disadvantages of laboratory experiments and the unique information they can provide, including a comparison of three laboratory research contexts; neutral, natural and contrived. We conclude by discribing how laboratory studies can help us to understand the contexts in which behavioural variation occurs in the natural environment.
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Vol. 46 • No. 2