Many of us will soon no longer be able to hear the term “social distancing” after seven months of living with the coronary pandemic. And for an increasing number of members of our species, this distance is becoming increasingly difficult, which obviously has consequences. The pandemic is growing again. However, social distancing is normal in nature even in less developed beings. An international research team from the Museum of Natural History Berlin (Germany), the University of Texas (USA) and Ohio State University (USA) was able to detect this phenomenon.
Scientists have found that sick vampire bats spend less time near their fellow bats, which slows the spread of disease. After being awakened in the laboratory, the bats showed the same behavior in a field experiment with high-tech animal seekers. The study was published in the academic journal Behavioral Ecology.
Active and passive social distancing
Normally, vampire bats live in communities and – just like humans – have a personal environment and individual social contacts. These “friendly clicks” help each other and are here for each other. However, changes in social behavior in response to the pathogen can change the spread of the disease in the population in a number of ways.
If the parasites affect the host’s behavior, transmission rates may increase, the researchers said. However, if they practice “social distancing”, the spread slows down because sick and healthy people are less common. There are two types of social distance: Active and passive. With active social distancing, sick people avoid or isolate themselves after becoming infected. With passive social distancing, sick animals are often lethargic and sleepy due to their illness. As a result, they are less mobile and therefore tend to have fewer social contacts.
Simulated symptoms of the disease
Scientists have conducted field experiments on vampire bats to study this passive form of social distancing and the consequences for social relationships between animals. To do this, they captured 31 women from a hollow tree in Lamanay, Belize, and simulated a bacterial infection in half of the bats. The animals were given a substance, after which they showed symptoms of the disease for six to twelve hours. After being equipped with extremely light, new types of proximity sensors, they were released back into the wild.
Over the next three days, the sensors registered the second one that was in close proximity to which bats. This allowed researchers to establish a dynamic social network that allows them to track changes in social contacts between sick and healthy bats.
“These high-tech, tailor-made sensors open up completely new perspectives on the highly dynamic social behavior of these bats.” “Conducting such experiments in the wild and at the same time stimulating changes in the social network of the whole colony every second was unthinkable,” said lead author Simon Ripperger of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.
The symptoms of the disease have been shown to have a huge impact on social media. Sick bats spent less time with members of their group and also distanced themselves spatially. Consequently, the likelihood of a healthy animal coming into contact with a sick person is actually reduced. Social distancing is a simple but effective way to prevent the spread of the disease in vampire bats.
“One of the things I love most is taking our work back and forth from the lab to the field,” explains co-author Erarald Carter of Ohio State University. “We have studied these effects in vampire bats in captivity under controlled conditions and it is exciting to see the same effects demonstrated in real-world conditions.”
The researchers emphasize that such high-resolution data sets will help to gain new insights into the patterns and processes underlying the spread of pathogens in the future.
Cover image: Vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) with proximity sensor © Sherry and Brock Fenton