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Does personality in small rodents vary depending on population density?

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Personality means an individual’s unique way of behaving and reacting to the environment. It is a stable and heritable trait, which is expressed consistently in different situations. The aim of our study was to develop novel tests to depict the personality structure of the bank vole Myodes glareolus, and to determine if the phase of the population cycle, i.e. population density, affects personality. We focused on some central aspects of bank vole behaviour: mobility, risk taking, exploratory behaviour, dominance, and aggressive behaviour towards pups. These behaviours were chosen because they directly affect bank vole survival or fitness or are classified as important factors of personality in other species. In total, 192 males from different populations went through four behavioural tests, in which 20 variables were measured. The tests were repeated after 3 weeks, which verified that all traits were stable, i.e. repeatable between trials. Three personality compounds emerged, named extroversion, novelty seeking and infanticide. Extroversion included dominance and mobility, while novelty seeking consisted of risk taking and exploration. Infanticide encompassed all indices measuring harmful behaviour towards pups. Mobility and dominance were connected, possibly because both seem to depend on condition. Time spent in captivity increased extroversion, which may be explained by good food, stable conditions and acclimation to strong social cues. Novelty seeking was connected to repeatability which could mean that novelty avoiding individuals adjust their behaviour to match new environments. Population density affected the infanticide trait but not novelty seeking or extroversion.

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We thank technicians of the Konnevesi Research Station for help in maintenance and care of the experimental animals. The experiment was conducted under permission by the Board for Animal Experimentation at the University of Jyväskylä, No. 25/20.6.2006.

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Correspondence to Katri Korpela.

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Communicated by Roland Brandl.

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Korpela, K., Sundell, J. & Ylönen, H. Does personality in small rodents vary depending on population density?. Oecologia 165, 67–77 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-010-1810-2

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  • Myodes (Clethrionomys)
  • Dominance
  • Infanticide
  • Novelty seeking
  • Personality