Social distancing isn’t just for humans! Coughs and colds spread rapidly between mountain gorillas when they stand in close proximity to one another, study finds

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  • Coughs and colds spread rapidly among mountain gorillas when approaching
  • That’s the finding of a study that looked at how respiratory infections spread
  • Apes catch diseases similar to humans but for them a common cold can be fatal
  • Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund researchers hope study can help conservation efforts

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We all have had to get used to the word ‘social distancing’ in the last 18 months.

But it turns out that it’s not just humans who need to keep their position to avoid disease risk.


A new study has found that coughs and colds spread faster when mountain gorillas stand close to each other.

The researchers found that wild groups of apes are more likely to spread respiratory infections than they are between neighboring people.

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Keep a distance! Coughs and colds also spread faster among mountain gorillas when they stand close to each other, a new study has found.

Why is the common cold so deadly to apes?

Previous research has shown that apes, including chimpanzees and gorillas, can contract the common cold virus.

Not only that, infectious diseases are now listed in the top three threats to some great ape groups.

While many viruses, bacteria and parasites are transmitted to apes without harm, some respiratory infections that are mild to humans cause severe illness or death in our closest living relatives.

The Ebola virus is also believed to have killed thousands of chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa.

There have also been fears that the coronavirus could pose a threat to ape populations, with conservationists calling for immediate action to protect them.


Because humans and gorillas are so closely related, our ape cousins ​​can catch many of the same diseases as us.

However, infections that are relatively mild in humans can have major consequences for gorillas and chimpanzees, where a case of the common cold or flu can be fatal.

This study is therefore important because it sought to understand how diseases are transmitted through groups in an effort to help shape future conservation strategies.

This was done by scientists from the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

They studied 15 respiratory outbreaks over the past 17 years to understand how the infection spreads through mountain gorilla populations.

“If we can better understand how diseases spread in the past, we can better prepare for and respond to future outbreaks,” said study lead author Dr Robin Morrison.

The researchers found that close contact and strong social ties within gorilla groups allowed respiratory diseases to spread rapidly among the apes.

What they could not predict, however, were the patterns of transmission by a group’s social network. In one outbreak, it took just three days for 45 of the group’s 46 members to start coughing.

This differed from the findings of an earlier study, in which the more dispersed social organization of chimpanzees resulted in slower transmission overall.

The researchers were also able to predict disease spread based on the chimpanzees’ social networks – for example those at the center of the network were more likely to exhibit clinical signs than those with fewer connections.

The good news for the endangered gorilla population in this latest study is that researchers found that there were limited opportunities for infection to spread between neighboring groups.

Project co-author Yvonne Mushimeimana said, ‘The outbreaks we examined appeared to remain within a single group rather than spread across a wider population.

Because humans and gorillas are so closely related, our ape cousins ​​can catch many of the same diseases as us.

Because humans and gorillas are so closely related, our ape cousins ​​can catch many of the same diseases as us.

‘Gorilla groups interact quite rarely, and when they do, they keep their distance, rarely reaching within that critical 1-2 metres.’

Experts said this isolation towards neighboring groups could actually help protect the wider population by limiting the widespread transmission of these infections.

However, this begs the question of where the outbreaks are coming from if neighboring gorilla groups are not infecting each other.

Previous studies in wild apes have placed the blame on pathogens of human origin.

One example is in Uganda, where two nearby chimpanzee communities began showing signs of respiratory infection at the same time, only for genetic analysis to reveal that the infection was caused by two completely different human pathogens.

This came as a surprise to scientists but it turned out that both infections were transmitted independently from humans, rather than spreading between the two chimpanzee communities.

Morrison said, ‘Our best guess is that these infections in mountain gorillas are coming from humans.

‘This really highlights the importance of ongoing efforts to reduce wild great ape exposure to human diseases during activities such as research, tourism and conservation.

‘Vaccination, wearing masks and maintaining adequate distance are all more important than ever in the midst of a global pandemic.’

The research aims to identify strategies to limit the spread of the disease. The researchers hope their study will help better understand how transmission may work in different gorilla populations.

“The findings of this study suggest that since respiratory diseases are transmitted quickly within gorilla groups and transmission between groups is much less common, strategies that prevent early transmission in a group may be most effective,” said Dr. Tara Stoinsky, President and Chief Scientific Officer. Foss Fund.

‘For COVID-19 and other human respiratory pathogens, this means preventing the first introduction of a disease from humans to gorillas.’

She continued: ‘Although the research was completed well before the appearance of COVID-19, the current pandemic highlights the fact that this…


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