Even animals may resort to physical distancing to prevent microbes: Study

Studies of wild animals can teach us a lot about the importance of social distancing


Scientists say they have uncovered evidence in animals about the importance of maintaining physical distance to minimise the spread of certain microbes among individuals.

The study, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, observed monkeys in the wild to understand what role genetics, diet, social groupings and distance in a social network play when it comes to the microbes found inside an animal's gut.

"Social microbial transmission among monkeys can help inform us about how diseases spread," said Eva Wikberg, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in the US.

"This has parallels to our current situation in which we are trying to understand how social distancing during the COVID 19 pandemic and future disease outbreaks may influence disease transmission," Wikberg said.

The gut microbiome refers to all the microorganisms inhabiting the digestive tract, starting with the stomach and ending with the colon.

The researchers noted that over the past decade the microbiome has come under more scientific focus because it's believed that an unhealthy gut microbiome can lead to obesity, impaired immune function, weakened parasite resistance and even behavioural changes.

They studied the faecal matter of 45 female colobus monkeys that congregated in eight different social groups in a small forest by the villages of Boabeng and Fiema in Ghana.

The scientists saw major differences among social groups' gut microbiomes.

However, individuals from different groups that were more closely connected in the population's social network had more similar gut microbiomes, the researchers said.

This discovery indicates that microbes may be transmitted during occasional encounters with members of other social groups. A similar setting may be when people come into one-metre proximity of each other at a store, they said.

Being in close proximity or accidentally brushing up against someone else may be all it takes to transmit certain microbes, the researchers said.

They suggest that microbes transmitted this way help the colobus monkeys digest the leaves in their diet.

However, the team said further research is needed to investigate whether this type of transmission yields health benefits, which could explain why different social groups occasionally have friendly between-group encounters.

"Studies of wild animals can teach us a lot about the importance of using interventions, such as social distancing, to ensure a safer community during this pandemic," said Wikberg.