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Why Are Animals Practicing Social Distancing?

hanging bats
(Image: Getty Images)

2020 has lead to a few seemingly new terms for humanity. Social distancing is definitely one of them. This year we've been told to socially distance, learned about past uses of this medical guidance, and we've even seen studies on animals that practice social distancing. Keeping disease from spreading is not just a human goal. Why are animals practicing social distancing?

Social distancing might feel totally new to us this year, but it turns out that many animal species have been practicing social distancing for ages. Scientists have observed this behavior in ants, tadpoles, lobsters, monkeys, fish, and other animals over the years

A recently published study now adds vampire bats to the list of animals that naturally social distance when ill. Researchers studied 31 vampire bats in Belize; half were given a substance to make them feel sick for a few hours - no permanent damage or anything - and the rest were given placebos. 

These bats were tagged with sensors that detected their motion and proximity to other bats. Bats that were feeling sick had a noticeable reduction in social interaction and then 48 hours later (after the treatment wore off) they returned to their usual socializing. In this situation social distancing can be seen as a natural defense mechanism for the whole colony. Sick bats keeping to themselves prevents the spread of a bacteria or disease to otherwise healthy bats.  

If only we humans had this kind of natural social defense mechanism. Oh wait, we do! Our immune system does this same exact thing. When we’re sick our immune system produces proteins known as cytokines, which send a special kind of hormones called prostaglandins into the brain to give us that groggy, foggy, and sick feeling, so we physically feel bad, we go lay down, stop moving around, and thus not be in contact with other humans. It’s our naturally evolved way to not only get us to rest, but also protect our community. However, over the years we’ve developed drugs, therapeutics, and other ways to bypass that sick feeling, so we can keep working and living our lives. 

But the truth is, that just like bats, feeling sick is our body’s natural way of socially distancing to prevent spreading illness to others. Social distancing helps prevent the spread of bacteria or disease through a community. For bats or us humans, it just requires a little hanging out.