10 Great (And Not-So Great) Social Distancers of the Animal Kingdom

In the time of a global crisis like the one we’re in now, it’s more important than ever that we pay attention to what scientists are saying.

However, my colleagues and I are ecologists, and as such don’t really have as much practical advice for you as epidemiologists and sociologists do right now. All we can really say is stay at home, and practice physical distancing (NOT social distancing, we need each other more than ever right now).

However not all species have the comfort of being social without being close to each other. So in the name of providing some entertainment in difficult times, I gathered a bunch of colleagues together to figure out how some of their study organisms would cope if the need to socially distance was imposed on them.

NB: If you enjoy the following blog post, I highly recommend checking out Dani Rabaiotti and Nick Caruso‘s book series Does it FartTrue or Poo and Believe it or Snot, the format of which inspired this post.  They are illustrated by the talented Ethan Kocak, who has recently lost his job due to the coronavirus, and is currently accepting commissions (click here to check out more of his work, he does those great Twitter cartoon avatars some of you may have seen).

1. Wild boar, sus scrofaLara Veylit

On a global scale, wild boar are unlikely to be very good at social distancing. Much like humans, they are established on every continent except Antarctica, with local populations on the rise in many places. This makes it easy for wild boar to easily come into contact with each other, whether it’s in a corn field in the Southern United States or in the forests of Japan. Wild boar organise in matrilineal social groups, which means female offspring remain with their mothers until they are ready to reproduce. Sounds fine – families can stay together.

Subadult males might be even better at practicing 2020’s latest fad, seeing as they leave their mother to become solitary. However when males come upon each other and compete for a mate, the one meter rule is broken and they spar for access to females. So while boar might be ok for long periods of the year, the mating season is likely to undo all of their good work.

Grade: B-

2. European flounder, Platichthys flesusTheresa Henke

One would probably assume that any flatfish would be a rather successful species in social distancing, especially one that doesn’t tend to move around much (less than 30km a year) and spends most of its time buried in the mud waiting for feeding opportunities to arise. Yet as an invasive species in Iceland, the flounder has managed to establish an abundant population all around the country in less than 20 years. It seems like the flounder actually thrives getting set up in other species’ backyards. So whilst they might be ok at social distancing within their own species, if you asked the natives (like local salmonids and the European plaice) as well as the occasional recreational fisherman, they might tell you that they’re still too close for comfort.

Grade: A-

3. Lion, Panthera leoMaria Gatta

It is well-known that wild cats love to nap. Lions are not an exception to this. But, unlike many other wild felines, lions love to nap together. For lions, there’s no better way to prep for a napping session than to make sure they are within stretching distance of each other. Females, males, young ones… they all love to sleep together.

But lions are social animals all around. Checking a vantage point? Let’s all go together! And when a pride defends their territory, they band together for extra protection.

There is one exception to all of this: young solitary males. If a young male is not “lucky” enough to be kicked out of the pride together with his brothers or male cousins, he will spend quite some time by himself. He will be alone until he joins other males, or carves a territory of his own and finds a female. Young males are great at practicing physical distancing from other lions. If they didn’t, chances are they would end up dead.

Grade: C-

Join the PILE. While there have been signs that these bg kitties could be susceptible to corona, wild populations aren't in danger (Image Credit: Maria Gatta, CC BY 2.0)

Join the PILE. While there have been signs that these big kitties could be susceptible to corona, wild populations aren’t in danger (Image Credit: Maria Gatta, CC BY 2.0)

4. Eastern water dragon, Intellegama leseuriiKasha Strickland

Social distancing would be pretty tough for these gregarious lizards! Male dragons are happy to share space with their friends, but will regularly patrol the borders of their territory to fend off any potential intruders. If there are intruders, things can get pretty ugly pretty quickly! Social distancing rules would quickly be forgotten when he’s busy locking jaws (literally), biting and whipping his tail at the brazen opponent. Meanwhile, within the territories, it’s a family affair. Dragons are pretty picky about who they hang out with, and prefer closely related individuals like siblings. Usually dragons hang out in groups of two to five individuals while foraging for food, like worms or insects, or while at basking sites. Sometimes they are so close they sit on top of each other, or at least their tails rest on the others: clearly, the two metre social distancing rule would not be very popular among dragons.

Some dragons would be glad of the new rules though. Although many individuals are highly social, there is a lot of variability and some are really anti-social. These dragons live and forage alone, coming into contact with others only to mate. These introverts are made for social distancing. I mean, it’s already a way of life for them, and probably a pretty successful one when trying to avoid disease transmission, even if they do end up without access to as much food or mates.

Grade: C+

5. Moose, Alces alcesEndre Gruner Ofstad

Nordic Moose are generally considered solitary animals. So most of the time the King of the forest likes to roam around by himself or stick to few chosen ones like a sibling or a parent – fully in line with health regulations on social distancing.  However, like most of us he has to go to the local supermarket to get some groceries – be that a stand of rowan trees (organic produce) or the local agricultural field (farmer’s market). There he might run into other meese mose måse moose. But even there he adheres to social distancing (not having to deal with narrow aisles makes it much easier for moose to stay beyond sneezing distances of each other).

However much like the wild boar, come mating season moose are an epidemiological nightmare, roaming around as much as they can in order to size up opponents and scout out potential mates. However even when confronted with an opponent, most of the time they’ll opt to posture and threaten, as fights can be quite costly. And unlike the wild boar, those antlers mean that even fighting moose keep a little distance between each other.

