Context dependence of personalities: risk-taking behavior in a social and a nonsocial situation

K. Van Oers, M. Klunder, P.J. Drent

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    Individuals of many species differ consistently in their behavioral reaction to mild novel challenges. Suites of these behaviors are referred to as behavioral syndromes or personalities. Personality traits are often phenotypically and genetically correlated. Therefore, animal personalities are generally considered as broad characteristics, with one underlying genetical and physiological mechanism that is expressed across situations and contexts. Because there are carryover effects between situations, animals are not entirely flexible in their behavior in each situation. This may cause behaviors to seem nonadaptive in isolated situations. To test whether individuals with different personalities could react differently to changes in their environment, we studied context dependence of personalities in the great tit (Parus major). We tested birds categorized as either fast or slow explorers for their latency to come back to a feeding table after a mild startle (risk-taking behavior) in a nonsocial followed by a social context. We found that the relation between exploratory behavior and risk-taking behavior depended on the social context. Females in general returned later in the social test, while male reaction to the presence of a conspecific was dependent on their behavioral type. Slow males thereby reacted to the behavior of the companion and fast males did not. These results show that although personalities have a rigid structure the relation between personality traits is context dependent. These results are discussed in the perspective of the adaptive significance and maintenance of personalities. [KEYWORDS: Behavioral syndromes ; boldness ; exploration ; Parus major ; personality ; risk taking]
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)716-723
    JournalBehavioral Ecology
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2005


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