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What we can learn from social distancing in the animal kingdom

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Posted at 3:33 PM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 18:27:37-04

Until recently, the idea of "social distancing" was a foreign concept for most of us, but for animals this is nothing new.

"It’s a really broadly used behavior in nature, which shows how beneficial it can be," said Dr. Dana Hawley, a Virginia Tech professor who studies disease ecology.

Dr. Hawley says a lot of animals are just as social as humans are. That means they're also at high risk if there's a disease outbreak, so they adapt their behaviors to limit the spread.

For instance, in ant colonies, a sick ant will self-isolate. Even those that are healthy will limit who they interact with, like the queen.

Other animals, like frogs, birds and monkeys all do this, too. Dr. Hawley says it depends on the animal how extreme their social distancing is.

"Some will cut off their interactions with all other individuals. Some will do it in more of a selective way, so they may socially distance from non-relatives that are sick, but still interact with their relatives... and then there are some that only do it under extreme circumstances," said Dr. Hawley.

Either way, Dr. Hawley says animals have shown how effective it can be.

Related: Doctors say pets should also practice social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19

"We really think it's one of the key things that allows so many animals in nature to live socially. It's an incredibly costly behavior for these animals at the time because they live socially for a reason. So not having their group mates and being able to interact with them means they don't get the help in catching prey, or staying warm, or all the many other ways that being social benefits animals. And it's costly for us too, but what the prevalence of this behavior in nature tell us is that those short-term costs have this really important long-term benefit."

One of the added challenges humans have, though, is how interconnected we are.

"For animals, they can practice social distancing on a pretty short-term basis and wait till the epidemic is over, but in this case, this could go on for a long time in humans just because they’re so interconnected across the globe," said Dr. Hawley.

But we also have a benefit that can help us overcome that: Our ability to use virtual platforms to stay connected, something we've all been learning to do a lot more of over the past few weeks.

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