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Personality goes a long way, even for squirrels

New research suggests squirrels have personalities, and bolder, more social individuals hold an advantage over their peers. File photo by Sharon Day/Shutterstock
New research suggests squirrels have personalities, and bolder, more social individuals hold an advantage over their peers. File photo by Sharon Day/Shutterstock

Sept. 10 (UPI) -- As Jules reminds Vince toward the end of Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction, while explaining his view of the difference between dogs and pigs, "personality goes a long way" -- and new research suggests that he's right.

Social skills are vital for social species, like Homo sapiens, but traditionally, scientists have been reluctant to ascribe personalities to non-human animals.

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Now, researchers say golden-mantled ground squirrels exhibit consistent behavior differences. In other words, squirrels have personalities.

The study -- published Friday in the journal Animal Behavior -- showed golden-mantled ground squirrels demonstrate individual differences across four personality traits: boldness, aggressiveness, activity level and sociability.

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Though the golden-mantled ground squirrel is not currently threatened, understanding how personality influences an animal's use of space and resources could ultimately aid conservation planning.

An understanding of animal personalities could also help ecologists more precisely model population dynamics, according to researchers.

Bolder, more aggressive squirrels, for example, may be willing to defend larger swaths of territory or venture farther from home to find scarce resources.

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Conversely, a larger appetite for risky behavior may leave bolder squirrels more vulnerable to predation.

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"This adds to the small but growing number of studies showing that individuals matter," lead study author Jaclyn Aliperti said in a press release.

"Accounting for personality in wildlife management may be especially important when predicting wildlife responses to new conditions, such as changes or destruction of habitat due to human activity," said Aliperti, who conducted the research while earning her doctorate in ecology at the University of California, Davis.

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For the study, scientists drew on datasets collected from more than 30-years-worth of golden-mantled ground squirrel studies conducted at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado.

Researchers also designed several new experiments to observe and measure the behavioral traits of individual squirrels.

For example, scientists observed squirrels behavior in novel environs and in front of a mirror. Researchers also observed how wild squirrels reacted to the presence of an encroaching human, as well as how they behaved while caught briefly in a simple trap.

These tests allowed scientists to identify bolder, more aggressive squirrels.

The findings showed bolder squirrels were more active and moved faster. They also had greater access to perches like rock ledges, which confer an advantage by allowing the small rodents to watch for predators.

Though golden-mantled ground squirrels are asocial, researchers found some individuals are more social than others. They also found evidence that sociability offers an advantage.

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Researchers hope that by illuminating personality differences in animals, people will be able to more easily empathize with other living creatures.

"Animal personality is a hard science, but if it makes you relate to animals more, maybe people will be more interested in conserving them," Aliperti said.

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