Dec 212015

The following post is from Peter Midford. – Andy Deans

As you may recall, at a Spring 2013 meeting of the Phenotype RCN in Durham, NC, the Behavior Breakout group discussed the existence of multiple behavioral ontologies, including the gaps in existing ontologies (such as the Neuro Behavior Ontology, or NBO) that preclude their widespread use in behavioral ecology and other sub-disciplines in animal behavior. The group felt it could be possible to merge two existing behavioral ontologies – the NBO, developed to serve studies of animal models of human behavioral dysfunction, and the Animal Behavior Ontology or ABO, developed to serve the field of comparative animal behavior, including behavioral ecology and other sub-disciplines. If successful, the merger would facilitate the broader integration of behavioral studies: applied with basic, model organism with comparative investigations, mechanistic with evolutionary, and human with non-human animal questions. At the same time, it would also need to continue to serve the specialized needs of subfields.

In late summer 2014, a small group of animal behaviorists who were present at the 2013 meeting in Durham (Anne Clark, Sue Margulis, Peter Midford, Cynthia Parr) received NSF funding to hold two workshops to accomplish these goals.

Our first workshop, held August 2014 at Princeton University, convened over a dozen animal behaviorists with a broad range of expertise in comparative behavior to develop specific recommendations on how to integrate the basic terms and concepts of the two ontologies. Key outcomes included a list of proposed changes in parent-child relations in the NBO to emphasize function, and ABO term definition improvements that together could serve as the basis of integrating the two ontologies.

Our second workshop, supported in part by additional funding from the Phenotype RCN, was held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, on October 24-25, 2015. Its specific goal was to start the process of merging the ABO and the NBO based on the first workshop’s recommendations. Attendees in addition to the four organizers, were our local host Katja Schultz (Encyclopedia of Life), Elissa Chesler (The Jackson Laboratory), George Gkoutos (NBO developer, University of Birmingham), David Osumi-Sutherland (European Bioinformatics Institute, Virtual Fly Brain), Melissa Haendel (Oregon Health and Science University), and Reid Rumelt (Cornell University undergraduate working with Macaulay Library and Encyclopedia of Life).

The workshop began with presentations about the histories of NBO and ABO. NBO had its roots in a phenotype vocabulary supporting the EUMORPHIA project (see and Behavior terms were initially included in the Gene Ontology, but also maps to phenotype ontologies, such as the Mammalian Phenotype ontology (MP) and Human Phenotype Ontology so as enable the integration of data. The Neuro Behavior Ontology was created to concentrate effort specifically on behavior.


ABO was one of the first accomplishments of the EthoSource project1, begun with an NSF-sponsored workshop in 2000 with the goal of developing integrated online resources for the discipline of Animal Behavior. Two NSF- sponsored Ontology Workshops followed in 2004-2005, at which an international group of animal behaviorists developed a basic metadata standard for the discipline, the ABO. The primary use of the ABO subsequent to 2005 was indexing an online ethogram repository,

In our second blog post, we will summarize the progress we made in the October workshop, and outline our next steps.

1Martins, E. P. 2004. EthoSource: Storing, Sharing, and Combining Behavioral Data. BioScience 54 (10): 886. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0886:ESSACB]2.0.CO;2

 Posted by on December 21, 2015 at 3:49 pm

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