Social network plasticity decreases disease transmission in a eusocial insect

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Science  23 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6417, pp. 941-945
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat4793

Protecting the colony

When we get a cold and then stay home from work, we are not only taking care of ourselves but also protecting others. Such changes in behavior after infection are predicted in social animals but are difficult to quantify. Stroeymeyt et al. looked for such changes in the black garden ant and found that infected workers did alter their behavior—and healthy workers altered their behavior toward the sick. The changed behavior was especially valuable for protecting the most important and vulnerable members of the colony.

Science, this issue p. 941


Animal social networks are shaped by multiple selection pressures, including the need to ensure efficient communication and functioning while simultaneously limiting disease transmission. Social animals could potentially further reduce epidemic risk by altering their social networks in the presence of pathogens, yet there is currently no evidence for such pathogen-triggered responses. We tested this hypothesis experimentally in the ant Lasius niger using a combination of automated tracking, controlled pathogen exposure, transmission quantification, and temporally explicit simulations. Pathogen exposure induced behavioral changes in both exposed ants and their nestmates, which helped contain the disease by reinforcing key transmission-inhibitory properties of the colony’s contact network. This suggests that social network plasticity in response to pathogens is an effective strategy for mitigating the effects of disease in social groups.

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