"Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts which in us would be called moral."
—Charles Darwin, British naturalist.
DO ANIMALS HAVE PERSONALITIES?
Animals: They've Got Personality!!
Article by Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News— Nov. 2, 2007
"Personality" would seem to be an exclusive attribute of humans, since the very word reflects back on us, but several recent studies examining a wide range of species, from squid to horses and even insects, suggest we share the planet with a lot of unique characters.
Noted psychologist Lawrence Pervin has defined personality as "those characteristics of a person that account for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving." Non-humans are left out of the picture. Applied animal behaviorist Adele Lloyd of England's Bishop Burton College admits there are limits to applying such people-centric definitions to animals, especially since it's difficult to measure how animals think and feel.
Lloyd and her colleagues, however, believe it is possible to assess observed behavior "in order to demonstrate individual differences" in animals. It could even be that humans are the limiting factor, given the way we process information and self-compare. Nevertheless, Lloyd told Discovery News that anthropomorphism -- the use of human terms to describe animal behavior -- is much easier for us to deal with than statistical data quantifying animal behaviors.
Ask the Horse
The popular 1960s television show "Mister Ed," about a talking horse, took anthropomorphism to an improbable level, but Lloyd's recent work on horses indicates that at least particular types possess their own behavioral characteristics.
The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.
The researchers collected data on 1,223 horses of eight different breeds: Irish draught horses, thoroughbreds, Shetland ponies, Arabs, Highland ponies, Welsh ponies/cobs, American quarter horses and appaloosas. Horse owners, members of breed societies and other individuals provided the data by filling out a detailed "horse personality questionnaire."
Statistical analysis revealed that thoroughbreds, Welsh ponies/cobs and Arabs tend to be anxious and excitable, while Irish draught horses and Highland ponies are more mellow. Similarly, Arabs and thoroughbreds are largely social and inquisitive, while American quarter horses prefer to keep more to themselves.
As for dog breeding, human-induced selection influences many of these traits, suggesting that animals are born with certain characteristics. Lloyd said she does "believe that genetics will have a distinct contribution to an animal's personality," but its exact contribution, versus environmental influences and day-to-day factors, remains unknown.
Down the Food Chain
It's not too hard to see some aspects of ourselves in domesticated horses, dogs and cats. The challenge rises with creatures more foreign to us, like insects. Steve Heydon, senior scientist and collection manager for the Bohart Museum of Entomology, told Discovery News that certain insect species have their own characteristics.
"We have giant walking sticks from New Guinea," Heydon said. "The males are nasty. They will wave their spiked legs at you, but the females are gentle."
He said he doubts there's much individuality in the insect world, which so often revolves around group behaviors, but he had to admit he's observed exceptions.
"In our colony of hissing cockroaches there is one male that we've named 'King Kong,'" he said. "King Kong is always ready for a fight and will hiss if we poke at him. The other cockroaches kind of get used to being poked."
Usually, but not always, brain size corresponds to body size. It would seem that smaller brains reduce the likelihood of having much personality. That's what Kathy Streeter, curator of marine mammals at the New England Aquarium, thought when she began to study hearing in green sea turtles, reptiles not exactly known for their cognitive complexity.
Streeter quickly learned otherwise.
"For some reason, this female was very territorial about the testing equipment and her food," Streeter said. "She seemed to be fascinated by our high-tech gadgetry. If you took it, or fish, away from her, she would become quite anxious. None of the other turtles behaved in such a manner."
Streeter also works with many marine mammals.
"Certain sea lions just seem to have a lot of charisma," she said. "A lot has to do with body language. Some smaller ones will simply hold themselves up in a confident way so they look big and solid. They appear to feel more secure about themselves than others do, and lead quietly without being overbearing."
Closer to Humans
Jeannine Jackle, assistant curator at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, works with gorillas.
Jackle marvels at each gorilla's distinctiveness. There's Kit, an "aloof male that, once he gets his food, he's gone." Okie, a submissive male, often sits by himself sucking his thumb, but enjoys picking on females, like 34-year-old, "nervous" Gigi that "has a sister named Samantha in Cincinnati that is just like her."
"Kiki, our 24-year-old female, is my hero, though," Jackle said. "She's a strict, yet caring, mother that keeps the males in line. She's small, but not afraid. I've seen her punch males in the face when they tried to harass her. Inevitably, they back down.
So what's so unique about us?
Both Streeter and Heydon believe humans possess the ability to modify our behaviors, or even to change our overall characters, at least within limits. Recent studies show that birds, Southern dumpling squid and humans may all be born with shy or bold dispositions, suggesting a strong genetic connection to temperament. As Heydon points out, however, humans can usually somewhat determine to what degree these inborn factors will affect their lives.
"You may wake up in a foul mood and wonder how you're going to get through the work day, but you can try to stay quiet and holed up in your office," Streeter said. "We can consciously modify our behavior to very specific, conscious degrees, so that could be what makes us unique in terms of personality."
"Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission, to be of service to them whenever they require it."
—St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.
"The animals of the world exist for their own reasons, They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women created for men."
—Alice Walker, African-American author.