Can understanding animal personalities help us to improve conservation?

As part of conversations that we have every day, we’re used to describing personality traits that we observe in each other. Whether attaching labels such as shy, excitable, and independent; we have the ability to recognise these long-term characteristics from how an individual behaves and assign descriptive terms. Research into human behaviour demonstrates that the personality traits of individuals can impact how they interact with their environment– including social interactions and when situations change. 

Whilst originally the idea of personality was perceived as a uniquely human characteristic, comparatively recently there have been many examples of personality in non-human animals. In the scientific literature concerning animal behaviour, personality is defined as differences in behaviour displayed by individuals, that is consistent across both time and conditions. Since the early 1900s, evidence of these persistent traits and reactions has been recorded in taxa as wide ranging as sea anemone, spiders, swordtail fish, bullfrogs, tortoise, zebra finch, kangaroo rats, fallow deer and chimpanzees. It is now generally recognised that humans and animals share the feature of personality in a similar way as we share other behaviour and physiological responses. 

Baboon huddle © Alecia Carter

Increasingly today the questions of most importance are how can we further understand these personalities across species; and how can we apply this information to conservation management of threatened species and habitats?

Animal personality is studied by scientists across different settings, with a comparably varied arsenal of tools and techniques to collect relevant data. In the field, scientists collecting personality data can apply it to inform important conservation practices, to ensure that actions taken are as successful as possible. For example, when it comes to reintroducing individual animals into a new habitat, knowledge on personality traits such as how bold, exploratory or aggressive an individual is helps to decide whether to include that animal in any release programme. 

Female hihi drinking © ZSL

Similarly, there is increasing evidence that animal personality research can inform the ex-situ conservation of animals under human care. The care of animals in zoos has been informed by personality studies, including determining how individuals respond to behavioural enrichment programs and even providing indicators that can be used to evidence the health and welfare of these animals. In addition, the interaction between personality and reproductive success is being acknowledged in several Endangered species breeding programmes; showing how this study of individual animal behaviour can benefit the conservation of populations as a whole. 

White-cheeked Gibbon

Regardless of the setting or specific methodology used, understanding personality in animals and applying this knowledge is recognised as a valuable tool in combatting global biodiversity loss, with great potential for further study and use. 

To hear more about these conservation applications from researchers studying animal behaviour in a variety of settings, as well as other information about animal personality, please join our free online Science and Conservation Event on Tuesday 8 February:

Click here for event information

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