Amazon Molly UC Davis Credit David Bierbach
Sep 27, 2023

The Point of (Animal) Personality with Kate Laskowski (podcast)

Across the animal kingdom, individuals of the same species differ from each other. What drives this variation and is there a function to it?

By Templeton Staff

Across the animal kingdom, individuals of the same species differ from each other. What drives this variation and is there a function to it?

Borrowed from human psychology, in this conversation the term "animal personality" is used as a shorthand to to describe animals behaving consistently over time. Scientists have a working hypothesis that there are five behavioral axes measurable in animals and relevant to how animals interact with their world and with each other — but it's still a nascent field. The axes they're currently looking at are activity, aggression, exploration, affiliation, and neophobia (the fear or dislike of the unfamiliar). Unlike the "Big 5" factors commonly studied in human personality research, there has not yet been extensive data collected and analyzed for the wide amount of other species that exist in the tree of life.

"It's difficult to apply the same things that happen in humans to other animals because we’re not able to communicate with them in the same way, of course," says Dr. Kate Laskowski. The lab she directs at the University of California, Davis focuses on a certain species of fish, forging new ground in the field. The lab has shown that "clonal" (genetically identical) fish raised in near-identical environments still show stable individual differences in behavior. However, she and her co-authors note in their recent paper, "The consequences of individual behavioral variation are well-studied at the individual level but less is known about consequences at higher levels, such as among species and communities." For this episode of Many Minds podcast, she offers fresh insight into this area of research.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

“Some of us are a little shy; others are sociable. There are those that love to explore the new, and those happy to stick to the familiar. We’re all a bit different, in other words — and when I say “we” I don’t just mean humans. Over the last couple of decades there’s been an explosion of research on personality differences in animals too — in birds, in dogs, in fish, all across the animal kingdom. This research is addressing questions like: What are the ways that individuals of the same species differ from each other? What drives these differences? And is this variation just randomness, some kind of inevitable biological noise, or could it have an evolved function?

My guest today is Dr. Kate Laskowski. Kate is an Assistant Professor of Evolution and Ecology at UC-Davis. Her lab focuses on fish. They use fish, and especially one species of fish — the Amazon molly — as a model system for understanding animal personality (or as she sometimes calls it 'consistent individual behavioral variation'). 

In this episode, Kate and I discuss a paper she recently published with colleagues that reviews this booming subfield. We talk about how personality manifests in animals and how it may differ from human personality. We zoom in on what is perhaps the most puzzling question in this whole research area: Why do creatures have personality differences to begin with? Is there a point to all this individual variation, evolutionarily speaking? We discuss two leading frameworks that have tried to answer the question, and then consider some recent studies of Kate’s that have added an unexpected twist. On the way, we touch on Darwinian demons, combative anemones, and a research method Kate calls 'fish Big Brother.' ”

Photo credit: Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa) by David Bierbach.

Play the episode with the above player.

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Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.