Summary: Zebra finches have stable personality traits and some of the characteristics made it possible for the birds to come up with innovative solutions to complex food search tasks, reports a new study.
Source: University of Wyoming
Personality is not unique to humans. New research published in Royal Society Open Science Journal shows that zebra finches have personalities, and certain traits are consistent over two years of the birds’ lives.
In addition to showing a stable personality, zebra finches innovated solutions to new foraging tasks, where success was sometimes related to personality type.
The article was written by Lisa Barrett and Jessica Marsh, of the University of Wyoming; Neeltje Boogert, from the University of Exeter; Christopher Templeton, of Pacific University Oregon; and Sarah Benson-Amram, of the University of British Columbia, former UW and leader of UW’s Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab.
The authors of the magazine tested 41 zebra finches at UW from 2016-18 to measure individual differences in the birds’ behavior over time.
The authors measured a variety of traits – dominance, boldness, activity, risk-taking, aggression and stubbornness – in the short term (two weeks) and in the long term (two years), using standardized personality tests that had been established in the literature.
To assess boldness, for example, the authors placed a new object in a fence with a bird that had fed and measured how long it took for the bird to resume feeding in the presence of the new object.
To assess dominance, the authors recorded interactions between groups of birds at a single feeder. The authors measured stubbornness – or obedience – when handling the birds by counting the number of escape attempts that the birds made under a net.
“We were interested in seeing if the personality would remain stable or if individuals would be flexible in their behavior over time,” says Barrett, the lead author.
“Repeating our tests for two years with exactly the same birds allowed us to answer that question.”
Barrett and colleagues found that not all characteristics were equally consistent. Of the traits they measured, many traits were consistent for two weeks, but only boldness and stubbornness were consistent for two years.
The researchers then tested whether personality was related to problem-solving success on three new tasks previously used with zebra finches.
“Because individuals vary in their personality type and in their cognitive ability, we wanted to see if these two sources of variation were linked,” says Marsh, who was a student at the time she was working on the study.
The authors found that problem-solving success related to boldness, dominance and stubbornness. For example, less dominant birds were more likely to solve two of the tasks compared to their more dominant counterparts.
This result supports the “necessity drives innovation” hypothesis, which states that less dominant individuals – who receive fewer resources due to competition with their herd mates – may need to innovate new ways of accessing food.
“In this work, we used a comprehensive set of personality tests and several cognitive tasks, and we performed our work for a longer period of time than traditional tests,” says Benson-Amram.
“This enabled us to reveal the importance of measuring multiple traits to understand the link between personality and problem solving.”
Since not all traits were consistent over time or related to problem-solving performance, the authors emphasize that future research should focus on revealing which personality traits are most important for innovation – and why some traits are more plastic than others.
About this personality and problem solving research news
Original research: Free access.
“Links between personality traits and problem-solving ability in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata)”By Lisa Barrett et al. Royal Society Open Science
Links between personality traits and problem-solving ability in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata)
Consistent individual differences in behavior over time or context (ie personality types) have been found in many species and have consequences for fitness. In the same way, individual variation in cognitive abilities has been shown to affect fitness. Cognition and personality are complex, multidimensional traits.
Previous work has, however, generally examined the connection between an individual personality trait and an individual cognitive ability, which has given ambiguous results.
Links between personality and cognitive ability indicate that behavioral traits were co-developed and highlight their nuanced connections. Here, we examined individuals’ performance on several personality tests and repeated problem-solving tests (each measuring innovative performance).
We assessed behavioral characteristics (dominance, boldness, activity, risk-taking, aggression and stubbornness) in 41 captured zebra finches. The birds’ scores for boldness and stubbornness were consistent for two years. We also investigated whether personality correlated with problem-solving ability in repeated tests.
Our results indicate that neophobia, dominance and stubbornness were related to successful solutions, and less dominant, more stubborn birds solved the tasks faster on average.
Our results indicate the importance of examining several measures over a long period of time.
Future work that identifies links between personality and innovation in non-model organisms may shed light on the co-development of these two forms of individual differences.
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