Squirrels have personalities too — just not as many as humans, study reveals

DAVIS, Calif. — A new study finds that friendly squirrel staring at you in the park has a personality — just like humans. Researchers from the University of California-Davis say these characteristics range from aggressive, to social or polite, to careful and shy.

The team adds the furry-tailed rodents are more like people than previously believed. Their findings could help conservation efforts aimed at saving endangered species from extinction.

“This adds to the small but growing number of studies showing that individuals matter,” says lead author and ecologist Dr. Jaclyn Aliperti, in a university 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.”

Researchers say personality plays a big part in whether people develop a positive attitude. Psychologists have identified the “Big Five” traits which contribute to this: agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extroversion, and openness to experience.

The study finds nature’s acrobats – who have a reputation for pulling off death-defying leaps towards nutty treats – have four instead. These are boldness, aggressiveness, activity level, and sociability. Moreover, these traits vary dramatically.

How does personality impact behavior in the wild?

Study authors put a group of golden-mantled ground squirrels through four challenges at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado. The squirrels entered an enclosed box with gridded lines and holes, faced with their mirror image which they did not recognize. Researchers observed as the animals slowly approached the mirror to see how long they waited before running away.

The team also caught squirrels briefly in a simple and harmless trap. They observed their responses to each test and recorded the results over the course of three summers. Bolder squirrels moved faster and concentrated on larger core areas. They were also more aggressive and active and had greater access to perches, such as rocks. Researchers say this can provide a better vantage point for squirrels to see and evade predators. This behavior also has a link to sociability.

Golden-mantled ground squirrels, found across the western U.S. and parts of Canada, are typically loners. They are relatively small, giving them little opportunity to form the tighter bonds common in larger squirrels, who spend more time in family units. Researchers write that “within this asocial species, individuals that tend to be relatively more social seem to have an advantage.”

In such cases, it could be a life saver. Personality differences influence a squirrel’s ability to survive and reproduce, which could scale up to the population or community level. The UC-Davis campus is home to many tree squirrels – which have become an honorary mascot. The findings published in the journal Animal Behaviour also apply to these tree-dwellers as well.

“The squirrels of UC Davis are something else,” Dr. Aliperti says. “I view them more as individuals. I view them as, ‘Who are you? Where are you going? What are up to?’ versus on a species level.”

Learning about animal personalities can help save them from extinction

Noticing such uniqueness brings a more personal angle regarding wildlife. The golden-mantled ground squirrel is frequently mistaken for a chipmunk. Its name comes from the markings on its head and shoulders. The fact they have personalities may not seem surprising to animal lovers watching them chitter, skitter, stop, and scurry, but Dr. Aliperti says the scientific field examining these traits is relatively young.

Bold and aggressive types may find more food or defend a larger territory, but their risky behavior may also make them prone to predation or accidents. Understanding how an animal’s character influences use of space is important for wildlife conservation. Scientists have been reluctant to ascribe personality – defined as consistent behavior over time – to other animals.

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

Previous research has suggested endangered red squirrels have a range of personalities too, from exploratory and aggressive, to careful and passive.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.