State dependence explains individual variation in nest defence behaviour in a long-lived bird

Journal of Animal Ecology


  1. Parental care, such as nest or offspring defence, is crucial for offspring survival in many species. Yet, despite its obvious fitness benefits, the level of defence can consistently vary between individuals of the same species. One prominent adaptive explanation for consistent individual differences in behaviours involves state dependency: relatively stable differences in individual state should lead to the emergence of repeatable behavioural variation whereas changes in state should lead to a readjustment of behaviour. Therefore, empirical testing of adaptive state dependence requires longitudinal data where behaviour and state of individuals of the same population are repeatedly measured.
  2. Here, we test if variation in states predicts nest defence behaviour (a ‘risky’ behaviour) in a long‐lived species, the barnacle goose Branta leucopsis. Adaptive models have predicted that an individual's residual reproductive value or ‘asset’ is an important state variable underlying variation in risk‐taking behaviour. Hence, we investigate how nest defence varies as a function of time of the season and individual age, two state variables that can vary between and within individuals and determine asset.
  3. Repeated measures of nest defence towards a human intruder (flight initiation distance or FID) of females of known age were collected during 15 breeding seasons. Increasing values of FID represent increasing shyness.
  4. We found that females strongly and consistently differed in FID within‐ and between‐years. As predicted by theory, females adjusted their behaviour to state by decreasing their FID with season and age. Decomposing these population patterns into within‐ and between‐individual effects showed that the state‐dependent change in FID was driven by individual plasticity in FID and that bolder females were more plastic than shyer females.
  5. This study shows that nest defence behaviour differs consistently among individuals and is adjusted to individual state in a direction predicted by adaptive personality theory.

De Jong, M. E., Nicolaus, M., Fokkema, R. W., & Loonen, M. J. J. E. (2020). State dependence explains individual variation in nest defence behaviour in a long-lived bird. Journal of Animal Ecology, 00(1-11).