Cold Fish or Party Animal: Distinct Personality in Nonhuman Animals

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

Personality type has long been a subject of human fascination such as the Myers-Brigg Personality Indicator or the Enneagram Type. Very recently has mainstream science been trying to typify personality traits for nonhuman animals and earlier this week, a new study published in Science Daily described how Asian elephants in Myanmar’s logging industry were able to express varying levels of attentiveness, sociability, and aggressiveness. These ratings were calculated by the elephant’s “mahout” or rider who has worked with their individual elephant for years and knows the “detailed information on their personalities” according to University of Turku’s Martin Steltmann from the Department of Biology.

“We met elephants that were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, they always tried to steal the water melons that were meant as rewards.”

On it’s face, the timber industry’s utilization of elephants seems like it would be a major determinant in understanding effects of human oppression on nonhuman animal personality. However, a 2016 New York Times article expressed a different view on the part of the mahouts: elephant personalities were actually deteriorating due to a lack of work from recent bans on timber exports. In an effort to curb growing deforestation in the country, some of Myanmar’s captive elephant population (the largest in the world) were expressing signs of increased anger, obesity, and sex drive when not able to participate in hauling logs. Interestingly, Times author Thomas Fuller also cited a study detailing how:

“Myanmar’s logging elephants, which have a strict regimen of work and play, live twice as long as elephants kept in European zoos, a median age of 42 years compared with 19 for zoo animals.”

Asian elephants aren’t the only animals known to express distinct personality traits. In an interview with National Geographic, biologist John Shivik touts numerous examples of how individual, unique personality traits serve as survival mechanisms in nonhuman animals. Aggressive western bluebirds are less reproductive than their shier counterparts, but are able to claim new territory for the species. Some coyotes are more sociable than others, and certain dolphins are known to develop definite personality changes, like those in post-traumatic stress disorder, from traumatic events.

In The Inner Life of Animals, Peter Wohlleben points to research conducted on great tits by the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology which suggests that shyer birds were more cooperative with con-specifics as well as slower to organize into larger groups than more aggressive birds. Acting more slowly allowed them to notice and forage for food that was overlooked by others.

“If animals functioned only according to fixed genetic programming, then each individual of one species would react the same way under the same circumstances. A certain amount of a hormone would be released that would trigger the corresponding instinctive behavior. But that is not the case, as you probably already know from observing domestic animals. There are courageous and cowardly dogs, aggressive and super gentle cats, jumpy and bombproof horses. The character each animal develops depends on its individual genetic predisposition and, just as importantly, on the influence of its environment, which is to say its life experience.”