It’s a bizarre thing to think about: Just over a year ago, no one had even heard of social distancing. Now, one COVID-19 pandemic later, it’s become a way of life.
We stay 6 feet apart. We avoid large gatherings. We stay home.
Well, we mostly do these things.
“We sometimes have selfish motivations. So we can see right now that we’re sometimes doing things that are not benefiting everyone. We’re doing quite the opposite, right?” said University of Texas researcher Sebastian Stockmaier.
In some ways, despite all the practice we’ve had, humans just aren’t that good at social distancing.
Stockmaier is a behavioral ecologist and lead author on a review paper that shows we’re not alone in practicing social distancing.
“We are not the only ones that are constantly facing infectious diseases. Animals have evolved these strategies to cope with these diseases as well,” he said.
And in some ways, their devotion to social distancing puts our efforts to shame.
Scientists have found that many species in the animal kingdom, including several found in the Pacific Northwest, practice social distancing. Some species of insects, fish, monkeys, rodents, birds and bats all have been observed using forms of social distancing when illness or pathogens are present.
“Social distancing is just a fancy new term we now put on anything where we just decrease contact to avoid transmission. But that’s just common sense to avoid becoming sick,” said paper co-author Nathalie Stroeymeyt, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol who studies ants.
But in fact, there are many different common-sense techniques animals use to keep themselves and their social networks safe from disease. And different animals use different social distancing techniques.
Avoidance: Spiny lobsters can detect illness in urine and will abandon the safety of a nice crevice if they pick up the scent coming from other lobsters nearby. Humans use avoidance when we avoid walking near someone who’s coughing or sneezing in the supermarket.
Exclusion: Honeybees have been observed forcibly kicking sick bees out of the hive. Leper colonies or the forced quarantine of the woman known as Typhoid Mary – an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid who infected many others in the early 1900s – is a good example in humans.
Passive Self-Isolation: When vampire bats get sick, they become lethargic and don’t interact with other bats as much. This is common in humans, as well, and lessens the likelihood of passing on the illness. There’s still debate if animals evolved this specifically for social distancing reasons, or if it’s just a fortuitous side effect of the immune response.
Active Self-Isolation: Sick ants will actively stay away from their nest – they’ll self-isolate to keep their colony safe. Humans do this when they choose to quarantine themselves after being exposed or testing positive for COVID-19.
Proactive Social Distancing: Like humans who’ve been observing the 6-foot rule during the pandemic, ants have been observed giving each other more space than normal when sick ants are around.
Of all the non-human animals that socially distance, ants could be considered the champions.
“The ants do have an extreme diversity of strategies to avoid disease and have had millions of years to evolve those,” Stroeymeyt said. “They’re social animals just like us. If an infectious pathogen comes in, it could be disastrous. So they’ve evolved a lot of ways to avoid epidemics.”
But unlike humans, who have complex and often competing motivations (and can be rewarded for being selfish), ants are laser-focused on preserving their own colony over all else.
“If ants could wear masks, I’m sure they would,” she said.
It’s this all-in devotion to social distancing that humans could learn from.
“In these ants, everybody pulls on the same string. It’s like this coordinated response that prevents the pathogen from spreading,” Stockmaier said.
“If we had all worn masks at the very beginning or we had all followed the (social distancing) rules at the beginning for a while, I think we would be in a lot better position than here right now.”