A study from the University of California, Davis, is the first to document the personality of golden-mantled ground squirrels, which are common in the western US and parts of Canada.
The study found that squirrels display personality by four main traits: fearlessness, aggressiveness, activity level and sociability.
The findings suggest that understanding how an animal’s personality influences space use is important for wildlife conservation.
Watching them screech and slip, stop and then sneak away, the fact that ground squirrels have personalities may not seem surprising.
But the scientific field of animal personality is relatively young, as is the recognition that there are ecological consequences of animal personality.
For example, the boldest and most aggressive squirrels may find more food or defend larger territory, but their risky behavior can also make them vulnerable to predation or accidents.
“This is in addition to the small but growing number of studies showing that people matter,” said lead author Jaclyn Aliperti, who conducted the study while she was earning her doctorate. in ecology at UC Davis.
“Taking into account personality in wildlife management can be especially important when predicting wildlife responses to new conditions, such as habitat change or destruction due to human activity.”
Scientists have been studying golden-mantled ground squirrels at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado for decades. It was established as a long-term study site more than 30 years ago by Aliperti’s advisor, Dirk Van Vuren.
Aliperti drew on this powerful dataset for his study, while also starting a series of experiments there over the course of three summers to observe and quantify the squirrel personalities.
She notes that while there are no Meyers-Briggs tests for animals, there are standardized approaches to quantifying animal personalities. She observed and recorded the squirrels’ responses to four tests:
- Novel environment: the squirrels were placed in a closed box with grid lines and holes.
- Mirror: Squirrels are presented with their reflected image, which they do not recognize as their own.
- Flight Initiative – Slowly approached squirrels in the wild to see how long they waited before fleeing.
- Behavior in the trap: the squirrels were caught, unharmed, in a simple trap and their behavior was briefly observed.
The social squirrel advantage
Overall, the study, published in the journal Animal behavior, found that the most daring squirrels had larger central areas where they concentrated their activity. The bold and active squirrels moved faster. Also, squirrels that were bolder, more aggressive, and more active had greater access to perches, such as rocks. Access to perches is important because it can provide a better vantage point to see and evade predators. Interestingly, access to the perch was also associated with sociability.
Golden-mantled ground squirrels are considered an asocial species. They are relatively small, giving them little opportunity to form the closer social bonds that are common in larger ground squirrels, which typically spend more time in family units as they reach maturity. However, the study said that “within this asocial species, individuals who tend to be relatively more social appear to have an advantage.”
In such cases, being more social could save a person’s life. Such personality differences can influence a squirrel’s ability to survive and reproduce, which could escalate to the population or community level.
UC Davis is home to many squirrels, who have become something of an honorary pet on campus.
“The squirrels at UC Davis are something else,” Aliperti said.
She says it literally. They are tree squirrels and very different from the ground squirrels Aliperti studied. However, he says his work has changed the way he sees Davis squirrels.
“I see them more as individuals,” Aliperti said. “I see them like, ‘Who are you? Where are you going? What are they doing? versus at the species level. “
Realizing such individuality brings a more personal angle to wildlife viewing.
“Animal personality is a hard science, but if it makes you relate to animals more, maybe people are more interested in conserving them,” Aliperti said.
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Source: University of California-Davis
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