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Ecological implications of personality in elk Open Access


Other title
behavioural plasticity
aversive conditioning
behavioural flexibility
behavioural syndromes
wildlife management
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Found, Robert B.
Supervisor and department
St.Clair, Colleen (Biological Sciences)
Examining committee member and department
Reale, Denis (Sciences Biologiques, Université du Québec à Montréal)
Hurd, Peter (Psychology)
Foote, Lee (Renewable Resources)
Merrill, Evelyn (Biological Sciences)
Department of Biological Sciences
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Personality has been documented in diverse taxa and growing attention is being directed towards the ecological implications of consistent variation in individual behaviour. These implications include the rise in habituation behaviour by wildlife living in human-disturbed areas, which has resulted in trophic disruptions, risks to human safety, and environmental damage. For ungulates, habituation behaviour may also contribute to global declines in migratory behaviour. The purpose of this thesis was to explore the sources of variation in the behaviour of elk (Cervus canadensis) and determine their relevance to changing migratory patterns. I had three specific objectives to: 1) quantify personality (also known as behavioural syndromes) in both wild and captive elk and determine whether personality can predict variations in migratory choices; 2) determine whether aversive conditioning designed to increase the wariness of elk was affected by personality type and the nature of the aversive stimulus; and 3) quantify cerebral lateralization as a potential measure of behavioural plasticity and determine its relationship to personality. I conducted research on wild elk in each of Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta, Canada, and on captive elk near Leduc, Alberta, from 2010 to 2013. I demonstrated the presence of behavioural syndromes in elk by identifying seven covarying behavioural traits that together delineated a gradient of shy to bold personality types. Aversive conditioning was more effective at increasing wariness in bolder elk, but extinction of this learned wariness behaviour (or recidivism) was also greater in these individuals when the aversive stimulus was removed. These patterns of responsiveness were similar whether targeted elk were subjected to conditioning chases as part of a group or when conditioning also included isolation of the target from all conspecifics. However, the isolation method significantly reduced recidivistic behaviour during the extinction period, particularly for bolder elk. Measures of laterality, determined by observing the front limb biases of elk foraging in snow, revealed that less lateralized individuals were also more plastic in their responses to both aversive and benign stimuli by people. The combination of laterality and personality best predicted the migratory choices of individual elk. Together, my results suggest that personality and laterality contribute to the responses of individuals to changing environments in diverse contexts, both natural and anthropogenic. Better methods for measuring these attributes in wild animals will make it possible for wildlife managers, conservationists, and planners to foster greater rates of coexistence between people and wildlife in an increasingly urbanized world.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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