Small mammals in the big city

Behavioural adjustment to human-altered environments

Ongoing fast urbanisation provides a natural laboratory in which to improve our understanding of the role of behaviour for responses to human-induced rapid environmental changes (HIREC), as well as the role humans play in eco-evolutionary dynamics. Behavioural adaptations are likely to play a major role in coping with HIREC because behaviour largely determines how individuals interact with their surroundings. Also, behavioural responses typically occur faster, and are more rapidly reversible, than other responses to environmental change. 


In order to better understand the role of consistent behavioural differences between conspecifics (animal personality) in adjusting to urban areas, we ask: (a) Do urban animals present behavioural differences to their rural conspecifics? (b) Do behavioural traits display gradual phenotypic variation across an urbanization gradient? (c) Are such behavioural differences in urban animals due to behavioural adjustments to extrinsic environmental conditions (phenotypic plasticity) or to stable intrinsic personality traits? 

We found that the level of urbanisation positively correlates with boldness, spatial exploration and behavioural flexibility, with urban dwellers being bolder, more explorative and more flexible in some traits than rural conspecifics. The combination of elevated risk-taking and exploration with high behavioural flexibility might allow urban populations to successfully cope with the challenges of HIREC. Thus, individuals seem to distribute in a non-random way in response to human disturbance based on their behavioural characteristics. Animal personality might therefore play a key role in successful coping with the challenges of HIREC. Investigating whether the observed differences in behavioural flexibility are adaptive and how they are shaped by additive and interactive effects of genetic make-up and past environmental conditions will help illuminate eco-evolutionary dynamics under HIREC and predict persistence of populations under urban conditions.

Collaborators: J. A. Eccard, M. Dammhahn, C. Göttsche, E. Lösche, I. Müller, A. Schirmer, University of Potsdam (Germany).

This work is part of the Collaborative Project “Bridging in Biodiversity Science” (BIBS)

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