Ecological implications of personality in elk

  • Author / Creator
    Found, Robert B.
  • 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.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2015
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Specialization
    • Ecology
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Foote, Lee (Renewable Resources)
    • Reale, Denis (Sciences Biologiques, Université du Québec à Montréal)
    • Hurd, Peter (Psychology)
    • Merrill, Evelyn (Biological Sciences)