Looking at the email alerts I get for new journal issues, I came across a new paper by Sih et al. in Ecology Letters , looking at the “ecological implications of behavioural syndromes”. And I suppose that I could talk about the content of the paper, but what I’d rather do instead is go off on a short rant about research on this topic, as is my right as a blog writer. What’s got a bee in my bonnet (and why am I suddenly 90 years old)? It’s the name, “behavioural syndromes”. It drives me mad. I’ve seen papers refer to the topic by:
- “Animal personality”
- “Behavioural syndromes”
- “Coping styles”
- “Animal temperament”
- “Interindividual variation” – not an SEO friendly description, to be sure.
There seems to be a political aspect to this too, but I’m not 100% clear on it. Some themes are clear, though. My feeling is that Sih seems to be pretty stuck on “behavioural syndromes”, while others like Denis Réale (whom I know from my Ph.D. at UQÀM) and Neils Dingemanse seem to be throwing spaghetti at the wall; after trying to introduce “animal temperament” as a thing – which, as far as I can see didn’t take hold – they had the (actually quite inspired) idea of doing an end-run around the whole thing by combining personality with plasticity and coining the new phrase “behavioural reaction norms” . Only time will tell if that one takes off.
Lest you think that it’s just a name problem, it seems that confusion in the names is a symptom of deeper confusion over what they’re studying and how to study it. Hanging around at a couple of the discussions at the last ISBE made it clear that people working in this field aren’t agreeing on the name, the definition, or the methodology (statistical or experimental). Some of this is cause for excitement, of course: when you’re this confused, it’s probably a sign that you’re on to something good. And don’t think that I’m writing the area off; there’s been a lot of exciting work in personalities over the last decade or so. Hell, I’m trying to get a paper published on the topic myself right now. Yet, I can’t help feeling that work in this area is going to be a little bit hamstrung until it converges on clear values for each of these things.
And honestly, I just feel sorry for the next poor sod who wants to do a literature review or meta-analysis. So, can we just agree on a name and call it a day?
. Niels J. Dingemanse, Anahita J. N. Kazem, Denis Réale, and Jonathan Wright. Behavioural reaction norms: animal personality meets individual plasticity. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, 25(2): 81–89, 2009.