Socially isolated animals can influence evolution, study says

Avatar By Tyler MacDonald | 2 years ago

A new study suggests that short-term isolation in some animals, such as ants, beetles, toads, and primates, can be just as vital to long-term evolution and development as social interaction.

“The environment an animal experiences can influence which genes it expresses, when, and how much, so conditions of social isolation might cause expression of different traits,” said Nathan Bailey of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, co-author of the study. “This in turn could affect responses to natural selection in terms of survival and reproduction, which has evolutionary consequences. For some species, it might even mean that temporary social isolation is favorable.”

“Traits expressed during social interactions might exist because they’ve been shaped by selection, but at the same time, social interactions themselves represent a type of environment that can select and shape how individuals behave,” he added.

Although research on evolution typically focuses on social interactions and their importance, the new study shines a fresh new look onto the importance of social isolation. And in order to continue furthering our understanding of it, Bailey believes that we need to use a measurement called the “index of social isolation” to compare ideal amounts of isolation with experienced levels.

“To understand how short-term social isolation experienced by individual animals translates into trans-generational evolutionary impacts for a larger population, we need a number, something measurable that we can compare across different species and contexts,” Bailey said. “After all, isolation that has negative effects for one species could in fact be beneficial for another.”

The findings were published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.