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Disgust plays a large role in disease avoidance by animals

As humans, we have developed an emotional response called disgust that helps us avoid disease. But do other animals have similar protective mechanisms? This question has been largely overlooked in the field of animal behavior, where fear and predator avoidance have captured much attention.

However, an international team of scientists has now set up a framework to test disgust and its associated disease avoidance behaviors across various animal species, social systems, and habitats. 

Study lead author Cécile Sarabian, a former JSPS postdoctoral fellow at Kyoto University, notes that over 30 species have been reported to exhibit disease avoidance strategies in the wild. “We provide predictions for seven others that were previously overlooked and that could serve as new model species.”

The team’s predictions take into account models of specific ecological niches, sensory environments, and social systems for a number of species, including the native common octopus and the invasive red-eared slider, which are both relevant to Japan.

“The various costs and benefits involved in experiencing disgust and avoiding illness depend on the social system and ecology of the species,” explained study co-author Professor Andrew MacIntosh. 

Disgust can be triggered by sensory cues associated with disease risk, such as the sight of diarrhea, which releases a set of behavioral or physiological responses that help animals avoid parasites, pathogens, and toxins. The levels of disgust behavior vary from species to species depending on their social systems and ecological niches.

For example, solitary species have relatively fewer social interactions and resulting disease transmission, so they are less adapted than group-living species in recognizing and evading such life-threatening risks.

“Some species living in colonies, such as rabbits and penguins, go further in tolerating diseased mates since a community immunity strategy ensures the colony’s survival,” said MacIntosh.

The implications for human health are significant, as expected disgust-driven behaviors can be applied to the study of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Beyond fundamental research, it’s important to keep promoting the creation of a database that gathers disease-avoidance evidence in animals and its applications in relevant conservation and wildlife management strategies,” said Sarabian.

This research highlights the importance of understanding disease avoidance behaviors in animals and how they can inform our own responses to disease outbreaks. 

Infectious diseases are a significant threat to human health, causing millions of deaths each year. From the Spanish Flu to the COVID-19 pandemic, history has shown us that infectious diseases can have devastating consequences for societies and economies. As we continue to face new and emerging infectious diseases, it’s essential that we learn from nature and the animal kingdom to help protect ourselves.

By studying these behaviors in animals, scientists can gain insights into how diseases spread and develop. For instance, research on how avian influenza spreads among wild bird populations has helped scientists develop strategies for containing the spread of the disease in domestic bird populations. This knowledge is crucial for protecting both animal and human populations from the potential dangers of such diseases.

In addition, understanding animal disease avoidance behaviors can help us develop more effective strategies for preventing the spread of infectious diseases in humans. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries implemented social distancing measures to help slow the spread of the virus. This approach is based on the observation that animals living in groups are more susceptible to disease transmission, and therefore social distancing can help break the chain of transmission.

Furthermore, studying animal behavior can also inform our efforts to develop vaccines and other treatments for infectious diseases. For instance, researchers have studied the immune systems of bats, which are known to carry many deadly viruses without showing any signs of illness. This research has led to the development of new antiviral drugs that could help prevent and treat diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19.

However, there are limitations to studying animal behavior in the context of infectious diseases. Animals are not perfect models for human disease, and there are many differences between how diseases affect animals and humans. Therefore, it’s essential to interpret animal behavior research in the context of human health carefully.

In conclusion, the study of animal behavior can provide valuable insights into how diseases spread and how we can better protect ourselves from them. By studying the behavior of animals, we can gain insights into how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in both animal and human populations, develop more effective treatments, and develop strategies for containing the spread of emerging diseases. 

The research is published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

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