In 2012, Dani Rabaiotti began tracking the whereabouts of a red fox. An undergraduate zoology student, she was excited. Other students involved in the scientific study followed their assigned foxes all over the English city of Bristol. But Rabaiotti’s fox never seemed to go anywhere. “He was just chilling under this bloke’s shed” for six weeks, she says. So she named him Lazy Geoff.
Rabaiotti, now a researcher at the Zoological Society of London, found herself reminiscing about Lazy Geoff last March and recounted the story in a Twitter thread. The response was stunning. Thousands of retweets and replies, many from other animal scientists who had similar experiences: tunas, tarantulas, sea lions, bears, and frogs, all aberrantly lazy — or so it seemed. But in the harsh natural world where only the fittest survive, how can wildlife be lazy?
“Animals have personalities,” says Rabaiotti. “Some animals are just going to be mega chill about everything and not really move around a lot. And that’s just kind of what we see across species. You always get the odd one that just doesn’t really do anything.”
The suggestion that wild animals have any personality type — let alone a lazy one — has long been taboo in Western science. Yet, in our effort to unravel the story of these Lazy Geoffs, we found ourselves following an even longer thread into the burgeoning field of animal personality research, revealing a surprising shift in how humans understand the natural world.
- Dani Rabaiotti’s Lazy Geoff thread (Twitter)
- Wallflower or risk-taker? (UMaine Today)
- Small mammal personalities generate context dependence in the seed dispersal mutualism (PNAS)
- Modulation of ecosystem services by animal personalities (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment)
- Wildlife Personalities Play a Role in Nature (The New York Times)
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: About a decade ago, when Dani Rabaiotti was in college, she signed up for a research project studying red foxes.
Not the glamorous foxes you see in nature documentaries, Disney movies, on Instagram. I’m talking about urban foxes in the UK. Kind of mangy. Trash-hungry. At night, they roam cities like London and Bristol. And, Dani says, they’ll show up anywhere. Anywhere.
Dani Rabaiotti: One night, I was putting my bins out. I turned around, and there was a fox in my hallway inside my house. And I just yelled really excitedly, “There’s a fox in the hallway!”, which obviously then scared the fox, and it ran away. (Laughs.)
Dean Russell: The point of the project was to track what the foxes were doing. Where they were going.
But back then, in 2012, tracking an animal wasn’t as easy as pinning a GPS on its back and watching from your iPhone. Foxes had to be trapped and fitted with bulky, expensive radio collars. And then it helped if you had a car.
Dani: They kind of kitted us out with this antenna that you stuck on the top of the car. And they kind of gave us a really brief intro to radio tracking.
Ben: Really brief. Like, Drive around the city until this thing starts to beep. That’s basically it. The beeping means you’re close.
Dani: Now, in the demo, it was like, beep, beep, beep…
Dean: Each team tracked a specific fox. That’s how Dani ended up meeting this one fox that would get a name and is actually the reason we called her up. Because, much later, this fox would get a little famous on the internet.
Ben: Foxes, by the way, are nocturnal and do not hibernate, which meant that after a long day of classes, Dani would suit up for near-freezing-temperature nights, grab her tracking device, and head out with her search party.
Dean: The first night, though, didn’t start out so well. The receiver sounded kind of weird.
Dani: It would just make this like, khh, khh, khh.
Ben: Yeah, that did not sound like a beep.
Ben: But, you know, details. After a few hours of …
Dani: Khh, khh, khh.
Ben: … it started getting loud. They stopped the car, plunged into the cold, and kept going on foot. Just a couple of college kids triangulating a fox in the dark. You know, normal stuff. Then the static came to a roar.
Dani: And we pinpointed this fox to one particular garden.
Dean: They couldn’t see the fox. But they could tell he was in this garden behind someone’s house. Dani was excited to see where he’d go.
Ben: But as minutes passed into hours, nothing happened. Dani’s team just stood there awkwardly camped by this random house in the cold. Eventually, the homeowner spotted them pointing their antenna his way.
Dani: And he thought we were trying to get him arrested for not having a TV license.
Dean: Dani explained, We’re just looking for a fox.
