We often ascribe human emotions onto other animals, especially those that are furry and cute. Dogs, cats, elephants, dolphins and of course our cousins in the great ape branch of the evolutionary tree all exhibit signs of the capability to feel. They become depressed, frightened, angry and happy, seemingly just as you or I would. Whether or not they have the mental capacity to understand their behaviors, they are there nonetheless.
Right on the back of these emotional traits are those of personality. Some dogs are nicer than others while some cats are friendly rather than aloof. Any dolphin or elephant trainer will quickly tell you the individual quirks of their animals.
But what about the rest of the animal kingdom? Would any of us be quick to ascribe personality traits to a house fly? What about a cockroach?
Few of us probably would, but according to new research from the University of Illinois, perhaps we should. Gene Robinson, a professor entomology and director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, has for the first time shown personality traits in an insect – the common honey bee. What’s more, the personality trait cataloged is controlled by much the same genes and enzymes as it is in vertebrates.
A honey bee hive is divided into many different jobs. Some workers build nests, other go gather food and others fertilize eggs. And then there are those that go out in search of new food sources and new locations to move the hive. Even when food sources are abundant, these scouts will still go out and search the area for new ones.
Sounds a bit like novelty seeking behavior, no?
In his experiment, Robinson took a hive in an enclosure and noted which bees went out of their way to locate new sources of food. After multiple trials, those that continually showed up at the new locations were deemed to be scouts, and Robinson took a look at their brains.
He found a substantial difference in the expression of genes between scouts and non-scouts. At least three of these were related to producing compounds that are known to be involved in regulating novelty seeking and reward behavior in vertebrates. Then, just to make sure, he synthetically administered the compounds non-scouts to see what would happen. Sure enough, they significantly altered the scouting behavior of the bees, turning some of them into regular Marco Polos.
Of course, not all of them suddenly wanted to travel to China. But this is because behavior is regulated by much more than just a few chemical compounds. It also is dependent on other brain regions, hive situations and likely numerous unknowns. After all, the brain is a complex thing, even in honey bees.
One of the fascinating parts of this paper is that the mechanisms used to control novelty seeking behavior are so similar to that of vertebrates. The question is whether we both inherited these from a common ancestor or if they evolved independently but arrived at the same place, a process called convergent evolution. The authors speculate that the mechanisms represent part of a basic tool kit that has been used repeatedly by many species in the evolution of behavior.
In short, most all species could have the ability to evolve similar types of behavior, it’s just a question of whether they have or not.