"Social Distancing" and the Animal World

We could learn a lot about solitude from some other animals.

Posted Apr 12, 2020

If you have ever looked at a group of ants going after a dropped candy bar on the sidewalk, or seen a group of bees flying about a hive, it can be easy to think that all animals live in large social groups. “Social distancing" does not seem to exist within many animal species. In many species, large groups of individual members band together to do almost everything. Sometimes these groups are so large that it can hard to see where one individual member stops and another starts.

But that is not the case with all species. Most have times where each individual will spend a good deal of time apart from larger groups. This could involve times when individuals are shunned from the group because they lost some sort of challenge or were deemed to be the weakest. Other times occur when members break off to find food for their family groupings. These times often involve members spending time alone so that they can find things that the large group needs. Social separation here involves leaving the group for the good of the rest of the group.

In the context of what we all have been seeing these days, it is also interesting to note that animal species will often force members to socially distance themselves as a way of keeping ill members from being around others. Animals instinctually recognize when other members have diseases that could be passed on to other members of the group and will direct those members to separate from the larger group to protect members from catching the disease. They will still provide food and support to that member but will require them to keep a distance to protect the larger group.

And then there are species that show a real preference for being by themselves. Bears are a good example: They not only will spend time alone but actually show a preference for being alone. This led at least one author to describe bears as “the most antisocial animals on earth."

When we think about how we all are practicing social distancing, it is interesting to look at animals like bears that do not have much difficulty with solitude. Many types of bears will spend the majority of their days in complete solitude. And even when they do interact with other members of their species it is usually only in very small groups and for only very specific reasons (like finding food).

If you had to describe the way bears spend most of their day, it would be “doing their own thing."  They spend much of their time looking for food, building shelter, or finding mates. But they really do not bother others too much. If they do not think someone else is out to attack them, they will not make much of a fuss themselves. This is not true for all bears but, for the most part they will mind their own business if others are minding theirs.

As a result, bears do not have many natural enemies. They may get into fights with other species that look to attack their food or territory. But this tends to be situational. When you think about social distancing from a bear’s perspective, it is interesting to keep in mind how this helps them not tick others off the way some other species do.

It is also interesting to keep in mind that bears are often alone but would not be described as “lonely." They are not bothered by being by themselves. If needed, they will seek out others to get specific tasks done. They are not bothered by being around others, but do not typically see it as a necessity. Their solitariness is something bears are very comfortable with. They spend time doing their own thing and do not need the company of others to do it.

When you look at bears on nature shows you see that they typically move slowly. Most are capable of moving very fast but just choose not to. When you spend a good time by yourself, you are not necessarily in a hurry. This is practical: Being slow does not scare away food and does not tend to cause other animals to see you as a threat. It is also interesting to consider how being by yourself, and being comfortable by yourself, also seems to go hand-in-hand with not needing to be in a hurry.

Of course, social systems in any species are complex and this is certainly true of bears. Family units tends to be small but they are as important to bears as to other animals. But it is interesting to consider how an animal species can be so content spending most of their time alone. We humans have become such “social animals” that the idea of preferring solitude is often assumed to be a problem. But animals like bears show us that there is another way to look at social interactions. Being with others of your species is good but the alternative is not bad either. This is especially useful to consider at times like these when it is required that we spend more time apart from each other.