Contact

Ana Catarina Miranda

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (Radolfzell), Radolfzell

Phone: +49 7732 1501-54

Original publication

Ana Catarina Miranda, Holger Schielzeth, Tanja Sonntag & Jesko Partecke
Urbanization and its effects on personality traits: a result of microevolution or phenotypic plasticity?
Global Change Biology, 19 June 2013; doi: 10.1111/gcb.12258

Further publications

Mueller, J. C., Partecke, J., Hatchwell, B. J., Gaston, K. J. and Evans, K. L.
Candidate gene polymorphisms for behavioural adaptations during urbanization in blackbirds.
Molecular Ecology. doi: 10.1111/mec.12288

Related articles

Catarina Miranda, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Organismal Biology investigates the effects urbanization has on the personality and the physiology of birds. Are differences between urban and forest birds due to microevolutionary changes or a result of phenotypic plasticity?

How do birds cope with urbanization?

Catarina Miranda, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Organismal Biology investigates the effects urbanization has on the personality and the physiology of birds. Are differences between urban and forest birds due to microevolutionary changes or a result of phenotypic plasticity?
Blackbirds’ biological rhythms are altered in an urban setting.

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Blackbirds’ biological rhythms are altered in an urban setting.
Birds can sing louder at higher frequencies and thereby make themselves heard in traffic noise.

Clamorous city blackbirds

Birds can sing louder at higher frequencies and thereby make themselves heard in traffic noise. [more]
Many animal species have made their homes in towns and cities. However, the conditions they encounter there are different than those in a natural environment. Henrik Brumm, Jesko Partecke and Bart Kempenaers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen and Radolfzell are studying the effects of city living on our native songbirds.

Birds that go wild for the city

Many animal species have made their homes in towns and cities. However, the conditions they encounter there are different than those in a natural environment. Henrik Brumm, Jesko Partecke and Bart Kempenaers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen and Radolfzell are studying the effects of city living on our native songbirds.

Behavioural Biology

City slicker or country bumpkin

City-life changes blackbird personalities

June 19, 2013

The origins of a young animal might have a significant impact on its behaviour later on in life. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, have been able to demonstrate in hand-reared blackbirds that urban-born individuals are less curious and more cautious about new objects than their country counterparts. This study sheds light on an interesting debate on whether personality differences between rural and urban birds are behavioural adjustments to urban environments, or if there is an underlying evolutionary basis to the existence of different personalities in urban habitats.
Behavioural experiments on urban and forest-dwelling blackbirds. Urban blackbirds wait longer than their forest-born counterparts before approaching a new object (in this case, a plastic cup). Zoom Image
Behavioural experiments on urban and forest-dwelling blackbirds. Urban blackbirds wait longer than their forest-born counterparts before approaching a new object (in this case, a plastic cup). [less]

It’s something pet owners have always known: animals have personalities too. More than 100 species have so far been identified by scientists where individuals consistently follow distinct behavioural strategies and behave in similar ways in a variety of situations. Scientists believe that such differences may also be important in adapting to new habitats.

Urbanization has considerably changed the living conditions of many wild animals. Animals living in urban areas need to cope with new anthropogenically-altered living conditions. A textbook example is the European blackbird (Turdus merula). Historically a forest-dweller, the blackbird is now one of the most common bird species found in our cities. In these new habitats, the blackbird has changed its behaviour in many ways: urban blackbirds migrate less in the winter, breed earlier, and live in higher densities than their forest conspecifics.

Cities might be also responsible for fundamental changes in the behaviour of wild animals across the globe. A team from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell analysed existing studies on differences between urban and rural populations of various species. In 27 out of 29 studies, animals in the city responded differently to new stimuli than animals in the countryside. “This seems to be a global phenomenon,” comments Ana Catarina Miranda, the lead author in the study.

Moreover, the Radolfzell scientists tested whether or not these behavioural differences also reflect different personality types and if so, whether this is a result of evolutionary changes or individual flexibility. To this end, the scientists collected nestlings from an urban and a rural environment, hand-reared them and kept them individually under identical conditions. When these blackbirds matured into adults, the researchers repeatedly presented individuals with unfamiliar objects over a period of several months.

Hand-rearing urban and rural blackbird nestlings. Zoom Image
Hand-rearing urban and rural blackbird nestlings.

Compared with birds from the forest, the birds from the city waited much longer before they approached a new object. Not only did urban blackbirds react more cautiously towards new objects, they also tended to avoid unfamiliar objects. Since all the birds were collected as nestlings, hand-reared, and kept under identical conditions during the entire experiment, the differences in behavioural responses between urban and rural blackbirds seem to be intrinsic and not a result of experiencing the original urban or rural environments. A recently published study supports these findings: Genes which are believed to be involved in shaping personality traits exhibit a different structure in urban blackbirds than in their rural counterparts.

This work is an important step to understand how animals cope with our urbanizing world. Different reasons might be behind differences in personality types between urban and rural animals, and this is a question to be further explored. “Animals in fast-paced urban environments face numerous and potentially dangerous new situations, and this might select for specific reactions towards novelty,” suggests Miranda. “Evolution appears to have favoured certain personality types.”

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