Social distancing is not a novel concept in the natural world, as several species resort to such measures to avoid getting sick
Just as your loyal house pets show feelings like happiness, anger and aggression, wild animals like elephants, whales and wolves, too, experience them. Award-winning environmental writer Carl Safina in his fascinating book Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel, in fact, reveals why it’s important to acknowledge consciousness in animals. Like humans, animals can empathise and have emotions. They throw tantrums, play joyfully and can even sense disasters. There are other areas, too, where they are far ahead of humans. Take, for instance, social distancing, which is currently being practised in many countries around the world to slow the spread of the dreaded coronavirus pandemic.
Turns out, animals, too, resort to such measures to avoid getting sick. A report published by National Geographic claims that social distancing is not a novel concept in the natural world, as several species expel members within their community if they are infected with a pathogen. Wild animals, such as chimpanzees and honeybees, in fact, enforce strict measures to prevent the spread of diseases. Through specialised senses, they can detect certain diseases—sometimes before visible symptoms appear—and change their behaviour to avoid getting sick. These animals can be quite ruthless, in fact, when it comes to ousting the sick. UK-based primatologist Jane Goodall observed a chimpanzee named McGregor in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, who had contracted polio and was outcast by his fellow chimps.
Ocean animals, too, follow social distancing in their environs. Ocean sunfish, a massive disc-shaped fish with protruding fins, is one of the largest bony fish in the sea, weighing more than 4,000 pounds. These avoid groups and clean each other to pick parasites off their bodies. Whale sharks love to travel alone, especially blue whales that can grow up to 100 feet long. The green sea turtle use earth’s magnetic forces to navigate their way home. Seen in shallow, warm waters nibbling on sea grasses and algae, they prefer to enjoy their ‘me-time’.
Tadpoles depend on chemical signals to determine the level of sickness in other tadpoles—a healthy member will avoid a deadly yeast-infected tadpole. Caribbean spiny lobsters shun diseased members of their community much before they become contagious. Mice have a good whiff to know if potential partners are infected with a disease. If the female mouse smells a parasitic infection in the male’s urine, she will likely move along to other healthier mates, according to researchers at the University of Western Ontario.
A number of global studies, still in their early stages, have found that dogs, with their strong sense of smell, can detect breast cancer and lung cancer. They can also sense high and low blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, as well as discover a person suffering from Parkinson’s. Researchers in the early stages of research at Manchester University believe Parkinson’s might have a discernible odour which could be detected if a person is diagnosed with the condition. Now, studies by American Urological Association and many other institutes are being carried out to prove if German shepherds can detect chemicals linked to prostrate cancer in urine samples. This can evaluate dogs’ abilities in a normal clinical setting. Some researches also depict that fruit flies can smell certain cancer cells with changes in their antenna. Pigeons, too, can differentiate between malignant and benign cancer cells, if trained well.
Coming back to the current scenario, there has been no proven evidence, however, that pets are susceptible to coronavirus. Hence, it is vital to exercise pets during the pandemic, but dogs, like their owners, should stay apart to minimise the chance of it spreading.
While the human race is still learning the act of social distancing as it struggles to fight the pandemic, it seems animal species knew about this art much before humans could even figure it out.