Most kids love animals, so it is natural that they may want to do a science fair project focused on them. However, most science fairs have strict rules governing the types of experiments that can and can NOT be done with animals. It is important that you understand these rules and complete all necessary paperwork before starting any project (6 forms available online via ISEF rules wizard).
Animals with backbones are more tightly regulated than those without. Examples include all mammals (e.g., cats, dogs, horses, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, cows, sheep, etc.), fish, birds, reptiles (e.g., snakes, turtles, frogs, tadpoles), and amphibians. For the purposes of science fair experiments, it also includes embryos, fetuses, and eggs within 3 days of hatching.
Many types of projects may only be conducted at approved Research Institutions, but exceptions to that rule include studies on animals in their natural environment (e.g., birds in your backyard, fish in a lake), zoos, aquariums, and farms. All but one type of project (see below) will need pre-approval from a Scientific Review Committee (SRC) designated by the school or fair.
Behavioral Observation Studies on Animals
This is the one and only exception to conducting an “experiment” with vertebrate animals that does NOT require SRC pre-approval (i.e., exempt from filing paperwork): Observing natural animal behaviors with NO interaction with the animals and NO manipulation of their environment. Although that sounds impossible, it really isn’t.
Think about the animals you may have access to “watching” either in your own yard or in a nearby county, state, or national park. Using your own video camera is the best way to conduct an observational study. If that is not an option, you could also search the web for video cameras that are already set up to observe animals. For example, a search for “critter cams” will get you a variety of choices from eagles, barn owls, hawks, cranes, falcons, and hummingbirds. National geographic puts cameras on penguins, sharks, seals, and whales and then makes the video available online. Ultimately, you are looking for an unedited piece of video that you can watch repeatedly.
Once you have selected an animal and know you can get video of the animal, you will need to identify natural behaviors you can count. Counts over a period of time are called rates (e.g., diving rate, flapping rate, breathing rate, feeding rate, etc.) and this would become your dependent variable. Depending on your choice, you may be able to evaluate success/failure of this behavior. For example, success rate of catching prey item (e.g., fish or rodent) per attempt (e.g., dive or chase) by a predatory bird.
Now you need to think about your independent variable:
1. It could be an environmental variable that you would also measure during videotaping (e.g., wind speed, wind direction, tidal height, air temperature, sunlight, water temperature, water salinity, ground cover, percent vegetation, etc.), or
2. It could be time (daily, monthly, seasonal, etc.) or space (environmental gradient), or
3. It could be a characteristic of the animal that you would measure by freezing the video (e.g. animal size, animal gender, coloration, surface patterns, etc.)
Your question will take the form of:
How does this INDEPENDENT VARIABLE, affect the animals’ behavior (DEPENDENT VARIABLE) – measured either as a total rate (counts per unit of time) or a percent success rate (number of successes divided by total number of attempts).
• How does time of day affect success rate of an osprey catching a fish?
• How does maximum diving depth affect the length of time a penguin stays underwater?
• How does wind speed affect flapping rates in migratory birds?
• How does wave frequency affect feeding rates in sandpipers?
• How does branch height affect perching time for owls?
• How does the presence of (or distance from) one animal affect the behavior of another animal?
• How does size affect success rate of prey capture for falcons?
• How does group size affect feeding rates in scavengers?