Does animal personality affect conservation?

How individual instincts are taken into account when animals are reintroduced to the wild...
27 July 2021


A giant panda



One of our listeners, Linda, was watching the reports recently of returning elephants bred in captivity to a park in Africa. She’s wondering, "do animals have personalities some of which are more suitable for this sort of re-wilding, or making a new community in the wild? Is this taken into account?"


Wildlife biologist Eleanor Drinkwater discussed animal personalities with Chris:

Eleanor - Animal personality as a field is kind of still very rapidly developing. And for me, it's just a really, really exciting area. And it is a really big question. There's been a few really interesting studies done looking at the personality of animals and how they survive post translocation. But that the problem is it's quite complicated. So for example, they took a bunch of swift foxes and they released them and the bolder ones tend to perish more quickly, which I guess, you know, they're not afraid of predators, they're not afraid of humans. However, on a separate study on turtles, they found that the more explorative ones tended to do much better. And then a third study on Tasmanian devils suggested that the shy ones did worse. And so it seems to be the case that perhaps personality is very important, but it's very context specific. What context are these animals going in? And how does that context affect what will be a useful survival strategy? And then on top of that, how do the different personalities interact together? Because if you have a group of animals with different personalities, individuals within that group will affect each other. It's not just that you have half bold and half shy and you'll get a halfway house. Actually, it's much more complicated than that. So it's a really fascinating question at the moment. And I think it's one that's kind of still under the microscope. And so if we can get a better handle on that, then it might be able to help us to understand how we could use this for conservation.

Linda - Eleanor, in terms of animal personalities, and thinking about the experience of being in captivity, is there a common feature in terms of how animals' personalities might change as an experience of that? Is it cuts across species when we then look at contrasting that with how they would be in the wild?

Eleanor - Personality is a bit complicated in how it's determined. So you do have an underlying genetic component, but there is also evidence that the developmental conditions of an animal can affect its personality. So for example, if you take crustaceans and you put them in a completely barren tank without any enrichment, they don't behave like an animal that's grown up with a very enriched environment. They don't know to use shelters or have the bold/shy behaviours that we might expect. So that's one thing. Another one, which is also fascinating is studies in birds have shown that the level of stress that individuals are under when they are in the nest will have a big impact on how they then develop and what their personality might be like in life. If you're thinking about that in the context of how one might be keeping an animal in captivity, thinking about what stress this animal might be on, it might be under less stress than it is in the wild, or it might be under more stress than it is in the wild and what impact that might have.


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