Is your pooch shy and unsociable? Is your cat a bold explorer of household cavities? As zoologists, we’re often warned against attributing animals with human characteristics, but that line is becoming blurred. Only in the last few decades has science confirmed what pet-owners have always maintained: animals do, indeed, have their own personalities!
This revelation seems like common-sense; after all, not every animal behaves exactly the same. Even so, the scientific field of animal personalities didn’t take off until the 1970s, when ethologist Felicity Anne Huntingford realised that some stickleback fish were consistently more aggressive than others. In recent years, the field has exploded in all directions: scientists have reported personality differences in a whole range of species, from birds to lizards to aphids. These personality traits are also genetically heritable, so an aggressive mother will be more likely to have aggressive offspring.
The tricky part about measuring animal personalities is that you can’t simply ask the animal how they behave (human psychologists have it easy), so instead you have to collect objective data about their behaviour in certain situations. Here are the five most commonly measured personality traits:
- shyness-boldness, response to a risky situation (i.e. presence of predators)
- exploration, response to a novel environment
- activity, level of activity in a non-risky, non-novel environment
- aggressiveness, hostile response towards members of the same species
- sociability, non-hostile response towards members of the same species
A popular method for measuring personality is by running assays in which animals are released into an unfamiliar experimental room. A fast-exploring animal will rush from corner to corner, taking in all the sights and smells, whereas a slow-exploring animal will stay huddled in the same spot.
But why does it matter? An animal’s personality can dramatically affect its survival or reproductive success, by influencing learning ability, social status or choice of mate. One promising use for this knowledge is to ensure that captive-bred populations retain the characteristics they’ll need for surviving in the wild. There’s little point, for example, in re-releasing a bunch of shy, non-aggressive Tasmanian devils if they’re unable to compete for food.
So next time that crazy cat-lady starts telling you about each of her 27 cats and their respective personalities, don’t roll your eyes immediately. She could be onto something.