Tinbergen’s question “What does the behavior exist for?” has contributed to the establishment of behavioral ecology. However, communication within this discipline could be impaired if one does not realize that the question may refer to distinct temporal scopes. Answering it requires specific methodological approaches for each scope: different interpretations of the question refer to different processes. Here we evaluate whether the behavioral ecology literature avoids these pitfalls. We analyze a sample of the articles related to Tinbergen’s question, evaluating if they: precisely delimit the temporal scope of the question; use methodology appropriate to the temporal scope of the article; accurately define the terms used to refer to the survival value of behavior; and use the terms consistently. Additionally, we evaluate whether the citation of these articles is impaired by misinterpretations regarding the temporal scope and terms associated with the question. Of the 22 analyzed articles, three present problems in defining the time of the question, but in the other 19, methods suited to the time studied were used. Four terms (fitness, effect, adaptation, and function) were used to refer to the utility of the behavior, but only one article defined all of them. We found no communication problems in the citing process regarding the time of interest of the question and the terms used to refer to the usefulness of the behavior in the 16 analyzed citation events. Low/medium- and high-impact articles were similar in terms of the problems found. We suggest future articles should define the terms used, in order to avoid miscommunication in the field.
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