Dimphy van Boerdonk
Department of Behavioural Biology
Institute for Neuro- and Behavioural Biology
D-48149 Münster, Germany
Individual variation in exploration and information gathering strategies: key behaviors for niche-altering processes
Exploration is a key behavior for most animals, as they require information about resources, enemies and conspecifics in their environment to make optimal decisions. It is also one of the most widely studied behaviors in animal personality research. However, depending on research area, behavioral test used and context of study, exploration is considered, explicitly or implicitly, in light of spatial movement, as information gathering or as seeking out novelty. This variety in definitions and measures makes it difficult to interpret how among-individual variation in exploration is related to other behavioral traits or to assess its ecological consequences. Therefore, in the first part of my project, I will summarize the state of knowledge on exploration as a personality trait and critically assess current definitions, experimental set-ups and measured variables in various fields of study. The aim of this part is to disentangle whether exploration is a distinct trait, part of an overarching behavioral syndrome or an umbrella term for multiple closely linked traits.
The overarching goal of my project is to investigate the role of exploration in niche-altering mechanisms (i.e., niche choice, niche conformance and niche construction, NC³). Decisions whether to explore, what, where, and how, may differ depending on an individual’s physical state and status, how it interprets its environment, its past experience and knowledge as well as its ability to deal with various threats and costs. Even small differences in how an individual explores its environments can have significant impacts on what it encounters and experiences and in turn affect future decisions. In a series of controlled experiments, I will empirically determine how consistent exploration behavior is across functional contexts and identify how experience and previous knowledge modify exploration. A vital part of investigating exploration strategy and plasticity, is finding out in what way spatial movement, information gathering and novelty seeking are connected. Looking at exploration on both larger spatial- and time- scales is also indispensable for placing the behavior within the ecological background. This research will lay an essential foundation for interpreting the role of exploration in the context of behavioral syndromes, maintenance of individual variation and resilience to changing environments and ultimately help. Ultimately uncovering what role among-individual differences in exploration averages, plasticity and strategies may play in niche formation.