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Acoustic Signalling Strongly Related to Personality in the Domestic Pig

03 March 2017

Social interactions among individuals are often mediated through acoustic signals. If acoustic signals are consistent and related to an individual's personality, these consistent individual differences in signalling may be an important driver in social interactions. However, few studies in non-human mammals have investigated the relationship between acoustic signalling and personality. Here Mary Friel et al, Queen's University Belfast, show that acoustic signalling rate is repeatable and strongly related to personality in a highly social mammal, the domestic pig (Sus scrofa domestica).

Acoustic communication plays a central role in various aspects of animals' life history from mate attraction and territory defence to parental care and anti-predator behaviour in many species. As such, acoustic signals convey a wide range of information about the signaller, including their emotional, motivational and physiological state.

There is increasing interest in discovering how the social environment affects the evolution and maintenance of consistent behavioural variation between individuals of the same species .

As acoustic signalling plays an integral role in interactions in animal societies, investigating vocalizations is particularly relevant for answering questions about the effect of interactions on individual behavioural variation.

Animal personalities, also known as ‘behavioural syndromes’ or ‘coping styles’ are defined as consistent individual differences in behaviour across situations and time and they may have consequences for fitness .

The way in which individuals react to environmental stressors has been studied from the perspective of coping styles and these are characterized by consistent individual behavioural and physiological traits termed ‘reactive’ and ‘proactive’ coping styles’ .

Acoustic signals form part of many species' response to stressors, for example, alarm calling when a threat is perceived or using contact calls when an individual is separated from their social group . The repeatability of acoustic signalling rate and acoustic parameters in mammals has received some attention in the literature , with many finding medium to high repeatabilities.

The relationship between other measures of personality and acoustic signalling have been less consistent, with some studies finding a relationship between acoustic signalling and personality traits such as activity and others reporting negative or conflicting relationships.

Given the ubiquitous nature of acoustic signalling in mammals, understanding the relationship between personality and vocalizations can provide valuable insights into the role of personality in social interactions.

The domestic pig (Sus scrofa domestica) is a highly social and vocal species which uses acoustic signals in a variety of contexts, for example in maintaining contact with other group members while foraging, in parent–offspring communication, and when they are distressed. Acoustic signals of pigs tend to form a graded continuum of sound from low- to high-frequency calls of which the distinctions between call types are not clear.

However, pig vocalizations can be grouped into high- and low-frequency calls: squeals and screams are high-frequency calls and are produced in situations of fear and thus may function as appeasement signals or to alert conspecifics; grunts are low-frequency calls which occur in all contexts, but are typical of foraging contexts and thus are thought to function as a contact call to indicate the location of the caller to other members of the group.

In domestic pigs coping styles are related to immune response , aggression at weaning and adaptation to social isolation.

Furthermore, proactive pigs produce more vocalizations in response to novelty, suggesting that acoustic signalling may be repeatable; however, these studies did not investigate the repeatability of calling.

Acoustic signalling in pigs has mainly been studied in relation to welfare status, and previous studies have primarily focused on vocalizations produced during short-term stressors. Yet living in a barren environment is one of the most prevalent chronic stressors in modern pig production and exposure to long-term stressors may affect acoustic signalling. Environmental enrichment improves the welfare of pigs by enabling animals to perform highly motivated species-specific behaviours such as foraging.

Thus, we aimed to investigate the effect of environmental quality on personality and acoustic signalling in pigs by comparing individuals from different environmental treatments.

We investigated the effects of barren versus enriched housing conditions on acoustic signalling rate in individual juvenile domestic pigs, and tested for an association with personality. We assessed personality by measuring behavioural responses to two different stressful situations: a novel object test and a social isolation test. Each type of test was repeated once to allow us to assess the repeatability of behaviour within and between these contexts. We predicted that the acoustic signalling rate would be a repeatable behavioural trait and that it would be related to personality measures in pigs. Moreover, we predicted that the environmental conditions individuals are exposed to would affect vocalization rate.

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