Will animals shy away

In Disney films there are brave mice, neurotic ducks, shy crabs or scared clownfish. But Mickey, Donald and Nemo tend to turn up their noses in many scientists who deal with animals. Nice movies, but what does this have to do with real wildlife?

More than had previously been suspected. Because heroes and slackers, stoics and neurotics seem to exist in the realm of wild animals as well as in the world of homo sapiens. Behavioral biologists just never wanted to know.

Individual personality, character and temperament were not an issue for her for decades. "Scientists have always been afraid of humanizing animals," says Sam Goslin, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who heads the only animal personality laboratory to date. Despite decades of shyness: looking at animals through Disney glasses, so to speak, is becoming more and more popular.

Animals are brave, shy, or curious

Goslin's colleagues increasingly dare to attribute individual character traits to animals. What every dog ​​owner has long suspected, researchers are now finding everywhere in the animal world.

Monkeys, hyenas, rainbow trout, sticklebacks, goldfish, great and blue tits, octopuses and even spiders, ants and water striders are described as "brave", "shy", "curious" or "assertive".

Most recently, in November, French researchers reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (Online edition, Vol. 274, p. 383, 2007) of forest lizards, among which there are socially compatible and less compatible characters. While the sociable animals like to settle in places that have already been populated by conspecifics, the loners prefer to avoid such places.

Two weeks later, British researchers also reported in the Proceedings (Online edition, Vol. 274, p. 333, 2007) the fighting and exploration behavior of courageous and shy rainbow trout.

It is not unusual that individual animals of a species differ in their behavior in certain situations. Behavioral biologists observe this every day in the laboratory or in the field.

Behavioral researchers have only learned in the last ten years to accept that animals show individual peculiarities that persist across different situations, that for example the most belligerent trout prove to be the bravest when exploring unknown sources of food. And also that these behavioral syndromes or behavioral phenotypes can be described with thoroughly familiar terms.

Laughed at by biologists

"Today I am no longer afraid to humanize, but ten or 15 years ago I would have been booed at a behavioral biology congress if I had spoken of different behavioral phenotypes," says Kurt Kotrschal, head of the Konrad Lorenz Research Center in Grünau in Austria .

The fear of not being taken seriously, of being considered unscientific, caused behavioral biologists to ignore an apparently fundamental phenomenon: "When people like Lorenz and Tinbergen began researching animals in their way in the 1930s, they were extremely careful to pursue natural science and not some psychological gimmick, "says Kotrschal. Until then, the subject - which was still called animal psychology at the time - was mainly animated vitalists who lacked the dissecting gaze and the methodical approach of the natural sciences.