Family matters

In nature, the benefits of living with family counteract the risk of diseases spreading more easily between relatives who have similar immune defences.
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Honey bees (Apis Mellifera) live in colonies with relatives that cooperate to survive and reproduce, but their young (shown at the pupa stage) are susceptible to parasites like the Verroa mite. Image credit: Giles San Martin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Living in a group with relatives has many advantages, such as helping with child rearing and gathering food. This has led many species to evolve a range of group behaviours; for example, in honey bee populations, worker bees sacrifice themselves to save the colony from incoming enemies.

But there are also downsides to living with family. For example, bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing pathogens will find it easier to spread between relatives. This is because individuals with the same genes have similar immune defences. So, is it better to live with relatives who can help with life’s struggles or live with unrelated individuals where there is a lower chance of getting sick?

To help answer this question, Bensch et al. analysed data from 75 studies which encompassed 56 different species of plants, animals, and one type of bacteria. This showed that creatures living in family groups experienced more disease and had a higher risk of death. However, if groups had a low chance of encountering pathogens, individuals living with relatives were more likely to survive. This cancels out the disadvantages family groups face when pathogens are more common.

The analysis by Bensch et al. provides new insights into how pathogens spread in species with different social systems. This information can be used to predict how diseases occur in nature which will benefit ecologists, epidemiologists, and conservation biologists.