September 23, 2013

Why do you study personality in birds?

What a great question, and one that I get asked as often as ‘how are you today’? I am a behavioural and evolutionary biologist, and animal personality is the main focus of my PhD thesis. That puzzles a lot of my friends. 'How can an animal have a personality?’ they ask. Then comes: ‘how do you measure it?’ And last, ‘why does someone pay you to do that?’
Ah. Well, let me take it one question at a time.
First things first, how can an animal have a personality. You can’t ask an animal how it feels, or get one to fill out a questionnaire. Yet so many pet owners say their dog is friendly, or their cat is shy, or their rabbit has something against people wearing purple socks. These pet owners have picked up on the consistent behaviours of their pet. They have seen their pet behave in similar ways repeatedly, at different times and in different situations. Having a personality means behaving consistently, which is possible for every mobile organism from a single celled organism to ourselves. But personality is not just behaving consistently. Bob the basset hound has his own personality because it is different from Gary the German shepherd. Bob is friendly, Gary is shy. Personality, then, is one individual behaving consistently compared to itself, and differently compared to other individuals of the same species. So animals can have a personality!
And how do you measure it? If a personality means behaving consistently compared to others, measuring personality is simple. We just observe how different individuals behave in a given situation more than once. For one aspect of my work, I repeatedly measure how individual birds react to a piece of paper. This gives me an idea of how bold a given bird is and how consistently it is so bold. This individual gets compared to the other individuals I have measured, so that some individuals can be classed as relatively bold whilst others can be classed as relatively shy.
And now the biggie: Why does someone pay you to do that? Well, I could give explanations about improving our understanding of human societies and behaviour. But first and foremost, I study animal personality because it is amazing. Think a bit deeper: behaviour is an individual’s toolkit for survival. Behaviour acts as a buffer between what is relatively stable (genes and physical characteristics) and the rapidly fluctuating environment the individual lives in. Personality shows us that the behavioural toolkit is not complete, and that this incomplete toolkit is somehow better than being able to do everything. Perhaps personality minimises the costs of being very flexible (bigger brains, sensitive senses that detect environmental change, etc). Perhaps specialising allows an individual to get more out of the resources it has in its local environment. Or, having a specific behavioural toolkit may be part of following a specific trajectory through life (different life history strategies).
So a study of personality rapidly becomes a question of why individuals live as they do. It can be measured easily enough in birds: consistent behaviour can come from consistent observation. And it is easy enough to define personality as behavioural consistency. At which point, my friends ask the question ‘so what have you found?’ and in their eyes I see eager enthusiasm and boundless curiosity for a topic that they didn’t know existed a few minutes before.

What have I found? Well, that can wait for a future instalment.

by Issie Winney

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