Dani: He is like, “Oh yeah, that fox is always in my garden. He’s always sleeping under the shed.” And this study, the idea behind this study was that we were supposed to look at what this fox was doing. And basically, what this fox did was it sat under this man’s shed.
Ben: I think the scientific term for this is that the fox was “straight chillin.”
Dean: (Laughs.) Yeah. It cannot be overstated, though, how unusual this seemed. Urban foxes have to do a lot to survive. They spend their nights running around, hunting, eating, mating, fighting. And yet…
Ben: This fox was not eating. It was not screwing, and it was not fighting.
Dani: No. He was just chilling under this bloke’s shed.
Ben: They thought, Maybe we just caught him on an off night? The next night they did it all over again. Wrap up classes, get dressed, drive around, trudge — and they ended up back in the same spot. The garden shed. Another night, same place. After a week, same place.
Dani: I was like, “Is he dead? Why is this fox not moving?” But the guy assured us he was just still under the shed.
Dean: And it was true. They checked: not dead, just under the shed.
But after six weeks of tracking — as the other undergrads turned in complex webs of fox traffic — Dani had close to nothing, all because of this one lazy fox.
Dani: We named him Geoff. I don’t remember why, but that was his name. And he didn’t go anywhere, so we coined the term “Lazy Geoff” for him.
Ben: What Dani didn’t know at the time, and what she would later discover, is that the world is full of Lazy Geoffs. They are everywhere, in all kinds of species. And most of the time, researchers don’t really know why they’re so lazy — or appear lazy. They just are.
And this is because for hundreds of years, Western science, at least, has denied their existence.
Dean: I’m Lazy Dean Russell.
Ben: I’m Lazy Ben Brock Johnson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Dean: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
Ben: Today, producer Dean Russell and I bring you the story of a fox that, it turns out, may actually represent a long unspoken, somewhat viral phenomenon in the animal kingdom…
Dean: …and what that story reveals to us about a gigantic shift in how humans understand our fellow creatures and maybe the fate of the world.
Ben: No pressure. Today’s episode: “Lazy Geoff.”
So, Dean, you may be surprised to learn that I am not really a part of Research-Scientist Twitter.
Dean: Is this the part where I gasp? (Gasps.) I can’t believe you haven’t finished your dissertation on the geometric shapes of wombat poop. You’re not a scientist yet? What a shame.
Ben: Yeah, I’m not a scientist, but I always wanted to play one on TV.
Dean: Really? That surprises me. What’s your character name?
Ben: I think I’d be like Dr. Bartholomew Wicketwhistle.
Dean: (Laughs.) Amazing. And yet this story came to your doorstep. How?
Ben: Through the mysteries of my incessant scrolling, of course, Dean. If it goes huge in the Twitterverse, I’m likely to see it. Though, Dani Rabaiotti already has a pretty decent following on Twitter.
Dani: I was involved in a few viral hashtags, one of which was #doesitfart, which actually resulted in a book, which became a New York Times bestseller.
Ben: Yeah, I know that book. Yeah.
Dean: A hundred percent not surprised you knew this Does It Fart? book, Ben.
Ben: Oh, c’mon, it’s a famous book, Dean.
Dean: So I didn’t know about this book. But I did actually know about Dani’s other work.
Ben: Oh, get off your high zebra.
Dean: I’m serious. I’m serious. So she works at the Zoological Society of London, otherwise known as ZSL.
Ben: ZSL represent!
Dean: (Laughs.) She doesn’t study red foxes anymore. She studies a different canine — endangered African wild dogs and how they are adapting to climate change. Short answer is not great.
Ben: Yeah. Anyway, a few months ago, Dani had these two seemingly lazy wild dogs in her data. And she was reminded of Geoff, the urban fox. So she sent out a tweet that turned into a pretty giant thread. An endless thread, if you will.
Dean: The first tweet reads…
Ben: Lazy Geoff was not a term anyone knew. Dani made it up for her Geoff. But for some reason, this thread went wild on Science Twitter. And then far beyond Science Twitter. Thousands of retweets. About 35,000 likes. And beyond the appreciation of the original tweet, something else started to happen: Other researchers started weighing in with their own stories of unusual animal characters in their own research.
