Many countries have gone into lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus. In a new commentary published on 22 June in Nature Ecology & Evolution, scientists argue that while brought about by the most tragic circumstances, the ‘anthropause’ – a period of unusually reduced human activity – brought about by the COVID-19 lockdowns offers an unprecedented opportunity to gain insights into human impact on wildlife (1).
Society’s priority should, indeed, be to tackle the virus and the hardships caused by the pandemic, the authors write. Nonetheless, we should not miss this rare opportunity to learn more about how human-wildlife interactions.
Over the past few months, anecdotal accounts of unusual wildlife encounters, particularly in urban areas, have been springing up across social media. Not only has there been an increase in the number of animals spotted but also some surprising appearances, including dolphins off the coast of in Italy, pumas in Santiago, Chile, and coyotes in downtown San Fransisco.
Animals worldwide seem to be revelling in a newfound freedom to explore with a lower risk of stumbling across a human. However, city-dwelling animals, like rats, pigeons and monkeys, might be finding it more difficult to survive without human food. More worrying, the authors suggest that reduced human presence could potentially place endangered species at increased risk of poaching.
International researchers have joined forces as part of a newly formed initiative, the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative, to paint an overall picture of the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns on wildlife. The team will study animal movement, behaviour, and stress levels before and after lockdown using data from electronic devices called bio-loggers attached to a variety of animals, including fish, birds, and mammals.
In a statement, lead author Prof Christian Rutz, a biologist at the University of St Andrews as well as President of the International Bio-Logging Society, explained: “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.”
Dr Matthias-Claudio Loretto of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany, who is also part of the initiative, says the study will allow researchers to address previously intractable 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. That is a big deal”.
“Nobody is asking for humans to stay in permanent lockdown. But we may discover that relatively minor changes to our lifestyles and transport networks can potentially have significant benefits for both ecosystems and humans.”
Professor Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, hopes the new insights will help develop innovative strategies that benefit both wildlife and humans:
“Nobody is asking for humans to stay in permanent lockdown. But we may discover that relatively minor changes to our lifestyles and transport networks can potentially have significant benefits for both ecosystems and humans”.
(1) Rutz, C. et al. COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nature Ecology & Evolution (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1237-z