Biological Links between Personality and Plasticity: Testing Some Alternative Hypotheses

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When organisms respond behaviorally to a stimulus, they exhibit plasticity, but some individuals respond to the same stimulus consistently differently than others, thereby also exhibiting personality differences. Parent house sparrows express individual differences in how often they feed offspring and how that feeding rate changes with nestling age. Mean feeding rate and its slope with respect to nestling age were positively correlated at median nestling ages but not at hatching, indicating that individuality is primarily in plasticity. Individual differences could arise because of (1) interactions between environmental variables, (2) differences in underlying state or “qual-ity,” or (3) differences in the ability to update cues of changing nestling demand. Individual slopes were modestly repeatable across breeding attempts, hinting at the likely action of additional environmental variables, but only brood size was important. I also found few correlates suggesting quality differences. I used short-term brood size manipulations at two nestling ages to test divergent predictions between the three hypotheses. The pattern of correlations between response to the manipulation and individual slope did not fitanysingle hypothesis. Patterns of sparrow parental care reveal that personality and plasticity are not cleanly separable, and their biology is likely intertwined. New thinking may be needed about the factors parents use in decisions about care and the relevant fitness consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-188
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2024

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  • individual optimization
  • parental care
  • personality
  • plasticity
  • reaction norm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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