Sea anemone personality affects their chance of surviving climate events


Animal personalities, also known as consistent individual differences in behaviour, are increasingly recognised as a critical factor in determining how a species adapts to environmental challenges. These personalities are broadly assessed by looking for consistent traits in how an individual responds to environmental stimuli. Within a single species, a plethora of differing behavioural traits can exist and as any pet owner would know, individual animals can be considered bolder, shyer, more aggressive or sociable. However, these personalities aren’t limited to mammals or even vertebrates, individual differences have been found across the animal kingdom and recent botanical research even promotes the idea that plants may display distinct personal variation in behavioural response to threats. 

One hypothesis for the formation of these personalities arises due to individual variation in the trade-off between long-term survival and increased short-term reproduction. For instance, ‘bolder’ individuals will embrace greater risk to reproduce more in comparison to ‘shyer’ individuals. However, the spread of these traits can have severe implications at the species level, determining survival rates and the evolution of new behaviours during times of change.

Botanical research even promotes the idea that plants may display distinct personal variation

The need to investigate variation in animal personality is becoming particularly necessary due to climate change. As the planet warms, extreme weather events and natural disasters are becoming more commonplace. For example, in 2023, fuelled by extreme heatwaves and El Niño, Canada lost 18 million hectares to wildfires, more than 10 million more than any year previously. Disasters like this are set to become more and more common. How individual animals respond and recover from such disaster events will become an increasingly important theme in global conservation plans. This is particularly true of sessile organisms in the marine environment which cannot flee climate change related threats. Last year, nearly a third of the planet’s ocean experienced catastrophic heatwaves, causing mass mortality events in benthic organisms and plankton across the globe.

In February, biologists at the University of Gothenburg conducted a study on the beadlet anemone, Actinia equina, aiming to shed light on the importance of animal personalities in response to such temperature changes. These anemones have stinging tentacles which they use to catch prey passing nearby but retract these when disturbed or at low tide. When retracted, the anemones are unable to forage and so experience an energetic loss. This is exacerbated by a link between respiratory efficiency and tentacle extension. On the other hand, when extended, anemones are a much greater risk of predation and environmental damage. This study discovered that shyer individuals, those that typically waited longer to re-expose their vulnerable tentacles, had much greater survivability under heat wave conditions. This highlights the complex interplay between behavioural traits and thermal stress in ectothermic organisms.

Nearly a third of the planet’s ocean experienced catastrophic heatwaves

These findings have significant implications for understanding ecosystem dynamics in the face of climate change. The loss of bolder individuals during heat waves will lead to shifts in population structure that may affect interspecific interactions on a wider scale. Reducing behavioural diversity also reduces a populations resilience, meaning adaptation to a rapidly changing climate may become more difficult, promoting extinction. This study demonstrates the importance of understanding animal personalities. In order to implement effective conservation strategies, we must first understand the array of existing behaviours and then adapt plans accordingly.

Finally, whilst these personalities pose potential conservation issues, they also provide an element of hope. Without this behavioural diversity, species would be at much greater level of risk to natural disasters and human disturbance. Embracing the rich diversity of animal personality offers hope for navigating the wider challenge of climate change and preserving the richness of our natural world for many generations to come. 

Image: Hiroko Yoshi via Unsplash

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