Arriving in the alpine town of Jasper in Canada is like entering a postcard. There are aquamarine rivers, turquoise lakes, snow-capped peaks, and forests clambering up to the rocky tree line. There are also animals galore. The first one to "greet" me is a big, bold bull elk. He’s completely unperturbed as I turn my car around beside him: barely glancing up, he flaunts his formidable antlers while grazing beside the road. And the fact that this "townie" elk is so bold is no coincidence.

For decades, scientists shunned the idea that individual animals have distinct personalities – like bold or shy – seeing such labels as anthropomorphic. But that recently changed. Personality has now been identified in hundreds of organisms, from sea anemones and limpets to fish, birds, rodents, spiders and lizards – to name just a few. When it comes to animals like elk that roam protected but heavily touristed areas like national parks, understanding how personality shapes behaviour is important for avoiding human-wildlife conflict. (Photo-seeking tourists are sometimes injured, though rarely killed, by elk). 

At the University of Alberta, Dr Rob Found studied elk personality in collaboration with his advisor Dr Colleen Cassady St. Clair. Compared with the elk strutting fearlessly around towns like Jasper and Banff in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, "if you actually go out into the backcountry, elk behave quite differently," he explains. And that difference intrigued him. 

Studying wild elk in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and captive elk at a farm, Found assigned personality scores to individual animals by observing their behaviour and interactions in the herd. He also took to broadcasting random sounds like power saws, a World War II soundtrack, and even a toilet flushing in order to see whether his subjects responded by backing off with fear or moving in with curiosity.

Similarly, Found used remote cameras to track which individuals were bold enough to approach or even play with strange objects introduced into their surroundings, like bike frames, shelving and "junk from back alleys".

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Found looked at how the elk responded to strange objects introduced into their surroundings. Image: Rob Found/Elk Personality Project

What he found was a whole range of personality types – from shy to bold and everything in between. Shy elk were more submissive and vigilant, more sensitive to sound and more nervous about the unfamiliar. Found also noticed that these animals preferred to stick to the middle of the herd. Bold elk, not surprisingly, were just the opposite.

And there was a clear link between these elk personalities and whether an individual was a resident who stuck around town all year round, or just a seasonal migrant who was passing through. Although there was variation in both groups, most of the migratory elk were the shy ones and most of the permanent town residents were bold. 

Around the world, many hoofed animals, not just elk, are becoming less migratory as a result of their cosy relationship with humans. And when that happens, the animals become quite accustomed to having us around. “[At that point] we have this fundamental change in our relationship,” says Found.

“Townie” elk, as the locals call them, gain safety by sharing their habitat with humans rather than hungry wolves. But when those same elk residents become town troublemakers, what’s a park manager to do? To help elk regain their fear of humans, Found tested aversive conditioning (scare) methods, like chasing the animals. “[Bold elk] tend to be more implicated in human conflict, like chasing people, and contact charges, so these are the ones we want to condition the most,” he explains.

Found's elk experiments produced some good news and some bad. Bold elk, he discovered, quickly re-learned their fear of humans, but compared to their shy cousins, were also quick to lose that fear once the scare tactics stopped. 

Elk, particularly the bold ones, are clever at determining when humans are a threat and when they aren’t, he explains. “It’s like an arms race.”

And when it comes to getting bold elk and their troublemaking friends out of town, there really is no magic bullet, Found adds. 

Top header image: Shutter Fotos, Flickr