Quantcast
Animals
StylishEve / Facebook

Yes, Animals Have Personalities, and They're More Important Than Looks

By Katie O'Reilly

Describe a guppy as stubborn or a chicken as crafty, and you might attract sidelong glances from old-fashioned wildlife biologists. Scientists have long disdained anthropomorphism, or the notion that whatever emotions humans experience, animals must, too.

A species' behavior, biologists held, was determined solely by what it ate, what was out to eat it, and its drive to kill or forage. That's what wildlife biologist Dr. John Shivik was taught in graduate school—that animals operate simply by instinct.


After spending years watching coyotes and working as a state predator biologist, federal regional wildlife researcher, and search-and-rescue dog handler, however, Shivik concluded that individual animals such as coyotes could actually be, well, pretty unpredictable.

"Observing long enough, I've concluded that they are bipolar animals: sometimes aggressive predators and sometimes wary cowards," he writes in his latest book, Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The Science of Animal Personalities (Beacon Press).

As Shivik, the author of 2014's The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars and Coyotes, continued to study wildlife and commune with fellow biologists, evidence of animal personality kept piling up: Studies revealed that individuals within a single species, such as western bluebirds, range from aggressive to passive. Mosquitofish can be adventurers or homebodies. Some spiders are loners, while others prefer to live in groups. Elk can be even-keeled and consistent, or just as easily exhibit flighty and capricious behavior. Primates read emotional situations to resolve conflicts of personality, and reptiles form cliques—Shivik describes their society as "lizard high school." The playfully enlightening Mousy Cats chronicles the author's deepening understanding that, like people, all animals are individuals—and that their internal conditions and behavior patterns are major factors determining their outcomes.

The book details experiments that demonstrate how every insect, fish, bird and mammal is its own special snowflake, and how such individual characteristics render them adaptive to changing environmental conditions. These studies of animal emotion and individuality, Shivik writes, are freeing wildlife biologists up to use the term "personality"—some are going so far as to use Meyers-Brigg categorization to describe creatures including dolphins. In the process, they are breaking science free from some bounds of unconscious bias, i.e. errors of omission due to anthropocentric hubris.

For pet owners and anyone else who's ever bonded with an animal, the "every critter is unique" conclusion might not land like breaking news. As I write this, my overconfident ham of a German shepherd/pitbull mix is glaring in his defiant way, making a point of pilfering carefully arranged throw pillows from the couch, and taking them onto the table where I'm working (and where he's not allowed) to rigorously shake them back and forth, like prey he's snatched from the forest floor. This is a clear attempt to will me to close my laptop—I know he'll be happy, and behave, once I pay his antics attention.

Meanwhile, his sister, a vizsla mix (and an INFP to her brother's ENTP, by my amateur estimations), serenely snuggles my feet. A fearful dog, she lives to please, and is at her most content when her human protectors are close, calm and still. If I get up to tend to her brother, she'll get extra needy and grumble. Shivik, too, has long been well aware, on a personal level, that animals are as variable and idiosyncratic as we are. Mousy Cats is peppered with entertaining and often heartwarming anecdotes about the coyotes, cats and dogs he's come to know and love—the most memorable among which is Pinguino (pictured below), the loud, mischievous, demanding, and annoying cat who gets credit on the page for teaching Shivik that "sometimes, you need to be an asshole to survive."

In Mousy Cats, Shivik describes personality as "an elusive alchemy of the identifiable and ineffable," a force "that has to be consistent to be demonstrable, but that can't be static robotic programming." He explains, "We accept [personality] intuitively but can't measure it succinctly, like height or weight." The blossoming field of animal-personality research, indeed, requires more than dry objectivity—"Science has to rely on other tools, such as stories, too." This right-brained approach has those who study animal behavior confirming that nature selects for a variety of personality types, in everyone from one-celled creatures to humans, and that evolution is thus driven by difference, not sameness. What's more, behavior, as scientists are learning, is every bit as important for individuals and species competing and cooperating in the wild as physiology. ("I enjoy when science aligns with what my mother told me growing up: personality is more important than looks," the author shares.)

For instance, one Mousy Cats case study shows that male striders (also known as water bugs) that exhibit confidence have a lot more sex. However, the ones who act so assertive to be, as Shivik writes, "assholes," turn female striders off with their hyper-aggressive ways—the ladies end up fleeing from the pools these guys inhabit. It begs the question of why Darwinian forces of natural selection wouldn't wipe out the pesty bugs once and for all, ensuring that future generations of striders are marked by suave confidence. Not so fast. The science presented in this book sheds light on how, exactly, societies form and shows that to thrive, they must exist as collectives of leaders, followers, fighters, lovers and everyone in between. It's a powerful—and particularly prescient—argument for the importance of all manner of diversity.

Mousy Cats breaks down assumptions like "aggressive fighter birds who win the best nest sites should dominate populations," by showing that "peacenik homebody birds" are also crucial. For one, they're more attractive as mates, and reproduce at more successful rates. "Opposites not only attract," Shivik writes, "but the vigor of the variability they instill in their young is also hugely beneficial; the paired parents with either extreme of the behavioral spectrum produced fledglings in the best condition, which led to the highest nest success."

