Researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Hamburg investigated how personality is transferred between generations. They found that foster parents have a greater influence on the personalities of fostered offspring than the genes inherited from birth parents.
Dr Nick Royle from the University of Exeter said: "This is one of the first experiments to show that behaviour can be non-genetically transmitted from parents to offspring. Our study shows that in zebra finches, personality traits can be transmitted from one generation to another through behaviour not just genetics."
The research, published in the journal Biology Letters, measured personality by placing the zebra finches in a new environment and counting the number of features they visited. Some were shy, staying mainly in one place while others explored widely demonstrating a more outgoing personality. Male and female birds were then paired up and allowed to breed. Each clutch of eggs was fostered by another pair just prior to hatching. Offspring personality was measured once they were adults. Offspring size was also measured and was found to be primarily genetically inherited and not significantly influenced by foster parent size.
Although this study considers personality inheritance in zebra finches, it raises questions about the inheritance of personality in other species, including humans. Do adopted children inherit the personality characteristics of their birth parents or their adoptive parents? Is the environment more important than genetic inheritance in the development of personality?
The results of this study indicate that non-genetic transmission of behaviour can play an important role in shaping animal personality. Further studies will build on this research to assess how widespread behavioural inheritance is for personality traits across other species.
This work was funded by the European Social Fund and the Natural Environment Research Council.
About the University of Exeter
The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13, the University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 18,000 students and is ranked 7th in The Sunday Times University Guide, 10th in the UK in The Times Good University Guide 2012 and 10th in the Guardian University Guide. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 90% of the University's research was rated as being at internationally recognised levels and 16 of its 31 subjects are ranked in the top 10, with 27 subjects ranked in the top 20.
The University has three campuses. The Streatham and St Luke's campuses are in Exeter and the Cornwall Campus (known locally as the Tremough Campus) near Penryn. In an arrangement that is unique in the UK, the Cornwall Campus is owned and jointly managed as the Tremough Campus with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Sciences, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Mathematics and the Environment, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Studies, Renewable Energy and Zoology.
The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses for 2012, including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange in Cornwall - and world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute.
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The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, food security, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £300m a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund research and training in universities and its own research centres.