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March 19, 2021

Endangered species get help from an unexpected source - wolves!

By modeling wolves in Yellowstone National Park, researchers have discovered that how a population is organized into social groups affects the spread of infectious diseases within the population. The findings may be applicable to any social species and could be useful in the protection of endangered species that suffer from disease outbreaks.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Pack mentality.

I'm Bob Karson with The Discovery Files, from NSF -- the U.S. National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: distant wolf howling) The wolves of Yellowstone National Park may be helping endangered species. In a study of how these social animals deal with disease outbreaks, scientists packed two decades of park service wolf pack research into a new dynamic model of social group behavior and disease.

Pack? (Sound effect: club music) Let's just say wolves like to hang with their entourage. The chance of infection is high as they hunt together, defend turf, and get into some bloody scraps. The researchers focused on changes in social behavior once the group is infected. It's been widely believed that social structure doesn't change. The team says yeah -- it does.

The model shows individual groups tend to infect their own group more than others in the total population. Wolves depend on each other, lessening contact with other groups. Infected groups dwindle, while the healthiest surviving groups face less competition and get a bit larger. During an infection there's always a drop in overall population.

Their recommendation for studying animals that live in social groups: Sample many individuals in multiple groups across a large area.

By modeling these magnificent social animals, we can gain insights to protect other species. And that's something to -- (Sound effect: wolf howl) celebrate.

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