Ben: Were you surprised at the response to the Twitter thread?
Dani: I was surprised by how much the public loved it and how much people found it hilarious that animals can just be so lazy.
Dean: There are so many stories in this thread about Lazy Geoffs. Tunas that chill by a plastic buoy for no apparent reason. An aberrant tarantula that is perfectly happy to loaf around. Lazy sharks. Lazy mice. Lazy leopards. Everyone seemed to have a story that sounded a lot like Dani’s.
Lea: Dudley had one of the expensive tags.
Dean: I’m just picturing a bunch of frogs with fanny packs on.
Kolby: No, that’s pretty accurate.
Currie: And there’s this rock, and it’s just sitting on it, looking at us.
Lea: Plenty of the other pups we were studying were off adventuring in the ocean, eating herring, doing all kinds of adventures. You could always depend on Dudley to just be hanging out.
Kolby: And she would just be in the same spot over and over and over, as if she’d never left that spot.
Ben: All of the scientists we talked to described their Lazy Geoffs as comical. Also a bit frustrating. Often, you only have the budget to track a handful of animals, so if one’s a Geoff, it can feel like a waste.
Dean: More than that, Lazy Geoffs are somewhat baffling because if nature documentaries have taught me anything, lazy doesn’t fit with a huge tenet of Darwinian logic: Wild animals have to work hard to survive.
[David Attenborough in Planet Earth (2006): If she delays, the whole family will risk starvation.]
[Alexander Scourby in National Geographic Video: African Wildlife (1986): The victim is overwhelmed by hungry turtles. And it’s soon over.]
[Helena Bonham Carter in Wild Babies (2022): She’s vulnerable.]
[George Page in National Geographic Video: Seasons in the Sea (1990): The entire school dies. The mid-winter dance is done. Only corpses remain…]
Ben: (Laughs.) Man, I got to go watch some nature docs.
Dean: I can definitely say that they are wonderful yet grim. Anyway, these Lazy Geoffs, who no one ever really studied before, we had to know: How could they exist?
Ben: Why do you think this is a thing that happens? Why are there so many Lazy Geoffs?
Dani: Well, I think at the end of the day, it comes down to: Animals have personalities. And some animals are a lot more willing to take risks. Some animals are going to be more scared of other animals. Some animals are just going to be mega chill about everything and not really move around a lot. And that’s just kind of what we see across species. You always get the odd one that just doesn’t really do anything.
Ben: You might have missed it right then, but what Dani just suggested is actually a pretty controversial idea. Animals — non-human animals — have individual personalities? I mean, if you have a hairless Sphynx named Smeagol or a bunny named Muffin Top, you’re obviously going to say, “Duh.”
Dean: Think broadly, though. We often compartmentalize how we think about animal personalities if we think about them at all. The chicken that is your chicken nuggets? The lobster on your lobster roll? The possum squashed on the highway? Personality? Mm-mm. No way. My cat? Your dog? Of course.
Ben: Dani told us that among scientists — especially those studying wild animals — that compartmentalization is real. And the suggestion that all those animals have different personalities has long been very taboo.
Dani: I think it’s kind of discouraged to think about it in that way.
Ben: Describing a hawk as neurotic or a worm as conscientious or a fox as lazy is usually seen as anthropomorphic — a projection of humanness onto non-humans.
Dean: And this idea — thou shalt not anthropomorphize — it goes back centuries. Descartes claimed that animals are automatons, machines. Pavlov, the dog-experiment guy, said there’s no way animals have subjective experiences. In the 1960s, Jane Goodall was accused of committing the “worst of [scientific] sins” when she gave her chimps names.
Dean: But Dani told us, in the last decade or so, a growing number of scientists have been getting more comfortable with anthropomorphism, at least when it comes to animal personalities. Animalities?
Dani: Anyone that has spent any time around animals knows that they have personalities, and they are different. Even fish.
Dean: OK, I love animals, but I can honestly say I have never once thought about the personality of a fish. Or, really, a lot of wild animals.
