Social animals are particularly exposed to infectious diseases. Pathogen-driven selection pressures have thus favoured the evolution of behavioural adaptations to decrease transmission risk such as the avoidance of contagious individuals. Yet, such strategies deprive individuals of valuable social interactions, generating a cost-benefit trade-off between pathogen avoidance and social opportunities. Recent studies revealed that hosts differ in these behavioural defences, but the determinants driving such inter-individual variation remain understudied. Using 6 years of behavioural and parasite data on a large natural population of mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx), we showed that, when parasite prevalence was high in the population, females avoided grooming their conspecifics' peri-anal region (PAR), where contagious gastro-intestinal parasites accumulate. Females varied, however, in their propensity to avoid this risky body region: across years, some females consistently avoided grooming it, while others did not. Interestingly, hygienic females (i.e. those avoiding the PAR) were less parasitized than non-hygienic females. Finally, age, dominance rank and grooming frequency did not influence a female's hygiene, but both mother-daughter and maternal half-sisters exhibited similar hygienic levels, whereas paternal half-sisters and non-kin dyads did not, suggesting a social transmission of this behaviour. Our study emphasizes that the social inheritance of hygiene may structure behavioural resistance to pathogens in host populations with potential consequences on the dynamics of infectious diseases.
Keywords: contagious disease; hygiene; parasite avoidance strategy; primate; social inheritance.