Disease implications of animal social network structure: A synthesis across social systems


The disease costs of sociality have largely been understood through the link between group size and transmission. However, infectious disease spread is driven primarily by the social organization of interactions in a group and not its size. We used statistical models to review the social network organization of 47 species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and insects by categorizing each species into one of three social systems, relatively solitary, gregarious and socially hierarchical. Additionally, using computational experiments of infection spread, we determined the disease costs of each social system. We find that relatively solitary species have large variation in number of social partners, that socially hierarchical species are the least clustered in their interactions, and that social networks of gregarious species tend to be the most fragmented. However, these structural differences are primarily driven by weak connections, which suggest that different social systems have evolved unique strategies to organize weak ties. Our synthetic disease experiments reveal that social network organization can mitigate the disease costs of group living for socially hierarchical species when the pathogen is highly transmissible. In contrast, highly transmissible pathogens cause frequent and prolonged epidemic outbreaks in gregarious species. We evaluate the implications of network organization across social systems despite methodological challenges, and our findings offer new perspective on the debate about the disease costs of group living. Additionally, our study demonstrates the potential of meta-analytic methods in social network analysis to test ecological and evolutionary hypotheses on cooperation, group living, communication and resilience to extrinsic pressures.

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