Wildlife in Pandemic: Taking a Break from Humans – “More Opportunities to Explore New Territories”

Science Wildlife in the Pandemic

Break from Humans – “More Opportunities to Explore New Territories”

Brown bear (Ursus arctos) and two cubs side by side, jumping

Brown bears used new connecting corridors during the pandemic

Source: Getty Images/Johnny Johnson

Jackals in Tel Aviv, pumas in Santiago, bears in South Tyrol: During the corona pandemic, wild animals increased their range of movement. Sometimes the civilization pause also had the opposite effect. Researchers think both are good news.

Dhe restrictions during the corona pandemic have also had an impact on animal behavior. Wild land mammals traveled longer distances and stayed closer to roads during the tight lockdowns. This is the result of an international study presented in the journal Science. Scientists from the Frankfurt research institute Senckenberg were also involved.

In the first year of the pandemic, 2020, there were reports from many places that wild animals were increasingly appearing in cities. Was that really the case – or were people simply more attentive because they were more at home? To answer this question, the research team analyzed movement data from more than 2,300 mammals from 43 different species such as elephants, giraffes, bears and deer for which there was GPS data. The researchers compared the movements during the first lockdown phase between February and April 2020 with those in the same period of the previous year.

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Milena Kreiling, ranger of the nature watch in the Lower Oder Valley National Park, walks along the protective fence next to the dike.  She and the other rangers are on daily patrol in the national park along the fence that was recently erected against wild boar because of African swine fever (ASF).  Wooden ramps, narrow passages and open gates in the fence allow deer and smaller animals to escape from the flood to a safe area.

“Our data shows that during tight lockdowns, animals traveled up to 73 percent longer distances over a 10-day period than in the previous year, before restrictions were imposed,” said Marlee Tucker, first author of the study and an ecologist at the Radboud University. University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. “We also found that, on average, they were 36 percent closer to roads than they were last year. This can certainly be explained by the fact that there was far less road traffic during this period.”

A number of species-specific case studies align with the research team’s findings: cougars (Puma concolor) moved across city limits during the lockdown, abundance of porcupines (Hystrix cristata) increased in urban areas, diurnal activity of the Florida cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) rose and brown bears (Ursus arctos) use new connection corridors.

More about endangered species

Massive declines in populations in Germany: common snipe, lapwing, whinchat (from left)

Bears eat carrion and sick animals

Chinese or Oriental fire-bellied toad (Bombina orientalis), adult sitting on moss

Mass extinction of amphibians

Pelican in Djouj National Park, Senegal

“During the strict lockdowns, far fewer people were outdoors, which gave the animals the opportunity to explore new areas,” explained Thomas Müller from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center and the Goethe University Frankfurt. “In contrast, in areas with less strict regulations, we observed that mammals traveled 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 mammalian fauna.”

The so-called anthropause – the temporary absence of humans – was a unique opportunity to study the effects of human presence on wildlife. “With our results, we show that human mobility is an important driving force for the behavior of some land mammals,” explained Tucker. The extent is comparable to that of landscape changes. “Our research also shows that animals can react 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 impact on wildlife and the ecosystem functions they provide.”

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