Social Distancing? We Could Learn Something From Bats!

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New research shows that Vampire Bats don’t need Public Health England to intervene when they get sick. They instinctively socially distance from their groupmates to prevent spreading disease.

Researchers from Ohio State University gave Wild Vampire Bats a substance which caused their immune system to kick in, making them feel unwell for several hours. They then returned them to their roost. They also gave a control group of bats a placebo, a ‘fake’ substance which caused no immune response, so they could compare their findings between the groups.

Data on the behaviour of the bats was transmitted back to the researchers via custom-made computers stuck to the backs of the bats. They were essentially placed inside mini backpacks which the bats wore, and recorded their social encounters with one another.

Compared to the control group of bats, results showed the sick bats interacted with fewer of their friends, spent less time near them and were overall much less interactive with bats that were popular among the roost. It also showed that healthy bats were much less likely to interact with sick bats.

Brown Bat enjoying a tasty treat!

Social distancing for us whilst we are healthy during the COVID-19 Pandemic feels rather unnatural, but when we are sick its common for us to withdraw a bit and spend an extra few hours in bed because we are exhausted. That means we will be less likely to have social interactions with others. This was a similar behavior that was observed by researchers in this study.

One reason that sick Vampire Bats encountered fewer groupmates is simply because they were lethargic and didn’t travel around as much. In captivity, we saw that sick bats also groom one another less and make fewer contact calls to their friends. These very small changes in behavior drastically reduce social distancing between the bats without any cooperation from their healthy counterparts.

Gerald Carter, Ohio State University

Both Gerald Carter and Simon Ripperger who led the study, have partnered together on previous studies documenting these bats’ behaviour. These include findings such as: Vampire Bats make friends through a gradual buildup of trust, and Vampire Bat mums maintain social connections to their young even when both are sick.

Although the study did not document the spread of an actual disease, it helps researchers predict how behavior when animals are sick, can influence the spread of a disease in a social network; a very much relatable study to us given the current coronavirus pandemic!

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