Human beings love to assign our own traits and emotions to animals. That dog is happy, look, it’s smiling! That bird is being brave attacking the snake! Etc. It’s called anthropomorphizing, and if you possess some of the worst human traits yourself, you may have tried using this word to impress strangers (but, in reality, only made yourself look like a mega-douche). Typically, it’s problematic to assume emotion and complex intent behind animals’ actions when they’re almost assuredly doing whatever it is they’re doing with the express purpose of getting laid. Which really drives home the whole “humans are just animals” bit, now that I think about it – but let’s not get sidetracked. What I’m building up to here is that animals can have a personality – though probably not in the way you’re thinking.
Let’s chat about it.
I’ll be honest with you, since honesty is one of the many exemplary traits that make up my own winning personality, the scientific definition of animal personality was a tough nut to wrap my head around, so bear with me as I attempt to explain it to you.
- Animals have behaviors – a behavior being pretty much anything they may do. (This is kind of duh, but we’re gonna build on it.)
- Those behaviors are subject to context.
- Personality arises when individual animals consistently display behavior that is different from the behavior of other individuals and at least somewhat independent of context.
- Wake up, please, if you fell asleep or involuntarily blacked out from confusion while reading 1-3.
How about a dog example? One dog wags its tail and greets strangers, another dog does not wag and does not approach strangers. Tail wagging and approaching (or lack thereof) are behaviors. Both dogs do these behaviors whether they’re at the park or at home and regardless of whether other dogs are around – so those behaviors are context independent. We can say the first dog has a ‘friendly’ personality and the second dog has an ‘unfriendly’ personality. All good? Now, it would be tough to say that either dog had a definitive personality if they sometimes wagged and greeted strangers and then other times they didn’t – so no behavioral consistency. It’d also be hard to say that dogs (meaning all dogs in the world) had personality at all if every single one of them wagged and greeted strangers all the time – behavioral consistency, but no variation between dogs. They wouldn’t be acting ‘friendly’ they’d just be acting like a dog. Is literally anyone still reading this on board with me?
It should be fairly obvious to anyone who’s interacted with any pooch that they do indeed possess personalities. “But who gives a shit, what about the goddamn fish, Johnny?!” you all scream while wearing shirts adorned with my incredibly handsome face (my personality also includes enviable powers of self-delusion). Since you asked, let me tell you all about the flippin’ fish, dear reader. It turns out that some species of Australian anemonefish have personality too, while other species are rave bros (see: no personality). The implications of this are far reaching, because life and nature and all that are about survival, baby, so if your fishy personality isn’t helping you bone down and live forever then what good is it?
But do fish even have behavior that we can observe to tell if they have personality like a dog? They seem to swim around aimlessly or just float with their stupid mouths open. While that’s true (but harsh, bro), there’s a lot more going on you may be missing if you didn’t, say, set up cameras around sea anemones and film anemonefish going about their business for several days in a row like these scientists did. Analyzing what must have been riveting game tape, they identified fishy behaviors associated with three personality traits: boldness, sociability, and aggression. Time spent outside of the home anemone was taken as a measure of boldness (more time = bolder). Sociability was scored as number of non-aggressive acts with conspecifics (members of the same species) like soft fin touches (aww) and submissive body shakes (ok, weird). Meanwhile, aggression was the sum of antagonistic acts with conspecifics like biting and chasing – which I think are also dating tactics for fourth graders.
The researchers additionally looked to see if context mattered (remember points 2 & 3 from above, if possible without getting a nosebleed), whether that be social context like group size or the place of the individual in the size hierarchy, or environmental context such as home anemone size or distance to the nearest neighboring anemone. Since that last sentence, if not everything that came before, is probably painfully confusing to you, let’s have a little aside about anemonefish. These are a bunch of Nemos we’re talking about here. They live in anemones (duh), in groups of 2-4+, though typically there’s only one “dominant” mating pair, and while individuals will occasionally move anemones, they’re mostly permanent residents. So now you get it when I say something like #2 in the size hierarchy – it’s the second biggest fish on the bloc- er, anemone. In the anemone. You get it.
As I alluded to before, one of the species in this study, the whitesnout anemonefish (Amphiprion mccullochi), absolutely showed individual personality, while the other, the wideband anemonefish (Amphiprion latezonatus), are personality-less fish-bots. It’s not that the widebands didn’t display any aggressive, sociable, or bold behaviors, they just all tended to act the same. Like with the dog example, if there’s no variation in behavior between members of the same species, you can’t say that individuals have a personality – acting that way is just how wideband anemonefish are. The whitesnouts, on the other hand, had behavior that varied from individual to individual and was repeatable – the same fish performing the same behavior day in and day out. Individual whitesnouts were observed to be bold or timid and aggressive or not, with these traits forming a personality syndrome – a typical grouping of traits. Bold whitesnouts tended to be less aggressive, possibly because when being bold (ie: leaving your home anemone) aggressive behavior gets you merc’d by a predator. As far as social or environmental context influencing the behavior of these goofballs, the social context was much more important – though this varied by species as well. Whitesnouts had clear trends (ie: as group size increases, so does sociability), although context didn’t wipe out their distinct personalities, while widebands were kind of all over the place (sociability increased up to a group size of four and then went back down). Rather than type it all out and put you to sleep (again!), I’ve prepared a handy chart of whitesnout behaviors (screw those crazy widebands and their no-trend data).
Why do we care that one species of anemonefish has personality and another does not? Like a lot of marine research these days, it all comes back to climate change and the massive disruptions to the natural environment coming our way in the near near future (and right the eff now). A species blessed with varying personalities, like the whitesnout anemonefish, might be better able to cope with climate change because (hopefully) some individuals’ behaviors will be adapted to the new conditions and they’ll survive to pass that on to their offspring. In the case of the wideband anemonefish, who all tend to behave the same way, it’s more of a crapshoot. Maybe that behavior will be perfect for their new environment and they’ll thrive, but if the opposite is true and that behavior is actually detrimental then they all lose together. Variation between individuals can increase the odds of the entire species surviving some catastrophic change, even if Billy the whitesnout anemonefish (and probably his whole family because his genes are terrible, let’s be honest) perishes. This kind of resilience at the species level is incredibly important in the modern age because of how fast change is occurring. We’ve all had the lessons in evolution and know that species adapt gradually to changing conditions by passing down desirable traits to offspring – gradually here being thousands, if not millions, of years. That kind of adaptation’s not going to happen in the mere decades we have before we’re swimming in a totally different ocean, so having some baked in variation in the form of different personalities is a great way for Mother Nature to hedge her evolutionary bets.
There are about a million (actually 13) other implications for personality in the animal world highlighted in this awesome journal article, if you care to take a look. When we’re not anthropomorphizing them, we tend to think animals of the same species are incapable of acting differently from each other, railroaded by their instincts, their DNA, to do things just one way. With how wild and varied the natural world is, we really should know better than to assume something like that.
Wong MYL, Beasley AL, Douglass T, Whalan S, Scott A (2017) Some anemonefish lack personality: a comparative assessment of behavioral variation and repeatability in relation to environmental and social factors. Coral Reefs 1–10