Shyness and boldness in pumpkinseed sunfish: Individual differences are context-specific

Kristine Coleman, David Sloan Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

347 Scopus citations


Natural selection often promotes a mix of behavioural phenotypes in a population. Adaptive variation in the propensity to take risks might explain individual differences in shyness and boldness in humans and other species. It is often implicitly assumed that shyness and boldness are general personality traits expressed across many situations. From the evolutionary standpoint, however, individual differences that are adaptive in one context (e.g. predator defence) may not be adaptive in other contexts (e.g. exploration of the physical environment or intraspecific social interactions). We measured the context specificity of shyness and boldness in a natural population of juvenile pumpkinseed sunfish, Lepomis gibbosus, by exposing the fish to a potentially threatening stimulus (a red-tipped metrestick extended towards the individual) and a nonthreatening stimulus (a novel food source), We also related these measures of shyness and boldness to behaviours observed during focal observations, both before and after the introduction of a predator (largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides). Consistent individual differences were found within both contexts, but individual differences did not correlate across contexts. Furthermore, fish that were scored as intermediate in their response to the metrestick behaved most boldly as foragers and in response to the bass predators. These results suggest that shyness and boldness are context-specific and may not exist as a one-dimensional behavioural continuum even within a single context.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)927-936
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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