Up Close and Personal

One of my dogs is such a smart-ass – she figured out that we locked them outside using a door jam, so she chewed it up so we couldn’t use it anymore.
We have a bearded dragon that is so lazy that she will just let herself drop from a height rather than run down the branch to get food.
My cat is very stubborn and cheeky, and she’s so obsessed with food that she knows the sound of the cheese knife hitting the chopping board!

I didn’t have to look too far to find these quotes from people talking about the things they find unique in their pets. It’s natural to humanise our animal companions, we just can’t help ourselves. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if someone is talking about their pet or their slightly odd housemate.

But how close to the truth are we when we say these things? Is this just us projecting our human view of the world upon an unknowing animal, or do animals indeed have individual personalities much like us?

Research into animal personalities, although it has been around since the 1930s, has really exploded in the past couple of decades. There is now a large body of evidence showing animals indeed have personalities (or rather, sets of individual-specific behaviours that do not change over situations and time). From primates to ants, and many species in-between, it seems that personalities are not that uncommon in the animal kingdom.

You may find it easier to imagine a chimp, who is not too different to us, with distinct personality. But it becomes rather more difficult to imagine when you are talking about something like a fish. But luckily, researchers have developed ways of measuring these behaviours (which do not require their animal subjects to take the Myers-Briggs Personality Test).

Jane Goodall's work made it especially easy for us to visualise chimpanzees as having distinct personalities. Image: Hugo Van Lawick via National Geographic

Jane Goodall's work made it especially easy for us to visualise chimpanzees as having distinct personalities. Image: Hugo Van Lawick via National Geographic

One of the most common behavioural personalities researchers measure is ‘boldness-shyness’, and this can be assessed by measuring an individual’s response to a new environment or unfamiliar object. For instance, in my own research on northern quolls I put a new object in each quoll’s enclosure, and measure the time they take to approach the new object. The longer they take to approach, the shyer they are.

So apart from legitimising your own views about your dog’s personality, why would scientists be interested in this? Well, it turns out personality often plays a very important role in how animals interact with their environment, which can ultimately affect their survival.

Bold individuals are often bigger risk-takers, increasing their chances of predation but also providing benefits. For example, shyer kangaroos reduce their predation risk by being more vigilant, but spend less time foraging as a consequence.

The benefits of having a certain personality can also change over time. For instance, personality seems to impact the feeding locations of female black-browed albatross, with bolder individuals foraging closer to the colony. This is an advantage in good years, when bold females can access enough food near the colony. But in poorer years this strategy is less successful, so shyer individuals who forage further out have the advantage.

Shyer female black-browed albatross have an advantage when food is scarce.

Shyer female black-browed albatross have an advantage when food is scarce.

Conservationists can also employ personality to help manage threatened species. We know from previous releases of endangered Tasmanian devils that bolder individuals are 3.5 times more likely to survive than their shyer counterparts. Considering we are currently breeding large numbers of devils in captivity for eventual wild release, these results highlight the importance of promoting a wide range of behaviours in captive-bred populations.

So, the next time your friend goes off on a tangent about their socially awkward cat – don’t be so quick to dismiss them! Animal personality is a lot more important than many of us might think.


Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.