Aug 15, 2020 - Science

Social distancing on display in the animal kingdom

An American crow next to the body of a dead crow.
American crows are sometimes attracted to the bodies of dead crows, which rather dings their reputation as Earth's smartest birds. Photo: Kaeli Swift

Some animal species respond to the emergence of new diseases by social distancing from other members of their species.

The big picture: Social distancing remains the most direct way to reduce the spread of disease, as we've discovered with COVID-19. The behavior may be so basic to survival that some animals do it instinctually — a model skeptical human beings might want to follow.

What's new: In a study published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Academy B, researchers reviewed studies from across the animal kingdom — including ones involving human beings — to see how members of a species behaved toward each other in the face of novel diseases.

  • Caribbean spiny lobsters were more likely to den alone in the presence of another lobster infected by the Panulirus argus virus 1.
  • On the other hand, grey wolves showed no evidence of isolating themselves to protect against infections of sarcoptic mange, in part because the harm of the disease was outweighed by the long-term survival benefits of remaining with the pack.

Be smart: Whether or not animals socially distanced appears to come down to balancing the risk posed by the pathogen with the clear negative effects of isolation.

  • That goes for human beings as well, whose responses "vary with the actual or perceived vulnerability to disease," the researchers write.

The bottom line: With a new disease like COVID-19, it's difficult for even the smartest animals in the world — us, at least currently — to properly gauge their vulnerability, and therefore decide whether or not to socially distance.

Go deeper: Wild animals roam in cities under coronavirus lockdown

Go deeper