Ben: That’s because you have a cold, dead heart, Dean. But even if you’re on board with Dani, how do you prove it?
Dean: And if you can prove it, what does that tell us about why animal personalities exist? In a world where natural selection reigns — “survival of the fittest” — what good is a personality, especially a lazy one?
Ben: We decided to look into it a little more, so we found a guy, and he invited us north.
Ben: We’re in what I would describe as a beautiful forest on a beautiful, sunny day, driving down a semi-shaded, dappled dirt road. What? Is this not accurate?
Dean: No, “a dappled dirt road” is good. That’s good.
Ben: The story from there proved more complicated than we had imagined.
Dean: How animal personalities shape the world…
Ben: …and how they may be harnessed for good, in a minute.
Ben: Dean and I wanted to understand whether individual animal personalities exist in the wild and why and how Lazy Geoffs could actually be lazy. So we arranged to join a few scientists running field tests at a remote site in central Maine.
Ben: Is the one person who’s parked here going to be weirded out if I park right next to him?
Dean: We park in a dirt clearing by what I can only assume was an abandoned vehicle. And we notice the flies are everywhere.
Ben: Do flies have personalities?
Dean: Do flies have personalities?
Ben: I’m going to — I’m really not going to try to find that out, because I will kill a fly without even thinking twice.
Dean: I mean, some flies are jerks.
Ben: Some flies are jerks?
Ben: This is the Penobscot Experimental Forest. If you don’t know what an experimental forest is, you’re not alone. Neither did I. But it’s just a forest where scientists run experiments.
Dean: After a few minutes, one of those scientists shows up.
Ben: How’re you doing?
Dean: A trim guy in glasses, shaved head, fragrance of DEET. A wildlife ecologist at the University of Maine named Alessio Mortelliti.
Alessio Mortelliti: Thanks for coming. So good and bad news. The good news is there are some captures. The bad news is we had probably either a raccoon or a bear attack…
Ben: Wait, we’re walking towards the bear attack?
Dean: (Chuckles.) Alessio does indeed lead us deeper into the woods, and in the shadow of these enormous oaks and white pines, the jerk flies are replaced by very tenacious mosquitos that suck. I guess we make for pretty easy targets, slow-bushwhacking through the bramble.
Ben: But we get to a small glade with a couple of Alessio’s students. They’re planning to test the personalities of rodents. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles. Because, Alessio preaches, yes, wild animals do have personalities — even the small ones.
Dean: Did you say all, all animals?
Alessio: Yes, pretty much all animals. Even an earthworm…
Ben: He tells us this field of animal personality research is still pretty young: 10, 15 years old. And he and his students are on the forefront. What kind of equipment do people at the forefront of their field use?
Alessio: As an Italian, I’m proud to say the Ferrari of the small mammal traps.
Ben: OK. And you’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six.
Alessio: We have a hundred laid out.
Ben: You have a hundred?
Ben: One hundred tiny Ferraris!
Dean: These tiny Ferraris look like shoebox-sized metal containers with hinges and doors. They’re humane traps. Sometimes the traps get raided by bears, hence the attack Alessio mentioned. But today, it looks like we have, I don’t know, a couple dozen that came back fine with rodents inside.
Ben: The highly scientific process of shaking the trap into a bur — seems like a burlap sack.
Ben: Ivy Yen, a Ph.D. student, shows us a deer mouse.
Dean: What’s his name or number?
Ivy Yen: He is 982091062972708.
Dean: Wow, that was impressive.
Ben: That was impressive.
Ben: 982091062972708 has a microchip, ear tag, and…
Maisie Merz: And it looks like he’s a D haircut. Or C.
Ben: Did you say “a D haircut”?
Maisie: Yeah. So we actually—.
Ben: You cut their hair?
Maisie: Yeah, we do.
Dean: What?! And you have different hairstyles?
Dean: This is another student, Maisie Merz, who tells us it’s more of a tiny snip. And haircuts are not for style, they are not an extension of the animal’s personality. They help researchers identify particular animals at a glance.
Ben: Maisie also kindly informs us that we are being way too loud and scaring the animals. We’ll have to whisper once the personality tests begin — which is now.
