Social information use shapes the coevolution of sociality and virulence

Ben Ashby, Damien R. Farine

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Social contacts can facilitate the spread of both survival-related information and infectious diseases, but little is known about how these processes combine to shape host and parasite evolution. Here, we use a theoretical model that captures both infection and information transmission processes to investigate how host sociality (contact effort) and parasite virulence (disease-associated mortality rate) (co)evolve. We show that selection for sociality (and in turn, virulence) depends on both the intrinsic costs and benefits of social information and infection as well as their relative prevalence in the population. Specifically, greater sociality and lower virulence evolve when the risk of infection is either low or high and social information is neither very common nor too rare. Lower sociality and higher virulence evolve when the prevalence patterns are reversed. When infection and social information are both at moderate levels in the population, the direction of selection depends on the relative costs and benefits of being infected or informed. We also show that sociality varies inversely with virulence, and that parasites may be unable to prevent runaway selection for higher contact efforts. Together, these findings provide new insights for our understanding of group living and how apparently opposing ecological processes can influence the evolution of sociality and virulence in a range of ways.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1153-1169
Number of pages17
Issue number6
Early online date14 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Ben Sheldon for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. BA was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (Grant numbers NE/N014979/1 and NE/V003909/1). DRF was funded by a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 850859), and an Eccellenza Professorship Grant of the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant Number PCEFP3_187058), and received additional support from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany's Excellence Strategy–EXC 2117–422037984.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. Evolution published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of The Society for the Study of Evolution.


  • coevolution
  • contact rate
  • infectious disease
  • social information
  • sociality
  • virulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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