by Elyse Catalina, University of Maine
A mouse scampers through the forest, stopping suddenly at the sight of a tree seed on the ground. A potential meal. And a dilemma.
The mouse must decide if it should eat the seed immediately. Or hide it in a safe place for consumption when food is scarce. Or pass it up in hopes of something better.
Many factors determine what the mouse will do next, including how abundant the seeds are and if the rodent is a fan of that variety.
Personality is another element that might play a role in what the mouse decides, according to a University of Maine researcher.
How animals react to an environment that is transforming due to human behavior and climate change is at the core of research being conducted by Alessio Mortelliti, an assistant professor of wildlife habitat ecology at UMaine.
One study Mortelliti and his students are pursuing focuses on how individual personalities of small mammals affect their response to global change.
Like humans, animals have a personality, according to Mortelliti.
“Anyone that has a pet knows they have a personality,” he says. “It’s the same for squirrels, mice and voles.”
Within a species, individuals can be aggressive or shy, more or less social, Mortelliti explains.
“We’re looking at how this individuality—their own way of being—affects the way they respond to changes in their environment made by humans,” he says of wild small mammals.
When a mouse finds a seed, the decision it makes affects more than the mouse. If the seed is eaten immediately, any chance of a plant sprouting from that seed is gone. If the mouse decides to move and store the seed, a plant has a chance to grow.
Mortelliti believes that by modifying the environment, humans may be favoring certain personality types over others and, in turn, altering the course of evolution and the shape of the forest.