Coronavirus: Scientists to study great ‘human pause’ of pandemic and impact on wildlife

Sudden hiatus in human activity has led to rapid changes in animal behaviour - researchers hope to log the difference as lockdowns come to an end

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 23 June 2020 10:47
Nearly 200 goats escape and take over California streets

The impact of the global lockdowns designed to control the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on the natural world.

Across the globe industries ground to a halt while billions of people stopped moving about the planet and stayed at home.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence of an increase in animal activity has been abundant.

There not only seem to be more animal sightings than usual, but many surprising encounters: goats invaded Llandudno, pumas have been spotted prowling the streets of downtown Santiago, Chile, and dolphins recently swam through the untypically calm waters in the harbour of Trieste, Italy.

Though some vital services continued, from mid-March to mid-May, human activity and its impact on the planet was vastly reduced.

Scientists are now hoping to learn what this immense hiatus, or “anthropause”, as it has been dubbed, has meant for animals and plants.

A research team is aiming to build a body of work detailing the realities of how lockdown impacted the natural world - which they hope will provide invaluable insights into human-wildlife interactions.

The authors noted that the impact on animals may not have all been positive.

“The pandemic may have created new challenges. For example, some urban-dwelling animals, like gulls, rats or monkeys, may struggle to make ends meet without access to human food. In more remote areas, reduced human presence may potentially put endangered species, such as rhinos or raptors, at increased risk of poaching or persecution,” the scientists said.

The project will be based on the findings of an international consortium of researchers as part of the “Covid-19 Bio-Logging Initiative”.

The group will investigate animals’ movements, behaviour and stress levels, before, during and after the Covid-19 lockdown, using data collected using animal-attached electronic devices called “bio-loggers”.

The study’s lead author, Professor Christian Rutz, a biologist at the University of St Andrews, and president of the International Bio-Logging Society, said: “All over the world, field biologists have fitted animals with miniature tracking devices. These bio-loggers provide a goldmine of information on animal movement and behaviour, which we can now tap to improve our understanding of human-wildlife interactions, with benefits for all.”

The team will integrate results from a wide variety of animals, including fish, birds and mammals, in an attempt to build a global picture of lockdown effects.

The authors emphasised that the global priority must still be to tackle the immense human tragedy and hardship caused by the pandemic. But they argue we cannot afford to miss the opportunity to chart, for the first time on a truly global scale, the extent to which modern human mobility affects wildlife.

Dr Matthias-Claudio Loretto, of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, said the project will address previously unanswered questions.

“We will be able to investigate if the movements of animals in modern landscapes are predominantly affected by built structures, or by the presence of humans,” he said. “That is a big deal.”

Dr Francesca Cagnacci of the Edmund Mach Foundation in Trento, Italy, and principal investigator of the Euromammals research network, said: “The international research community responded quickly to our recent call for collaboration, offering over 200 datasets for analysis. We are very grateful for this support.”

The research project is detailed in an article in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution.

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