Disgust Helps Animals Avoid Diseases

The study highlights significant variations in disgust behavior across species, influenced by their social systems and ecological niches.

AsianScientist (May. 24, 2023) –Humans have evolved to use their sense of disgust toward rotten or sick individuals and plants as one of the ways to avoid diseases. Similar behavior has been observed in animals, shows a new study. Findings published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the adaptive function of disgust, shedding light on its implications for human health and wildlife management strategies.

Traditionally, the focus of animal behavior research has revolved around fear and predator avoidance. Not many researchers have focused on behaviors such as disgust.

Disgust, an emotional response, can be triggered by sensory cues associated with disease risk. These cues elicit a range of behavioral and physiological responses that aid animals in avoiding parasites, pathogens, and toxins. The study highlights the significant variations in disgust behavior across species, influenced by their social systems and ecological niches.

“Our predictions take into account the specific ecological niches, sensory environments, and social systems of various species,” explained Professor Andrew MacIntosh, a co-author of the study from Wildlife Research Center, Kyoto University, Inuyama, Japan, in an article published by Earth.com. “The costs and benefits associated with disgust and disease avoidance behaviors depend on the social system and ecology of each species”

Solitary species, with relatively fewer social interactions and disease transmission risks, exhibit less developed disease avoidance behaviors compared to species living in groups. Remarkably, some colony-dwelling animals, such as penguins and rabbits, tolerate diseased mates due to the “community immunity strategy” that ensures the survival of the colony as a whole.

The implications of this research extend beyond the animal kingdom, with direct relevance to human health and disease outbreaks. By studying this behavior of disease avoidance in animals, researchers can learn more about the spread of various diseases. For instance, research on avian influenza among wild bird populations has led to strategies for containing the disease in domestic bird populations, protecting both animals and humans.

Understanding animal disease avoidance behaviors can also be important in preventing the spread of infectious diseases in humans. For example, animals use social distancing to avoid contracting diseases, something that became a norm during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, animal behavior studies have helped develop vaccines and treatment for infectious diseases. By examining the immune systems of bats, which can carry deadly viruses without falling ill, researchers have discovered potential avenues for preventing and treating diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19.

However, it is important to recognize that animals are not perfect models for human disease. Variations in physiology and response to pathogens mean that caution must be exercised when interpreting animal behavior research as far as human health is concerned.

Source: Kyoto University ; Image: Shutterstock

The article can be found at: Disgust in animals and the application of disease avoidance to wildlife management and conservation

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.


Parvaiz Yousuf is a science journalist and researcher based in Kashmir, India.

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