Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 779–800 | Cite as

Community structure and the spread of infectious disease in primate social networks

  • Randi H. Griffin
  • Charles L. NunnEmail author
Original Paper


Living in a large social group is thought to increase disease risk in wild animal populations, but comparative studies have provided mixed support for this prediction. Here, we take a social network perspective to investigate whether patterns of social contact within groups influence parasite risk. Specifically, increased modularity (i.e. sub-grouping) in larger groups could offset the increased disease risk associated with living in a large group. We simulated the spread of a contagious pathogen in random social networks to generate theoretically grounded predictions concerning the relationship between social network connectivity and the success of socially transmitted pathogens. Simulations yielded the prediction that community modularity (Q) negatively impacts parasite success. No clear predictions emerged for a second network metric we considered, the eigenvector centralization index (C), as the relationship between this measure and parasite success depended on the transmission probability of parasites. We then tested the prediction that Q reduces parasite success in a phylogenetic comparative analysis of social network modularity and parasite richness across 19 primate species. Using a Bayesian implementation of phylogenetic generalized least squares and controlling for sampling effort, we found that primates living in larger groups exhibited higher Q, and as predicted by our simulations, higher Q was associated with lower richness of socially transmitted parasites. This suggests that increased modularity mediates the elevated risk of parasitism associated with living in larger groups, which could contribute to the inconsistent findings of empirical studies on the association between group size and parasite risk. Our results indicate that social networks may play a role in mediating pressure from socially transmitted parasites, particularly in large groups where opportunities for transmitting communicable diseases are abundant. We propose that parasite pressure in gregarious primates may have favored the evolution of behaviors that increase social network modularity, especially in large social groups.


Social networks Primates Infectious disease Parasite richness Sociality Comparative study Agent-based model 



We thank Luke Matthews, Michael Mitzenmacher, Amanda Lobell, Natalie Cooper, Jamie Jones, Charles Mitchell, members of the Comparative Primatology Research Group at Harvard University, and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This research was supported by Harvard University, a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) from the Harvard Initiative in Global Health (HIGH), and the National Science Foundation (BCS-0923791).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOC 188 kb)
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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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