Even vampire bats know to socially distance themselves when they get sick, study says

While the term “social distancing” is a new concept for most of us, researchers are finding that it’s actually standard practice for some animals when they are sick.

A study published in Behavioral Ecology this week found that wild vampire bats naturally distance themselves from other bats in such situations.

Previous findings have already shown that animals tend to stay away from others when they are sick, but researchers in the study wanted to conduct a field experiment to confirm it in the wild.

“In certain social insects, sick ones might self-isolate voluntarily or be excluded by their colony mates,” researchers said. “This sickness-induced social distancing does not require cooperation from others and is probably common across species.”

The experiment

A team of researchers captured 31 wild adult female vampire bats from inside a hollow tree in Belize and injected half of them with an immune-challenging substance to simulate sickness, while the other half received a placebo.

Researchers then glued sensors to the “sick” bats to track their movements before being released back into the tree for observation.

The results

Throughout the six-hour observation period, the sick bats spent less time socially connected to the healthy bats.

That’s just what health experts have been suggesting we humans do all along: social distancing.

The sick bats had an average of four fewer associations than the healthy bats and spent 25 fewer minutes socializing. The healthy bats showed a 49% likelihood of associating with others, while the sick bats had a 35% chance of spending time near another bat.

“The sensors gave us an amazing new window into how the social behavior of these bats changed from hour to hour and minute to minute … even while they are hidden in the darkness of a hollow tree,” said the study’s lead author, Simon Ripperger, in a statement. “We’ve gone from collecting data every day to every few seconds.”