Social distancing works in combating disease outbreaks. Just ask ants, bats, or mandrills.

We're all feeling our way forward as discussions of sustainability now involve how to respond to pandemics as well as how to reduce our carbon footprints. Animals and insects offer some guidance, according to 2 disease ecologists writing for The Conversation.

"The evidence from nature is clear: Social distancing is an effective tool for reducing disease spread," said Dana Hawley and Julia Buck. "It is also a tool that can be implemented more rapidly and more universally than almost any other. Unlike vaccination and medication, behavioral changes don't require development or testing."

Hawley is a professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech. Buck is an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Many types of ants live in tightly packed colonies of hundreds or thousands of individuals. "When a contagious disease sweeps through their society," the authors said, "both sick and healthy ants rapidly change their behavior in ways that slow disease transmission. Sick ants self-isolate, and healthy ants reduce their interaction with other ants when disease is present in the colony."

Healthy ants even guard the queen and nurses—the most vulnerable members of the colony—to keep them isolated from forager ants, who are most likely to introduce germs from outside.

Vampire bats continue to provide food for sick members of their group, but they avoid grooming them. "This minimizes contagion risk while still preserving forms of social support that are most essential to keeping sick family members alive, such as food sharing," the authors said.

Mandrills, a type of African monkey, actively avoid sick individuals who aren't relatives but do care for family members who fall ill. "In an evolutionary sense," the authors said, "caring for a sick family member may allow an animal to pass on its genes through that family member's offspring."

Mandrills help the sick—if they're family. Photo by Rieke T-bo on Unsplash

Human behavior is more complex. Like ants, humans protect the most vulnerable members of society. Like bats and monkeys, we also practice nuanced social distancing, caring for family members while strategically minimizing contact with others.

But humans also choose to expand their expressions of compassion. They may help friends or neighbors—or, in the case of  health care workers, complete strangers, at great risk to themselves. We also have much better tools for detecting illness and treating the sick. We have audio and video means of staying in touch virtually when it's dangerous to do so physically.

"Social distancing can be profoundly disruptive to our society," Hawley and Buck concluded, "but it can also stop a disease outbreak in its tracks. Just ask ants."