Ben: OK, we gotta go! Quick! We’re going up to a small hill, and there are some boxes at the top of the hill. And I’m not sure what’s going to happen.
Dean: What’s going to happen is a set of tests to determine whether the animal is bold or shy.
Ben: For the first test, Ivy leads us through the trees, up to the top of a hill, to this tiny clearing. There’s a two-foot tall box without a top in front of us. She moves the mouse that was put into the bag for data collection back into the Ferrari trap, also called an emergence trap.
Dean: So the mouse is going back into the emergence trap.
(Trap rattles. Pen scratches on paper.)
Ben: And then the emergence trap is put inside the box, and Ivy opens the trap door.
Dean: If a mouse takes a long time to leave the trap, Alessio says that mouse is likely shy. But…
Alessio: A more curious, bold individual will just get out.
Ben: What if it’s a lazy individual who wants to sleep longer?
Alessio: (Laughs.) This is not a moment in their life to be lazy. It’s more like they’re really freaking scared.
Dean: Turns out this first mouse isn’t lazy or scared. He’s bold.
Ben: The mouse is already out of the trap.
Dean: And if you watch a few rounds of this test, you can really get to see a difference. Some mice rocket out of the traps. Others edge out ever so slightly, looking kind of nervous. Still, others never leave, hugging the walls of the trap.
Ben: But how do we know an animal is displaying a personality trait versus a fleeting emotion or random action?
Dean: That question is why Alessio’s team does multiple tests. Different settings, different challenges. They also repeat these tests once a month. And they’ve found that each animal tends to behave the same every time, which is important because it’s those repeated actions that show personality. Wallflower this month. Wallflower next month.
Ivy: We can be loud now.
Alessio: We can be loud? OK. We can talk again.
Ben: This still leaves a few questions. First: Why do personalities exist at all? Among people, mice, voles, chipmunks?
Alessio: Personality exists because it’s the result of evolution. Natural selection has favored this existence of personality.
Dean: Whether we say bold or shy — or given the right test, even lazy — personalities don’t exist in spite of “survival of the fittest.” They exist because of it. A lot of times, fortune does favor the bold. But if everyone is bold, that’s not good for a species that can get scooped up at any moment.
Ben: So sometimes shy is the fittest. And, if you think about it, that could apply to Lazy Geoff, too.
Alessio: If it was convenient for every individual to behave in exactly the same way, evolution would have made sure that happened. It didn’t.
Ben: But Alessio’s team isn’t just testing personalities. They’re showing that those different personalities affect other living things in different ways.
Alessio: What’s really fascinating is we tend to see animals as all the same. They all have the same role in the ecosystem. We’re finding out that, actually, some individuals are disproportionately more important than others from the perspective of a plant, for example.
Dean: Imagine an acorn falling from a tree. It lands in the parent tree’s giant shadow, where it can’t grow. Now let’s say a shy mouse takes it and saves it for winter. That shy mouse won’t venture far. It’ll just keep it in the shade of the tree. And that acorn will never get the light or nutrients it needs to grow.
Ben: But a bold mouse is more likely to cache its acorn farther away, perhaps in a sunny clearing where it might more easily grow.
Alessio: Often, it happens to be a great place for the plant to germinate. And if the seed is forgotten or the small mammal dies, that plant has a chance to germinate.
Ben: This is happening all the time. It’s how forests grow and survive. Small, bold mammals moving tree seeds far enough away to survive and thrive.
Dean: This isn’t to say that only bold rodents benefit a forest. Early evidence suggests that healthier, more resilient forests have a diversity of personalities, which means shy or active or even lazy mice may also have their own unique roles to play. It’s Alessio’s mission to figure out what those roles are.
Dean: Ph.D. student Ivy Yen tells us there’s one more part of this — which has to do with the way the trees and animals are responding to our human-caused climate crisis.
Ivy: So, basically, with climate change, lots of things are happening. But one of the big things is that the habitable range of some plants is shifting. But things like oaks, where the seeds are so big and so fat, they’re not going to be dispersed by the wind or bombastically or whatever. It’s going to be animal mediated.
