Social fluidity mobilizes contagion in human and animal populations

Elife. 2021 Jul 30;10:e62177. doi: 10.7554/eLife.62177.


Humans and other group-living animals tend to distribute their social effort disproportionately. Individuals predominantly interact with a small number of close companions while maintaining weaker social bonds with less familiar group members. By incorporating this behavior into a mathematical model, we find that a single parameter, which we refer to as social fluidity, controls the rate of social mixing within the group. Large values of social fluidity correspond to gregarious behavior, whereas small values signify the existence of persistent bonds between individuals. We compare the social fluidity of 13 species by applying the model to empirical human and animal social interaction data. To investigate how social behavior influences the likelihood of an epidemic outbreak, we derive an analytical expression of the relationship between social fluidity and the basic reproductive number of an infectious disease. For species that form more stable social bonds, the model describes frequency-dependent transmission that is sensitive to changes in social fluidity. As social fluidity increases, animal-disease systems become increasingly density-dependent. Finally, we demonstrate that social fluidity is a stronger predictor of disease outcomes than both group size and connectivity, and it provides an integrated framework for both density-dependent and frequency-dependent transmission.

Keywords: animal behaviour; computational biology; density dependence; epidemiology; frequency dependence; global health; infectious disease; mathematical modelling; none; sociality; systems biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Reproduction Number
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Communicable Diseases / transmission*
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Social Behavior*