Social network analysis of wild chimpanzees provides insights for predicting infectious disease risk



  1. Heterogeneity in host association patterns can alter pathogen transmission and strategies for control. Great apes are highly social and endangered animals that have experienced substantial population declines from directly transmitted pathogens; as such, network approaches to quantify contact heterogeneity could be crucially important for predicting infection probability and outbreak size following pathogen introduction, especially owing to challenges in collecting real-time infection data for endangered wildlife.
  2. We present here the first study using network analysis to quantify contact heterogeneity in wild apes, with applications for predicting community-wide infectious disease risk. Specifically, within a wild chimpanzee community, we ask how associations between individuals vary over time, and we identify traits of highly connected individuals that might contribute disproportionately to pathogen spread.
  3. We used field observations of behavioural encounters in a habituated wild chimpanzee community in Kibale National Park, Uganda to construct monthly party level (i.e. subgroup) and close-contact (i.e. ≤5 m) association networks over a 9-month period.
  4. Network analysis revealed that networks were highly dynamic over time. In particular, oestrous events significantly increased pairwise party associations, suggesting that community-wide disease outbreaks should be more likely to occur when many females are in oestrus.
  5. Bayesian models and permutation tests identified traits of chimpanzees that were highly connected within the network. Individuals with large families (i.e. mothers and their juveniles) that range in the core of the community territory and to a lesser extent high-ranking males were central to association networks, and thus represent the most important individuals to target for disease intervention strategies.
  6. Overall, we show striking temporal variation in network structure and traits that predict association patterns in a wild chimpanzee community. These empirically-derived networks can inform dynamic models of pathogen transmission and have practical applications for infectious disease management of endangered wildlife species.