Grade: A

6. African wild dogs, Lycaon pictusDaniella Rabaiotti

How good would African wild dogs be at social distancing? The short answer is: truly awful. The long answer is that African wild dogs are a obligate co-operative breeder – that means they rely on group living to raise their offspring, but they also rely on working together for other important life events such as hunting and staying safe from kleptoparasites, that is other species out to steal their dinner (mostly hyenas). African wild dogs thrive on being all up in each others grill – they constantly jump all over each other, lie on each other, and even lick each others mouths to show submission. Their default state when not hunting is to lie in a big pile, breathing all over each other. Whilst they may have the best ears in the animal kingdom, and one of the highest hunting success rates, social distancing definitely isn’t their forte.

Grade: D

"Don't lick each other's faces" is one of the rules that most federal governments didn't feel the need to widely publicise (Image Credit: Susie Gold, CC BY 2.0)

“Don’t lick each other’s faces” is one of the rules that most federal governments didn’t feel the need to widely publicise (Image Credit: Susie Gold, CC BY 2.0)

7. Dragonflies and Damselflies, Order Odonata – Adam Hasik

Dragonflies and damselflies are a sure sign of warm weather, low wind, and lots of sun. Basically, if they are out and about it’s a great spring or summer day. Any sizable (or even small) body of water will be full of them, and all one has to do is head down to the shore and look around the emergent vegetation to see these colorful and beautiful insects. As adults, male dragonflies and damselflies wait on vegetation or patrol along the shore for females to come by, while the females themselves tend to stay away from the water until they are ready to mate, because if they don’t they are endlessly harassed by the males. Beyond hunting for prey in their time away from the males, no one is really sure where the females go and what they do while they are away from the water, though I suspect that they are spread out enough to make even the most stringent health professionals happy.

The males, on the other hand, are another story. They spend their time in close proximity to other males, both members of their own species and members of many others. Some species sit in the vegetation and wait, often close enough to one another that they’ll share the same plant, while other species (usually dragonflies) patrol up and down the shore. While these patrols are done in isolation, they still pass within one meter of each other and will get much closer to “fight”. For example, the common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) is a chubby white dragonfly and super common in my region of North America, and the males will have races around the shore to see who the tougher male is. These races involve flying within centimeters of one another. While not a social group of animals, dragonflies and damselflies are not very good at keeping their distance.

Grade: C-

8. Black-cockatoos, Calyptorhunchus sp. – Erika Roper

Black-cockatoos would fail spectacularly at social distancing. Like most parrot species, Black-cockies are highly social and often spend time in large flocks, with individuals and family groups sometimes moving between flocks. Black-cockatoo family groups consist of mum, dad, and 1-2 juveniles, and they like to be close to each other. Individuals will spend a lot of time preening and feeding each other (allopreening and allofeeding), which strengthens their social bonds. They also like to snuggle up together during the day for naps, or when they roost for the night.

When it comes to interacting with non-family members, some species do better than others. For example, Carnaby’s Black-cockatoos (C. latirostris) can form flocks of hundreds or thousands of individuals, and they often spend the whole day together, feeding, drinking, and socialising. They’re like the group of people you see having an all-day street party. On the other hand, Forest Red-tailed Black-cockatoos (C. banksii naso) tend to roost together in big flocks, but will break off into smaller groups of a few family units during the day. Red-tails are also huge wimps, so are less likely to interact with non-family members!

It is rare to see a Black-cockatoo by itself, as they thrive on social interaction, so don’t take your social distancing cues from a Black-cockatoo!

Grade: C-

Family preening is fine. Doing it in front of everyone like this is not (Image Credit: Erika Roper, CC BY 2.0)

Family preening is fine. Doing it in front of everyone like this is not (Image Credit: Erika Roper, CC BY 2.0)

9. Solitary sandpiper, Tringa solitariaStefan Vriend

Most sandpipers are poor at social distancing: they flock either in preparation of or during migration, and a typical flock can count up to several thousands of individuals. The solitary sandpiper however, as its name suggests, is a breaker of rules. During migration, it is commonly encountered alone, foraging for aquatic invertebrates in the shallow waters of a creek or bog while bobbing its head to the rhythms of serenity (lots of Coldplay). If that’s not enough to consider this dapper wader amongst the best at social distancing, its nesting behaviour will convince you. Rather than nesting on the ground, under shrubs and weeds, for every neighbour couple to see, the solitary sandpiper prefers to use old and abandoned songbird nests in trees. A slight rearrangement of a twig and a piece of moss here and there and the nest is ready for use. After incubation by both parents, their work is done. Solitary sandpiper parents are not known to feed their young, so freshly hatched chicks are expected to jump to the ground, find food and plunge into their solitary life right from the start.

Grade: A+

10. Musk ox, Ovibos moschatusRachel Guindon

One would easily agree that muskoxen are pretty bad at social distancing. Survivors of the last Ice Age, they love outdoor gatherings, as they live in herds up to a few dozen individuals of mixed age and sex groups. You might guess that solitary males might follow the example of a few species above and be better at self-isolation, but even they often gather in small groups of bachelor males. They can also challenge dominant bulls by charging them during the mating season in late summer, a behavior that certainly does not respect the ongoing “two meters distance” rule. Their skills get even worse when they get stressed. When threatened, they usually form a tight defensive line or an out-facing circle, protecting the young ones in the middle. Even though this distinctive behavior is not recommended in the context of a pandemic, it has been proven to be quite effective against predators like wolves.

Grade: D+

Title Image Credit: Rachel Guindon, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is being annoyingly productive during quarantine and wonders why it took him a global pandemic to get his PhD back on track. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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