Ben: This was a big revelation for me. Forests move. They migrate in slow motion over generations of trees. Except without small birds and mammals, certain tree species can’t move at all, which is important because depending on where you are, the forests near you are likely going to look a lot different in the coming decades, if they survive at all.
Dean: Some forests in New England, for example, are sick. Certain trees prefer colder climates, and yet the area is warming. Others are facing down more droughts, new pests, new disease, all fueled by climate change. To survive, forests may need to move north to colder areas.
Ben: Which means we may also need certain animal personalities to help.
Ben: You need bolder.
Ivy: Yes! More exploratory. More likely to try new foods, you know, like the foodie animals. They’re going to be the ones that are going to bring it and continue these oak species that might not be able to survive anymore. They’ll be the ones that bring them in — that’s our hypothesis.
Dean: Not the Lazy Geoffs.
Ben: The Lazy Geoffs will not save us, it turns out.
Ben: But acknowledging them might.
Alessio and his team are kind of pushing back against this inconsistent application of personality in our minds, this compartmentalization when we think about animal personalities. And I have to admit, hanging out with Alessio and his grad students in this experimental forest made me see forests in a whole new way. It’s not just a place where there’s an animal here or there. This place is literally bursting with small mammals. Alessio and his team say there’s a mouse every 13 steps. And what’s wild is that these researchers are trying to help humanity team up with these tiny animals in the future to help forests move into more habitable zones for the trees that make them up. So that those trees can support fragile, complex ecosystems and give us all oxygen.
Dean: This also isn’t just a bunch of scientists slapping peanut butter into tiny animal Ferraris to do weird experiments. This is a bunch of people on a solemn and powerful mission. They’re trying to help save the planet by calling for the conservation of personalities. It’s not just about protecting the bold. It’s about recognizing that these personalities — every personality — exists for a reason. Maybe a reason we don’t yet know. For Alessio’s team, this is about protecting a form of diversity that, a few decades ago, we didn’t even really know existed.
Ben: But they also say there’s a ways to go before this unique need for personality is recognized by the wider public.
Alessio: This is us doing this, but we’re definitely so far from having our findings taken into account, into policy. But I believe in 10, 20, 30 years, what my students are doing is going to become policy. It’s just the world is not aware [of] what’s about to happen.
Dean: As for the Lazy Geoffs, we don’t know why they exist. We can’t even firmly say that they’re lazy. But that’s just because no one has looked into it yet. Perhaps they will as this kind of personality research becomes more accepted and common. Either way, Lazy Geoff lives on.
Ben: But in a world where we are being hit by endless waves of bad news about the climate and real feelings of helplessness, imagining a future where we are better stewards and better partners for our fellow creatures great and small, our acknowledgment of the Lazy Geoffs in the animal world…
Dean: …and the Bold Bridgets…
Ben: …that acknowledgment might help us face the future together. That’s a hopeful thing. Something to keep thinking about as we move through the world and try to understand it. And treat it as well as we can.
Dean: OK, so what do I do?
Ivy: You can just take the fluff out. This is pretty clean.
Ben: Dean, don’t mess it up.
Dean: Oh, he’s so cute.
Ivy: You can just dump him out.
Dean: All right. Goodbye, little friend.
Dean: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content? Dean’s personal bug spray fragrance —
Dean: Which you stole.
Ben: (Laughs.) It said “Ben’s” on it. — my nature documentary voice-overs? You can join our email list! And you’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread, where you can also see pictures of our adventures with small rodents.
Dean: Thanks to scientists Mary-Anne Lea, Warren Currie, and Jonathan Kolby, who you heard earlier in the episode. This episode was written, reported, and produced by me, Dean Russell…
Ben: And me, Ben Brock Johnson. Mostly Dean, though. Mix and sound design by Emily Jankowski. Our web producer is Megan Cattel. The rest of our team is Amory Sivertson, Nora Saks, Quincy Walters, Grace Tatter, Matt Reed, and Paul Vaitkus.
Dean: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and a tiny Ferrari filled with peanut butter and seeds. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email EndlessThread@WBUR.org.