Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

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

Animals
StylishEve / Facebook

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Supporters cheer before Trump arrives for a rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday and Tuesday of the week that President Donald Trump held his first rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the county reported 76 and 96 new coronavirus cases respectively, according to POLITICO. This week, the county broke its new case record Monday with 261 cases and reported a further 206 cases on Tuesday. Now, Tulsa's top public health official thinks the rally and counterprotest "likely contributed" to the surge.

Read More Show Less
In the tropics, farmers often slash and burn forests to clear fertile land for crops, but a new method avoids that technique. Inga Foundation video

Rainforests are an important defense against climate change because they absorb carbon. But many are being destroyed on a massive scale.

Read More Show Less
A truck spreads lime on a meadow to increase the soil's fertility in Yorkshire Dales, UK. Farm Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As we look for advanced technology to replace our dependence on fossil fuels and to rid the oceans of plastic, one solution to the climate crisis might simply be found in rocks. New research found that dispersing rock dust over farmland could suck billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed large scale analysis of the technique, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning. Pxfuel

By Tim Radford

German scientists now know why so many fish are so vulnerable to ever-warming oceans. Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning.

Read More Show Less
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


Nurses wear PPE prior to caring for a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital on May 5, 2020 in La Mesa, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

One of the initial reasons social distancing guidelines were put in place was to allow the healthcare system to adapt to a surge in patients since there was a critical shortage of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. In fact, masks that were designed for single-use were reused for an entire week in some hospitals.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders greet each other with a safe elbow bump before the start of the Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.