Could wild animals take advantage of the corona lockdowns?

GPS data from 2,300 individuals from 43 mammal species around the world – like this deer in Wyoming – formed the basis of the study. © Mark Gocke

While people were restricted, many wild animals around the world were able to develop their mobility: An international research team documented this effect of the corona measures by evaluating the movement data of 43 species of mammals. Interestingly, certain restrictions also had the opposite effect. The results thus reflect how humans “normally” affect wild animals. The scientists say the information can thus benefit conservation efforts.

Where there are usually many people or vehicles on the move, it suddenly became eerily quiet: The restrictions imposed by the world's governments to contain the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 led to an effect that is known in science as the "anthropause". It was a kind of involuntary experiment: because humans were less present in the environment, their influence on nature diminished. This enabled various conclusions to be drawn about otherwise difficult-to-recognize relationships.

On the trail of the effect of the Anthropause

As far as the effects of the exception phase on the movement behavior of wild animals are concerned, however, there has only been anecdotal evidence so far. For example, jackals, pumas and bears have been sighted, which are said to venture unusually deep into areas normally dominated by humans during the lockdown phases. “We were interested: is there any scientific evidence for this initially subjective perception? Or were people simply more attentive when they had to stay at home more, for example?” says lead author Marlee Tucker from the Dutch Radboud University in Nijmegen.

To answer this question, Tucker and her international team analyzed datasets from around the world. It is movement information collected by GPS devices from more than 2,300 individual animals belonging to 43 land mammal species: from elephants and giraffes to bears and deer. The scientists were able to compare the information during the period of the first lockdown - from January to mid-May 2020 - with the movements in the same months of the previous year. As they report, the effects on the individual species and the different regions were sometimes special, but there were definitely overriding trends.

More freedom of movement – ​​with exceptions

“We found that, on average, wildlife was 36 percent closer to roads than last year. This can certainly be explained by the fact that there was a lot less road traffic during this period,” says Tucker. "Most importantly, our data shows that during the strict lockdowns, the animals covered with radio transmitters traveled up to 73 percent longer distances over a ten-day period than in the previous year, when there were no restrictions," says Trucker. Her colleague Thomas Müller from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center and the Goethe University Frankfurt explains: "During the strict lockdowns, far fewer people were outdoors, which gave the animals the opportunity to explore new areas". The team reports that these results also match scientific observation data for some individual species.

As the researchers continue to report, certain regulations could also have the opposite effect during the Corona period: "In areas with less strict regulations, we were able to observe that mammals covered shorter distances than in the previous year. This could be related to the fact that during these periods people were encouraged to get out into nature. As a result, some natural areas were more frequented than before the corona pandemic - with an impact on the mammalian fauna," says Müller.

As the team sums up, the “involuntary experiment” of the anthropause was able to provide important clues about the impact of humans on wildlife: “With our results, we illustrate that human mobility is an important driving force for the behavior of some land mammals, namely on a scale possibly comparable to that of landscape changes. Our research also shows that animals can respond directly to changes in human behavior. This gives hope for the future - because it basically means that adapting our own behavior can also have a positive effect on wildlife and the ecosystem functions they provide," says Tucker.

Source: Radboud University Nijmegen, Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museums, professional article: Science, doi: 10.1126/science.abo6499

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