Unanticipated Impact of COVID-19 Lockdowns: Wild Mammals Expanding Their Territories

by François Dupont
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animal behavior during COVID lockdowns

Amidst the COVID-19 lockdowns, remarkable sightings of cougars roaming the streets of Santiago, Chile, shed light on the unexpected consequences for animal behavior.

The confinement measures implemented worldwide during the initial months of the global COVID-19 pandemic had a profound influence on human conduct, leading to notable changes in the habits of terrestrial mammals.

A comprehensive global study discovered that stringent COVID-19 lockdowns prompted animals to embark on journeys that were up to 73% longer, with a remarkable 36% increase in proximity to roads—a likely consequence of reduced human activity. Conversely, areas with less restrictive lockdowns witnessed a decline in animal movement, possibly attributed to heightened human visitation in natural settings. These findings underscore the significant impact of human presence on wildlife behavior and suggest potential advantages arising from alterations in human behavior for the benefit of wildlife.

The research, led by Tucker and a team of 174 colleagues, including members of the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative, examined GPS data from land mammals across the globe. Tucker stated, “Numerous media reports suggested that nature was recovering during those initial lockdowns. For instance, the sight of cougars traversing the streets of Santiago, Chile, caught public attention. However, we sought concrete evidence to validate these claims. Were people simply paying more attention to their surroundings while confined to their homes, or was there a factual basis to these reports?”

Analysis of Mammalian Movements

Tucker and his colleagues compiled data on the movements of 43 different species of land mammals from various regions worldwide, encompassing over 2,300 individuals, ranging from elephants and giraffes to bears and deer. By comparing their movements during the first period of lockdowns (January to mid-May 2020) with the corresponding months from the previous year, they made intriguing discoveries. Tucker remarked, “We observed that, during stringent lockdowns, animals covered distances up to 73% longer within a span of 10 days compared to the same period the previous year, devoid of any lockdowns. Additionally, we noticed that animals, on average, approached roads 36% closer than in the preceding year. This phenomenon can be attributed to the reduced activity on those roads during strict lockdowns.”

Plausible Explanations

Several factors contribute to these outcomes. The reduced presence of people during stringent lockdowns allowed animals to explore new territories, leading to extended travels. Conversely, in areas with milder restrictions, shorter animal movements were observed, potentially due to increased human visits to natural landscapes as encouraged during those lockdowns. Thomas Mueller, from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University Frankfurt, who collaborated on the study with Tucker, stated, “The variation in animal movements can be associated with the fact that people were actively encouraged to immerse themselves in nature during these less stringent lockdowns. Consequently, certain nature areas experienced higher levels of human activity than before the COVID-19 outbreak.”

An Unprecedented Opportunity

The lockdowns presented a unique opportunity to study the ramifications of a sudden alteration in human presence on wildlife. Tucker expressed optimism, stating, “Our research has unequivocally demonstrated that animals can directly respond to changes in human behavior. This revelation holds promise for the future, as it implies that modifying our own conduct can have a positive impact on animals.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about animal behavior during COVID lockdowns

What is the main finding of the study on wild mammal behavior during COVID-19 lockdowns?

The main finding of the study is that during strict COVID-19 lockdowns, animals traveled longer distances, up to 73% more, and ventured closer to roads, about 36% closer, due to reduced human activity.

How was the study conducted?

The study involved analyzing GPS data from land mammals around the world. Data from 43 different species, including over 2,300 individuals, were compared between the first period of COVID-19 lockdowns (January to mid-May 2020) and the same months in the previous year.

Why did animals travel longer distances during lockdowns?

The reduced presence of people during strict lockdowns provided animals with an opportunity to explore new areas, leading to increased travel distances.

Why did animals approach roads more closely during lockdowns?

The decreased human activity on roads during lockdowns made them quieter, which likely attracted animals and resulted in them approaching roads more closely.

What were the findings in areas with less strict lockdowns?

In areas with less strict lockdowns, animal travel distances decreased. This could be due to the fact that people were encouraged to visit nature spots during those lockdowns, resulting in higher human activity in those areas.

What is the significance of these findings?

The findings highlight the significant impact of human presence on wildlife behavior. They also suggest that making changes to human behavior, such as reducing human activity in certain areas, can have positive effects on wildlife.

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