Social distancing can be difficult for social beings like us. Even if we do not find it natural to engage in a process of social distancing, the sacrifices we make today are deeply rooted in the animal kingdom.
Distancing also exists in the social animal.
From ants, bees and bats to monkeys, many social animals modify their behaviour to reduce the risk of spreading infections when a member of the population becomes ill. Many animal strategies would not work for humans, but they nonetheless illustrate why isolation during an outbreak is not as unnatural as it is thought.
Let’s take the frog as an example. Until the late 1990s, there was no evidence that non-human animals could recognize and reduce the risk of infection by other members of their species. This has changed with research on bullfrogs, whose tadpoles are remarkably capable of avoiding a dangerous fungal infection. The tadpoles are able to detect Candida humicola infection in other tadpoles, the researchers found, and can then use this information to proactively prevent other tadpoles from becoming infected.
Even primates know how to distance themselves.
Great apes also engage in social distancing activities. Like us, they are highly visual creatures, so even if they cannot detect an infection like bees or tadpoles can, they can still use visual cues to stay healthy.
Western lowland gorillas, for example, live in social groups that females migrate to join, and as researchers reported in a 2019 study, disease avoidance may be a key factor when females decide to leave or join a group. The study looked at a bacterial disease known as shoelaces, which causes visible ulcers on the faces of infected animals.
To study the behavior of social animals.
In studying nearly 600 gorillas over a decade, researchers have found that females often leave males and heavily diseased groups to join healthier groups, avoiding other diseased groups at all costs.
This suggests that the gorillas have learned that the disease is contagious, the researchers noted, and can recognize its symptoms in others. “Understanding how social interactions change in the face of disease is key to predicting the channels and speed at which a pathogen can spread in a population,” said Rachel Page, co-author and STRI researcher, in a communicated on bats.