Humans are naturally social creatures, so understandably, many of us are struggling with the social distancing necessary to combat COVID-19. As we all adapt to the realities of living a little further apart, there are many animals you can find along the South Platte that have been living that way their whole lives. From bees and ants to squirrels and foxes, these animals can teach us that a little separation isn’t always a bad thing!
What can we learn from other animals about social distancing? Evolutionarily, group-living animals that effectively socially distance during an outbreak of disease improve the health of their colony and go on to produce offspring which, in turn, socially distance when confronted with disease.
Insects, like bees and ants, are nature’s experts at social distancing. Ants and bees are animals that live in tight spaces within a colony of thousands of others. Similar to our gathering spaces, like shopping centers and college dorms, these habitats can become a perfect place for disease to spread. Honeybees live in hives with up to 80,000 other bees. When a honeybee gets infected, they emit an odor that the other bees can detect. Once the sick bee is identified, they eject the bee out of the hive in order to prevent spread.
Not all animals social distance to mitigate the spread of disease. Many animals you may find along the South Platte are simply solitary animals, meaning they do not live with others of the same species. One such animal you may see along the river or even in your backyard is the fox squirrel.
Once fox squirrels leave the nest in the spring, they are mostly solitary, only pairing up during mating season. Males will nest with the female, but quickly move on to find another mate, leaving the female to raise her young on her own. You may often see them bickering with each other over territory and nest space— it’s no wonder they live mostly solitary lives!
Another animal along the South Platte that we can learn a thing or two from is the Great Blue Heron. Herons will gather during nesting season, building their nests next to one another, which helps protect the young from predators. By the time nesting season is over, both the parents and offspring go their separate ways. Many species of heron can be tolerant of each other, however if two Great Blue Herons are hunting too closely in the same area, the dominant heron will chase the other away.
As we all grapple with big changes in our social lives, our animal friends along the South Platte offer us some important lessons about protecting our communities and taking a little personal space. Next time you take a walk in your local park, see if you can spot any of these solitary creatures-- and most importantly, stay safe and stay healthy!