Individual personalities create emergent properties which build societies in ways that drive ecological systems. The book makes a case for why breeders (as well as countries, and corporations) should not try to micro-engineer their populations by selecting for single desirable traits—like hens capable of laying the most eggs. As Mousy Cats' cautionary parable about "super-chickens" reveals, amassing teams of top performers leads to in-fighting and aggression, which actually slows down innovation. It's a thought that might make you more patient not only with your fear-addled dog or macho cat, but also with your loud, pushy coworker, or your shy neighbor who won't say "hi" back.

Mousy Cats is a charmingly written, amusing read and it's chock-full of cocktail conversation fodder for animal lovers (did you know, for instance, that cloning doesn't recreate personality, or that spider monkeys ritualistically connect by hugging—a tool that softens the edges between different personalities)? The book is feel-good and practically applicable—it certainly left me more appreciative of my canines' individual quirks and needs. But more importantly, it subtly reinforces the notion that individual variation is the fundamental driver of success for life on Earth.

What would we learn if we took the insights gleaned from observing bluebirds and spiders and lizards, and applied them to humans? Shivik states that, particularly because we have perfected our weapons to the point that we could very well cause our own extinction, humans should look to the animal kingdom for cues on how to balance our bellicose propensities with our peaceful ones. "Having too many serene lovers may seem like it would usher in an age of unambitious ennui, but one too many brave fighters who are willing to push to the brink of nuclear war will spawn an age of doom."

Ultimately, Shivik makes a strong case for "zoomorphizing," which is using animals and their behaviors and societies as mirrors of human individual and collective behaviors. Mousy Cats will certainly give you more reason than ever to observe and protect wildlife—and it'll also help justify all that time spent in your backyard or before your cat's condo, marveling at the scientifically proven specialness of your pet's wiles.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Food
Indie Ecology / Instagram

Table-to-Farm-to-Table: Startup Grows Food for Restaurants With Kitchen Leftovers

Food, as we know, is a terrible thing to waste. Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption gets lost or wasted every year. But what if we could use food waste to create more food?

That's the elegantly full-circle idea behind Indie Ecology, a West Sussex food waste farm that collects leftovers from some of London's best restaurants and turns it into compost. The nutrient-rich matter is then used to grow high quality produce for the chefs to cook with. Call it table-to-farm-to-table—and again and again.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Pexels

China’s Global Infrastructure Initiative Could Bring Environmental Catastrophe

By Nexus Media, with William F. Laurance

Humans are ravaging tropical forests by hunting, logging and building roads and the threats are mounting by the day.

China is planning a series of massive infrastructure projects across four continents, an initiative that conservation biologist William Laurance described as "environmentally, the riskiest venture ever undertaken."

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park, which was impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, could be harmed again if expanded offshore drilling plans go through. National Park Service

Trump’s Offshore Drilling Plan Puts 68 National Parks at Risk

Sixty-eight National Parks along the coastal U.S. could be in danger from devastating oil spills if President Donald Trump's plan to open 90 percent of coastal waters to offshore oil drilling goes through, a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Association found.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
E. coli. The World Health Organizations says antibiotic resistance is "one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today." U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Climate Change Could Supercharge Threat of Antibiotic Resistance: Study

By Andrea Germano

The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have previously sounded alarms about the growing issue of antibiotic resistance—a problem already linked to overprescribing of antibiotics and industrial farming practices. Now, new research shows a link between warmer temperatures and antibiotic resistance, suggesting it could be a greater threat than previously thought on our ever-warming planet.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
Powerwall residential battery with solar panels. Tesla

Tesla's Massive Virtual Power Plant in South Australia Roars Back to Life

Tesla's plans to build the world's largest virtual power plant in South Australia will proceed after all.

The $800 million (US $634 million) project—struck in February by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and former South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill—involves installing solar panels and batteries on 50,000 homes to function as an interconnected power plant.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
A French lavender farmer is part of the group suing the EU for more ambitious emissions targets, saying climate change threatens his crop. Iamhao / CC BY-SA 3.0

10 Families Bring First Ever 'People’s Climate Case' Against the EU

Ten families from Fiji, Kenya and countries across Europe who are already suffering the effects of climate change filed a case against the EU Wednesday in a bid to force the body to increase its commitments under the Paris agreement, AFP reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Oceans

Swimmer Plans to Cross Pacific to Highlight Plastic Pollution

Ben Lecomte, the first man to swim across the Atlantic in 1998, will attempt another grueling, history-making ocean crossing.

On Tuesday, the 50-year-old Frenchman and his crew will set out from Tokyo for a 5,500-mile swim across the Pacific, Reuters reported. If all goes as planned, Lecomte will arrive in San Francisco six to eight months later.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Tesco supermarket near Ashford Hospital in West Bedfont, England. Maxwell Hamilton / CC BY 2.0

UK's Largest Grocer Takes on Food and Plastic Waste

It's been a green week for Tesco, the UK's largest supermarket.

First, the chain said it would remove "Best before" labels from around 70 pre-packaged fruits and vegetables in an attempt to stop customers from discarding still-edible food, BBC News reported Tuesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!