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We Could Learn A Thing Or Two About Social Distancing From The Animal Kingdom

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Oregon Field Guide
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Honey bees have been observed kicking sick bees out of the hive. Scientists consider this a form of social distancing called exclusion.

Social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 has been shaping most things we do for more than a year now. How we stand in line, where and how we work, who we interact with on a day-to-day basis. But we’re not alone in this. When disease is present, animals socially distance as well.

OPB Science reporter Jes Burns has been looking into all of this. She recently spoke with JPR’s Liam Moriarty about what she found.

Liam Moriarty: Hi, Jes, welcome back.

Jes Burns: Hey!

LM: Okay, so, is it common for animals to socially distance?

JB: You know, it really seems that way. Some scientists recently went through and they pulled together a bunch of previous studies documenting social distancing behaviors in different animals and they found evidence of about a dozen different species that show these behaviors.

LM: What kind of behaviors are we talking about?

JB: There's just so many different ways in which social distancing happens. Here's Sebastian Stockmaier, he's a co-author on that paper.

Sebastian Stockmaier: I think one of the most common mechanisms is just avoidance and that is just a healthy animal avoiding a sick conspecific. Like we do right now, too. If you go to the grocery store and somebody sneezes right next to you, you're probably going to step away from them. So animals do very similar things.

JB: So, in the animal world, spiny lobsters do this. Not the ones with the big old claws. These lobsters hang out in bunches and holes and under rock shelves, but if they detect signs of illness in the urine of other lobsters, they just like get the hell out of there. They're just gone. So, you know, they do this even though it actually puts them at risk of predators, being out in the open. That's how strongly they've evolved to avoid sickness in this way.

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Duncan Burns
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Spiny lobsters can detect when other nearby lobsters are ill and will abandon the safety of a shared hole to avoid sickness.

LM: So, what do other animals do?

JB: You know, I was really interested in honey bees. They will actually kick sick bees out of the hive. This is a strategy the scientists call “exclusion.” And we know this strategy, right? It's kind of the same as when we do temperature and health screenings at the entrances to schools and hospitals. If a person reads sick, then we exclude them. We don't let them in. Historically, leper colonies were this kind of thing. Society separated sick people out to keep the larger population healthy.

LM: Now, you say in your story that bats social distance, too. What do bats do?

JB: Vampire bats are actually super-social animals. They share food. They groom each other. When a bat is sick. Though, it stays near the group, but it just doesn't participate in those behaviors. It's called “passive self-isolation” and you know, this seems really basic, right? You get sick and you don't mix with other people. But actually there's a bit of debate about why this happens with so many animals and humans, too.

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Carter Lab, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
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When vampire bats are ill they are less active socially, which slows the spread of disease.

Is this “sick” behavior actually a form of altruism? Has it been evolutionarily selected for, to reduce the risk of passing on disease? Or is it just a happy coincidental side effect, that when your body is fighting off disease, you just don't feel well. Evolutionary biologists are still working on this one.

LM: Now, you write in your story that humans can learn something from animals about this, especially ants. Why do you say ants?

JB: Ants are really the nonhuman champions of social distancing. They are not in it to preserve themselves. They are single-mindedly focused on preserving their colony. So, scientists observed ants actually spacing themselves out to avoid contact with pathogens or other ants that have come in contact with pathogens. And then sick ants -- and this is mind-blowing -- they will actually stay away from the colony, “active self-isolation.” You know, they are preserving the colony above all else.

LM: We humans aren't motivated quite the same way, are we?

JB: No, we are not ants. Our motivations are much more complex. We behave in order to preserve our economic well-being or our sense of belonging, like ideological belonging. This is all, you know, these are selfish behaviors that benefit us and not the colony. So, one of the scientists I spoke with describes the differences and it's put in a really nice way of saying that ants are all pulling on the same string but humans are pulling on a bunch of different strings. But I really think the lesson here is that if we could behave just a little bit more like ants and think about the greater goal of keeping COVID-19 from spreading, then we'd be in a lot better place with this pandemic.

LM: Fair enough. Well, thanks, Jes. Appreciate that.

JB: Thank you.

LM: Jes Burns is a science reporter at OPB. And you should definitely check out her new video about animal social distancing at iJPR.org. I'm Liam Moriarty.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.
Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.