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Behavior of land mammals changed dramatically during COVID-19 lockdowns

The global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns led to a substantial shift in human behavior. As people huddled indoors, it appeared that land mammals seized the opportunity to explore more freely and widely, as per a recent study conducted by Marlee Tucker of Radboud University and his team of 174 colleagues.

In the first few months of the pandemic, when most countries were in stringent lockdown, reports of wildlife reclaiming spaces in urban areas began to circulate. One could spot cougars strolling down the streets of Santiago, Chile. 

However, Tucker questioned, “Is there any evidence of this? Or were people simply paying more attention to everything while being at home?” This doubt inspired a global investigation into the behavioral changes of land mammals.

Studying the movements of mammals worldwide

To dig deeper into the phenomenon, the team, which included members of the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative, embarked on a mission to analyze GPS tracking data of land mammals worldwide. 

They collected and scrutinized data from a diverse array of 43 different species, ranging from elephants and giraffes to bears and deer. The team studied more than 2,300 individual mammals in all.

The data under scrutiny was specifically from the first period of lockdowns, spanning from January to mid-May 2020. The team then compared these figures to movement data from the same months the previous year. The patterns they discovered were intriguing.

What the researchers learned

The research,  published in the journal Science, revealed that animals traveled up to 73% longer distances within a span of 10 days during the strict lockdown period, compared to the same time the previous year when no lockdown was in place. 

Additionally, animals were found to be on average 36% closer to roads. “This is probably because those roads were quieter during strict lockdowns,” explained Tucker.

Fewer people outside, especially in heavily urbanized areas, offered animals an unprecedented opportunity to explore new territories. However, the results varied in regions with less stringent lockdown measures.

“In contrast, in areas with less strict lockdowns, we saw that animals traveled shorter distances,” said Thomas Mueller of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University Frankfurt, who co-designed the study with Tucker.

“This may have to do with the fact that during those lockdowns, people were actually encouraged to go into nature. As a result, some nature areas were busier than before COVID-19.”

Unique opportunity for study that may not happen again

The unique circumstances presented by the pandemic lockdowns allowed the researchers to observe the immediate effects of a sudden change in human presence on wildlife behavior.

“Our research has shown that animals can respond directly to changes in human behavior. This offers hope for the future, because in principle this means that making some adjustments to our own behavior could have a positive effect on animals,” said Tucker.

This intriguing study provides crucial insights into how human activity impacts wildlife, potentially guiding our path towards more sustainable cohabitation with the natural world.

What happens when mammals lose their habitat to humans

When humans encroach on the habitats of land mammals, it can lead to a variety of negative impacts on these animals and their environments, as well as potential negative effects on human populations. Here are several key issues:

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

When humans convert forests, grasslands, or other natural habitats into residential areas, commercial zones, farms, or roads, this results in habitat loss for many species. Furthermore, remaining natural areas often become fragmented, isolating wildlife populations. Fragmented habitats can prevent animals from moving freely to find food, mates, or new territory, leading to declines in population size and potentially even extinction.

Conflict with Humans 

As human settlements expand into wild areas, the potential for human-wildlife conflict increases. For instance, animals such as bears, coyotes, or elephants can encroach on human settlements in search of food, which can result in property damage or even human injuries or deaths. Conversely, humans may kill or injure animals perceived as threats or nuisances.

Spread of Diseases

Encroachment can also facilitate the spread of diseases between wildlife and human populations. For example, the Ebola virus is believed to have jumped from wildlife to humans in areas where humans are encroaching on previously undisturbed habitats.

Decreased Biodiversity 

Human encroachment can lead to decreased biodiversity as habitats are destroyed or altered, and certain species may not be able to adapt to the changes. This can result in a loss of species richness and an imbalance in ecosystems, which can lead to a decrease in ecosystem health and resilience.

Disruption of Animal Behavior

Human encroachment can cause changes in animal behavior. For example, it can change migration patterns or feeding habits, causing stress to the animals and potentially impacting their survival. Animals might also start to avoid areas populated by humans, resulting in a reduced habitat area.

Overexploitation of Resources

Humans often exploit natural resources within animal habitats, such as water, timber, or mineral resources. This exploitation can alter or destroy habitats and leave fewer resources available for animal populations.

Ultimately, the encroachment of human activities into animal habitats poses a significant threat to wildlife. It highlights the importance of sustainable development practices, habitat conservation, and coexistence strategies to mitigate these impacts.


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