DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.14037 ISSN: 0021-8790

Environmental heterogeneity modifies the link between personality and survival in fluctuating small mammal populations

Allison M. Brehm, Alessio Mortelliti
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Despite numerous studies examining the fitness consequences of animal personalities, predictions concerning the relationship between personality and survival are not consistent with empirical observations. Theory predicts that individuals who are risky (i.e. bold, active and aggressive) should have higher rates of mortality; however, empirical evidence shows high levels of variation in behaviour–survival relationships in wild populations.

We suggest that this mismatch between predictions under theory and empirical observations results from environmental contingencies that drive heterogeneity in selection. This uncertainty may constrain any universal directional relationships between personality traits and survival. Specifically, we hypothesize that spatiotemporal fluctuations in perceived risk that arise from variability in refuge abundance and competitor density alter the relationship between personality traits and survival.

In a large‐scale manipulative experiment, we trapped four small mammal species in five subsequent years across six forest stands treated with different management practices in Maine, United States. Stands all occur within the same experimental forest but contain varying amounts of refuge and small mammal densities fluctuate over time and space. We quantified the effects of habitat structure and competitor density on the relationship between personality traits and survival to assess whether directional relationships differed depending on environmental contingencies.

In the two most abundant species, deer mice and southern red‐backed voles, risky behaviours (i.e. higher aggression and boldness) predicted apparent monthly survival probability. Mice that were more aggressive (less docile) had higher survival. Voles that were bolder (less timid) had higher survival, but in the risky forest stands only. Additionally, traits associated with stress coping and de‐arousal increased survival probability in both species at high small mammal density but decreased survival at low density. In the two less abundant study species, there was no evidence for an effect of personality traits on survival.

Our field experiment provides partial support for our hypothesis: that spatiotemporal fluctuations in refuge abundance and competitor density alter the relationship between personality traits and survival. Our findings also suggest that behaviours associated with stress coping and de‐arousal may be subject to density‐dependent selection and should be further assessed and incorporated into theory.

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