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How Does the Social Grouping of Animals in Nature Protect Against Sickness? A Perspective.

Abstract

Sickness behavior is broadly represented in vertebrates, usually in association with the fever response in response to acute infections. The reactions to sickness behavior in a group member or potential group member in humans is quite variable, depending upon circumstances. In animals, the reactions to sickness behavior in a group member or potential group member evoke a specific response that reflects the species-specific lifestyle. Groups of animals can employ varied strategies to reduce or address exposure to sickness. Most of these have scarcely been studied in nature from a disease perspective: (1) adjusting exposure to sick conspecifics or contaminated areas; (2) caring for a sick group member; (3) peripheralization and agonistic behaviors to strange non-group conspecifics; and (4) using special strategies at parturition when newborn are healthy but vulnerable. Unexplored in this regard is infanticide, where newborn that are born with very little immunity until they receive antibody-rich colostrum, could be a target of maternal infanticide if they manifest signs of sickness and could be infectious to littermates. The strategies used by different species are highly specific and dependent upon the particular circumstances. What is needed is a more general awareness and consideration of the possibilities that avoiding or adapting to sickness behavior may be driving some social behaviors of animals in nature.

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