Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Life-history trade-offs favour the evolution of animal personalities


In recent years evidence has been accumulating that personalities are not only found in humans1 but also in a wide range of other animal species2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Individuals differ consistently in their behavioural tendencies and the behaviour in one context is correlated with the behaviour in multiple other contexts. From an adaptive perspective, the evolution of animal personalities is still a mystery, because a more flexible structure of behaviour should provide a selective advantage9,10,11. Accordingly, many researchers view personalities as resulting from constraints imposed by the architecture of behaviour7 (but see ref. 12). In contrast, we show here that animal personalities can be given an adaptive explanation. Our argument is based on the insight that the trade-off between current and future reproduction13 often results in polymorphic populations14 in which some individuals put more emphasis on future fitness returns than others. Life-history theory predicts that such differences in fitness expectations should result in systematic differences in risk-taking behaviour15. Individuals with high future expectations (who have much to lose) should be more risk-averse than individuals with low expectations. This applies to all kinds of risky situations, so individuals should consistently differ in their behaviour. By means of an evolutionary model we demonstrate that this basic principle results in the evolution of animal personalities. It simultaneously explains the coexistence of behavioural types, the consistency of behaviour through time and the structure of behavioural correlations across contexts. Moreover, it explains the common finding that explorative behaviour and risk-related traits like boldness and aggressiveness are common characteristics of animal personalities2,3,4,5,6,7,8.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Stable coexistence of exploration strategies owing to a life-history trade-off.
Figure 2: Evolution of variation in risk-taking behaviour.
Figure 3: Evolution of personalities.
Figure 4: Evolution of continuous variation in personalities.


  1. Pervin, L. A. & John, O. P. Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (The Guilford Press, New York, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Wilson, D. S., Clark, A. B., Coleman, K. & Dearstyne, T. Shyness and boldness in humans and other animals. Trends Ecol. Evol. 9, 442–446 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Boissy, A. Fear and fearfulness in animals. Q. Rev. Biol. 70, 165–191 (1995)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Gosling, S. D. & John, O. P. Personality dimensions in nonhuman animals: a cross-species review. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 8, 69–75 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Koolhaas, J. M. et al. Coping styles in animals: current status in behavior and stress-physiology. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 23, 925–935 (1999)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Gosling, S. D. From mice to men: What can we learn about personality from animal research? Psychol. Bull. 127, 45–86 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Sih, A., Bell, A. M., Johnson, J. C. & Ziemba, R. E. Behavioral syndromes: an integrative overview. Q. Rev. Biol. 79, 241–277 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Groothuis, T. G. G. & Carere, C. Avian personalities: characterization and epigenesis. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 29, 137–150 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Coleman, K. & Wilson, D. S. Shyness and boldness in pumpkinseed sunfish: individual differences are context-specific. Anim. Behav. 56, 927–936 (1998)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Wilson, D. S. Adaptive individual differences within single populations. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 353, 199–205 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dall, S. R. X., Houston, A. I. & McNamara, J. M. The behavioural ecology of personality: consistent individual differences from an adaptive perspective. Ecol. Lett. 7, 734–739 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bell, A. M. Behavioural differences between individuals and two populations of stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). J. Evol. Biol. 18, 464–473 (2005)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Roff, D. A. Life History Evolution (Sinauer, Sunderland, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Rueffler, C., Van Dooren, T. J. M. & Metz, J. A. J. Adaptive walks on changing landscapes: Levins’ approach extended. Theor. Popul. Biol. 65, 165–178 (2004)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Clark, C. W. Antipredator behavior and the asset-protection principle. Behav. Ecol. 5, 159–170 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Drent, P. J., Van Oers, K. & Van Noordwijk, A. J. Realized heritability of personalities in the great tit (Parus major). Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270, 45–51 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Dingemanse, N. J., Both, C., Drent, P. J., Van Oers, K. & Van Noordwijk, A. J. Repeatability and heritability of exploratory behaviour in great tits from the wild. Anim. Behav. 64, 929–938 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Bakker, T. C. M. Aggressiveness in sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus)—a behavior–genetic study. Behaviour 98, 1–144 (1986)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Sinn, D. L., Apiolaza, L. A. & Moltschaniwskyj, N. A. Heritability and fitness-related consequences of squid personality traits. J. Evol. Biol. 19, 1437–1447 (2006)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Sih, A., Bell, A. & Johnson, J. C. Behavioral syndromes: an ecological and evolutionary overview. Trends Ecol. Evol. 19, 372–378 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Reale, D., Gallant, B. Y., Leblanc, M. & Festa-Bianchet, M. Consistency of temperament in bighorn ewes and correlates with behaviour and life history. Anim. Behav. 60, 589–597 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Huntingford, F. A. Relationship between anti-predator behavior and aggression among conspecifics in the three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus. Anim. Behav. 24, 245–260 (1976)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Bell, A. M. & Stamps, J. A. Development of behavioural differences between individuals and populations of sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus. Anim. Behav. 68, 1339–1348 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Maynard Smith, J. Evolution and the Theory of Games (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1982)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. Rueffler, C., Van Dooren, T. J. M., Leimar, O. & Abrams, P. A. Disruptive selection and then what? Trends Ecol. Evol. 21, 238–245 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Van Doorn, G. S. & Dieckmann, U. The long-term evolution of multi-locus traits under frequency-dependent disruptive selection. Evolution 60, 2226–2238 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Dingemanse, N. J., Both, C., Drent, P. J. & Tinbergen, J. M. Fitness consequences of avian personalities in a fluctuating environment. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 271, 847–852 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. McNamara, J. M., Barta, Z. & Houston, A. I. Variation in behaviour promotes cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma game. Nature 428, 745–748 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Rands, S. A., Cowlishaw, G., Pettifor, R. A., Rowcliffe, J. M. & Johnstone, R. A. Spontaneous emergence of leaders and followers in foraging pairs. Nature 423, 432–434 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Hedrick, A. V. Crickets with extravagant mating songs compensate for predation risk with extra caution. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 267, 671–675 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank N. J. Dingemanse, T. W. Fawcett and I. Pen for discussions and critical reading of the manuscript and D. Visser for preparing the figures.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Franz J. Weissing.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Equations and Supplementary Figures 1-3 with Legends. The file includes analytical results that supplement the computer simulations in the main text. By means of an evolutionary invasion analysis we show that personalities (i.e., behavioural correlations across different games and stable individual differences within the same game) are stable evolutionary outcomes for a broad range of parameter settings. (PDF 1826 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wolf, M., van Doorn, G., Leimar, O. et al. Life-history trade-offs favour the evolution of animal personalities. Nature 447, 581–584 (2007).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing