Urbanization and its effects on personality traits: a result of microevolution or phenotypic plasticity?

Glob Chang Biol. 2013 Sep;19(9):2634-44. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12258. Epub 2013 Jun 19.


Human-altered environmental conditions affect many species at the global scale. An extreme form of anthropogenic alteration is the existence and rapid increase of urban areas. A key question, then, is how species cope with urbanization. It has been suggested that rural and urban conspecifics show differences in behaviour and personality. However, (i) a generalization of this phenomenon has never been made; and (ii) it is still unclear whether differences in personality traits between rural and urban conspecifics are the result of phenotypic plasticity or of intrinsic differences. In a literature review, we show that behavioural differences between rural and urban conspecifics are common and taxonomically widespread among animals, suggesting a significant ecological impact of urbanization on animal behaviour. In order to gain insight into the mechanisms leading to behavioural differences in urban individuals, we hand-raised and kept European blackbirds (Turdus merula) from a rural and a nearby urban area under common-garden conditions. Using these birds, we investigated individual variation in two behavioural responses to the presence of novel objects: approach to an object in a familiar area (here defined as neophilia), and avoidance of an object in a familiar foraging context (defined as neophobia). Neophilic and neophobic behaviours were mildly correlated and repeatable even across a time period of one year, indicating stable individual behavioural strategies. Blackbirds from the urban population were more neophobic and seasonally less neophilic than blackbirds from the nearby rural area. These intrinsic differences in personality traits are likely the result of microevolutionary changes, although we cannot fully exclude early developmental influences.

Keywords: animal personalities; anthropogenic environmental change; behavioural syndromes; colonization; microevolution; neophilia; neophobia; phenotypic plasticity; urbanization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Passeriformes / physiology*
  • Personality*
  • Phenotype
  • Urbanization*