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Gorillas Prevent Disease Spread through Social Distancing, New Study Suggests

Gorillas Prevent Disease Spread through Social Distancing, New Study Suggests

Tuesday, 12 October, 2021 - 06:45
Gorillas sit after two of their troop tested positive for COVID-19 after falling ill, and a third gorilla appears also to be symptomatic, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in San Diego, California, US January 10, 2021. Picture taken January 10, 2021. Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global/Handout via REUTERS

Groups interact fairly infrequently, and when they do they tend to keep their distance, rarely approaching to within that crucial one to two-meter distance, the daily Independent reported. Cough and cold rapidly spread among mountain gorillas, but it seems social distancing can help prevent the spread of illnesses in these animals, suggests a new study.

Respiratory infection is one of the biggest threats to ape conservation. Apes can catch many of the same diseases as humans. However, respiratory infections that are relatively mild in humans can have major consequences in apes like gorillas and chimpanzees, where a case of the common cold or flu can be lethal, say experts.

Scientists from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund studied 15 respiratory outbreaks across the last 17 years to understand how diseases transmitted through a population of mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. The study found that the patterns of transmission couldn't be predicted by a group's social network.

In one outbreak, it took only three days for 45 out of 46 group members to begin coughing. Yet, the researchers found that opportunities for infections to spread between neighboring groups were limited.

"The outbreaks we investigated all appeared to stay within a single group rather than spreading through the wider population. Gorilla groups interact fairly infrequently, and when they do, they tend to keep their distance," said Yvonne Mushimiyimana, a co-author on the project.

According to researchers, this aloofness toward neighboring groups may actually help protect the wider population by limiting broader transmission of these infections. Other studies in wild apes have shown that respiratory outbreaks are almost exclusively caused by pathogens of human origin.

"If we can better understand how diseases have spread in the past, we can better prepare for and respond to outbreaks in the future. Our best guess is that these infections in mountain gorillas are coming from humans," said Dr. Robin Morrison, lead author on the study.

"It really highlights the importance of ongoing efforts to minimize wild great ape exposure to human diseases during activities like research, tourism and protection," he added.

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