• Open Access

How does variation in the environment and individual cognition explain the existence of consistent behavioral differences?



Petri T. Niemelä, Department of Biology, P.O. Box 3000, FI-90014, University of Oulu, Finland. Tel: +358-503-505-298; Fax: +358-85-531-061; E-mail: petri.niemela@oulu.fi


According to recent studies on animal personalities, the level of behavioral plasticity, which can be viewed as the slope of the behavioral reaction norm, varies among individuals, populations, and species. Still, it is conceptually unclear how the interaction between environmental variation and variation in animal cognition affect the evolution of behavioral plasticity and expression of animal personalities. Here, we (1) use literature to review how environmental variation and individual variation in cognition explain population and individual level expression of behavioral plasticity and (2) draw together empirically yet nontested, conceptual framework to clarify how these factors affect the evolution and expression of individually consistent behavior in nature. The framework is based on simple principles: first, information acquisition requires cognition that is inherently costly to build and maintain. Second, individual differences in animal cognition affect the differences in behavioral flexibility, i.e. the variance around the mean of the behavioral reaction norm, which defines plasticity. Third, along the lines of the evolution of cognition, we predict that environments with moderate variation favor behavioral flexibility. This occurs since in those environments costs of cognition are covered by being able to recognize and use information effectively. Similarly, nonflexible, stereotypic behaviors may be favored in environments that are either invariable or highly variable, since in those environments cognition does not give any benefits to cover the costs or cognition is not able to keep up with environmental change, respectively. If behavioral plasticity develops in response to increasing environmental variability, plasticity should dominate in environments that are moderately variable, and expression of animal personalities and behavioral syndromes may differ between environments. We give suggestions how to test our hypothesis and propose improvements to current behavioral testing protocols in the field of animal personality.