The boldest gecko: personality in a reptile

Today on the blog we're happy to have former Wilson Honour's student, Rebecca Wheatley, who describes her thesis work on gecko personality. Rebecca's currently working as a research associate in the Wilson lab, and plans to start a PhD next year. You can find out more about Rebecca on her science blog, The Adventures of the Integrative Ecologist.

Animal behaviour is a big field - and it's constantly expanding as research reveals gaps in our understanding of why animals do the things they do. One topic in animal behaviour that holds a great deal of interest for me is that of animal personality. This is a relatively new concept and, frankly, it's a little bit controversial. 

The word "personality" conjures up a variety of mental images, most of which pertain to one animal in particular: us. It goes without saying that people have different personalities; we experience it every day. But do other animals have personalities as well?

Image: Great tit (Parus major), beadlet sea anemone (Actinia equina) and pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus); three species that display animal personality, from very different groups. Image source: Wikimedia commons.

In animal behaviour, the term "personality" is defined as consistent differences in behaviour displayed by individuals. An example of a personality trait is how an individual responds to a threatening situation, termed boldness or shyness. Bold individuals are undaunted by threatening situations and will approach the stimulus, while shy individuals will stay away or hide.

There are heaps of different personality traits that have been studied, including boldness, exploratory behaviour and aggression, amongst many others. Individuals' "personalities" are thought to range along a proactive-reactive continuum, where proactive individuals are aggressive and bold while reactive individuals are more passive and shy (sound familiar? It's not unlike a simplified version of the extroverted/introverted behaviour displayed by people).

There's growing evidence that "personality" is present within many groups of animals. Despite this, we don't really know much about what determines an animal's place along the proactive-reactive continuum or why this variation exists.

Image: My study species: the Asian house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (1 & 3) and Rebecca Wheatley (2).

During my honours project, I investigated"personality" in male Asian house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus). I measured the anti-predator behaviour (a proxy for boldness) of 100 geckos by filming each gecko for one hour and then by calculating the proportion of time it spent inside the shelter in its terraruim. 

Each gecko was measured under three different treatments:

  1. "empty terrarium": where nothing (aside from the shelter) was added to the terrarium, to give me a measure of each gecko’s normal amount of anti-predator behaviour
  2. "terrarium with novel object": where I added a novel object to the terrarium, to see what happened to their anti-predator behaviour when something new was added to the environment
  3. "terrarium with threatening stimulus": where I added a threatening stimulus, to see how their anti-predator behaviour changed when something scary was added to their environment

I found that different individuals reacted to the treatments in different ways, but the overall trend looked like this:

We can see that when a novel object was added to the environment, the geckos' anti-predator behaviour generally decreased when compared to their standard level of anti-predator behaviour. This might be because they wanted to check out the new object to make sure it wasn't food or some other valuable resource. 

However, when I added a threatening stimulus, their anti-predator behaviour jumped back up again to around the same as its standard level. 

So it seems that the threatening stimulus effectively cancelled out the novel object effect.

How do we know if these behaviours constitute as "personality"?

Well, I found that while different individuals displayed consistent anti-predator behaviour within treatments, they also responded to the treatments in different ways. Some displayed more anti-predator behaviour when the environment was altered (were "shyer"), while others displayed less (were "bolder"). 

Therefore, from our definition, we can see that their anti-predator behaviour is a personality trait: they display consistent differences in behaviour that are context-specific.

Checking on my gecko housing set-up. Image credit: Amanda Niehaus.

But why do individuals have different personalities?

Previous research has found that a few things can be associated with an animals' boldness or shyness. A large body mass is often associated with a bold personality, which is probably because heavier individuals are usually larger and more likely to win in a fight (so they have a good reason to be bold). Similarly, individuals with a hard bite force, a strong claw pinch or any other performance trait which would give them an advantage in a contest are usually bolder as well. 

The possession of traits that might make it easier for them to escape from a predator in a pinch, like fast running speed, have also been associated with boldness.

 In addition, resting (or "standard" for reptiles) metabolic rate has been linked to animal personality; it's thought that bolder, more aggressive individuals need a higher metabolic rate to keep up with their energetic demands.

I investigated how some of these traits interact to effect boldness in my geckos. I measured each gecko's mass, standard metabolic rate, maximum running speed and maximum bite force and analysed their interactive effects on anti-predator behaviour. Contrary to what I expected (and to what the literature would lead us to predict), I found that none of these traits affected anti-predator behaviour. This could be due to a few different things: one possibility is that boldness and shyness in Asian house geckos has a hormonal basis. It could also be that "personality" in geckos develops based on experiences rather than any specific physiological or performance trait. To discover the answer to this question, further research into the interactive effects of such traits on personality needs to be done.

One of my geckos in his metabolic chamber. I did all my metabolic tests during the day (when they are least active, being nocturnal animals) so I could get an accurate estimate of their resting (standard) metabolic rate. Image credit: Amanda Niehaus.

Anyway, why does it all matter – why does "personality" even exist?

The fact is there are costs and benefits to being both proactive and reactive. Proactive individuals are bolder and more aggressive, so they are usually better at holding territories and getting laid – but they're also a lot more conspicuous to predators, so they tend to "live hard, die young". Reactive individuals, on the other hand, might not have the best real estate or as many mates at any given time, but their shy behaviour means they usually live longer. So, if we imagine an ecosystem where predation is low, it's better to be proactive and reap the benefits without the risk of being eaten. But if the ecosystem changes (for example, a bunch of predators move into the neighbourhood) and all the proactive guys die off – who is left? This is the most popular theory as to why different personalities exist; so that if conditions change quickly, some individuals survive and the population continues.

Although extremely interesting, these personality experiments were only one small aspect of my honours project, which aimed to answer questions about fighting ability (resource-holding potential) and fighting strategies. More on that later!

- by Rebecca Wheatley

Bit of a teaser for the rest of my project. Image credit: Amanda Niehaus.