AboutZoos, Since 2008


Per­son­al­ity mat­ters: when sav­ing ani­mals, for­tune favours the bold

pub­lished 26 Novem­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 03 Novem­ber 2014

Rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams are key ini­tia­tives for re-​establishing or re-​stocking ani­mal pop­u­la­tions, and while some are suc­cess­ful, many, unfor­tu­nately, are not.

TasdevilEndan­gered and crit­i­cally endan­gered ani­mals for rein­tro­duc­tion are com­monly sourced from captive-​breeding pro­grams, as has been the case in the past two weeks with the release of Tas­man­ian dev­ils and orange-​bellied par­rots in Tasmania.

Com­pared to rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams that source ani­mals from the wild, captive-​sourced pro­grams tend to have lower suc­cess rates, and con­ser­va­tion suc­cess sto­ries in these cir­cum­stances are hard won.

How­ever, these pro­grams also have the most to gain. Improved suc­cess here could have a real impact and result in an increase in the num­ber of con­ser­va­tion suc­cess stories.

Why can rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams fail?

There are a vari­ety of rea­sons why a rein­tro­duc­tion pro­gram may not suc­ceed. Although, a con­sid­er­able fac­tor when com­par­ing rein­tro­duc­tions of wild-​caught and captive-​bred ani­mals is the lack of “life skills” in the animals.

A recent review of rein­tro­duced mam­malian car­ni­vores found captive-​bred ani­mals were much more sus­cep­ti­ble to star­va­tion, dis­ease and the inabil­ity to avoid preda­tors, com­pared to their wild-​caught coun­ter­parts. Sim­i­lar trends are also com­mon across other ani­mal groups, such as birds.

Many captive-​breeding pro­grams have acknowl­edged the impor­tance of learn­ing and expe­ri­ence for their ani­mals, and have responded by:

hous­ing them in more real­is­tic envi­ron­ments

attempt­ing to teach them “life skills” prior to release

mix­ing wild– and captive-​bred ani­mals in rein­tro­duced pop­u­la­tions.

What about ani­mal per­son­al­ity traits?

Like humans, indi­vid­ual ani­mals have recog­nis­able behav­ioural char­ac­ter­is­tics, or “personalities”.

Research on this topic has uncov­ered a vari­ety of per­son­al­ity traits in a wide vari­ety of ani­mals. For exam­ple, some ani­mals within a pop­u­la­tion are inher­ently “shyer”, or more risk averse, than oth­ers who are “bolder” or more risk prone.

Impor­tantly, these traits have been shown to influ­ence how an indi­vid­ual copes, or even sur­vives in a given circumstance.

For exam­ple, bolder ani­mals that take more risks may be more suc­cess­ful than a shyer indi­vid­ual in a social sit­u­a­tion, such as com­pet­ing for access to food, but also may be less suc­cess­ful when faced with dan­ger as they may take more risks.

Con­sid­er­ing ani­mal per­son­al­ity in con­ser­va­tion efforts

Cap­tiv­ity is obvi­ously dif­fer­ent from the wild, and cap­tive breed­ing, while some­times the only option, has chal­lenges to overcome.

Cheetah withcollarSelec­tion for ani­mals that fare well, and repro­duce, occurs in all cir­cum­stances. Ani­mals that live and hap­pily breed in cap­tiv­ity tend to have dif­fer­ent behav­ioural char­ac­ter­is­tics. In a cap­tive pop­u­la­tion of chee­tahs, breed­ing indi­vid­u­als were found to be less tense and fear­ful than those that did not breed.

Selec­tion (inten­tional or not) of cer­tain behav­iours may also have unex­pected con­se­quences that could affect the like­li­hood of a suc­cess­ful rein­tro­duc­tion of a cap­tive ani­mal pop­u­la­tion to the wild.

In a cap­tive pop­u­la­tion of coon­stripe shrimp, indi­vid­u­als that did not strug­gle when being han­dled sur­vived bet­ter, which resulted in a tamer pop­u­la­tion. But in addi­tion to becom­ing tamer, the cap­tive pop­u­la­tion of shrimp also grew faster, and had less pig­ment than their ancestors.

As per­son­al­ity traits can be inher­ited, breed­ing pro­grams can unin­ten­tion­ally and unknow­ingly select for per­son­al­ity traits that are suit­able for a cap­tive envi­ron­ment, but may not do as well when released into the wild.

Also, recent stud­ies are sug­gest­ing that a vari­ety of per­son­al­i­ties can com­ple­ment one another and con­fer ben­e­fits to the individuals.

As I have writ­ten about pre­vi­ously, bolder wild chacma baboons are bet­ter at find­ing new food sources than shyer baboons when infor­ma­tion about the qual­ity of the food in the area is unreliable.

Over­com­ing per­son­al­ity issues

While not always adopted, there are strate­gies that con­ser­va­tion efforts can take to min­imise these problems.

Most notably, many of these types of prob­lems can be over­come through pro­vid­ing expe­ri­ence in a more bio­log­i­cally real­is­tic envi­ron­ment prior to rein­tro­duc­tion. This includes “teach­ing” or pro­vid­ing expe­ri­ence find­ing food, shel­ter and avoid­ing predators.

Young orang­utans being taught to be scared of snakes.

How­ever, espe­cially with endan­gered ani­mals, noth­ing can be done with­out a pop­u­la­tion that will breed suc­cess­fully in cap­tiv­ity, and this is obvi­ously a priority.

If breed­ing is achieved, method­olog­i­cal assays (which pro­vide an evo­lu­tion­ary and eco­log­i­cal frame­work for deter­min­ing per­son­al­ity) have been devel­oped which can be used in cap­tive pop­u­la­tions to mon­i­tor the vari­a­tion in behav­iour of a cap­tive pop­u­la­tion, and bet­ter inform deci­sions about the pop­u­la­tions for reintroduction.

The study of ani­mal per­son­al­ity is a thriv­ing field in behav­ioural and evo­lu­tion­ary ecol­ogy, and many stud­ies are tak­ing to the field to inves­ti­gate how per­son­al­i­ties affect survival.

Surely, appli­ca­tion of these find­ings to cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams could fur­ther equip con­ser­va­tion efforts to increase their suc­cess — which could make all the dif­fer­ence for endan­gered and crit­i­cally endan­gered species.

This arti­cle by William Feeney was orig­i­nally pub­lished at The Con­ver­sa­tion. Licensed under Cre­ative Com­mons — Attribution/​No deriv­a­tives.

(Source: The Con­ver­sa­tion, 25.11.2013)

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