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Puma visiting a residential area in Chile

Photo: Andes Pina / Aton Chile / IMAGO

The lockdowns during the corona pandemic were unproblematic for some beings. While humans had to severely restrict their public life, animals were able to express themselves more strongly: Wild land mammals covered longer distances during the strict lockdowns and stayed closer to roads than before, as an international study in the journal "Science" shows. Scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt were involved in the study.

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there were reports in many places of increased wildlife 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 GPS movement data from more than 2300 mammals belonging to 43 different species such as elephants, giraffes, bears and deer. The group compared the movements during the first lockdown period between February and April 2020 with those in the same period last year.

"Our data show that during strict lockdowns, the animals covered up to 73 percent longer distances over a ten-day period than the year before, when there were no restrictions," explained Marlee Tucker, first author of the study and ecologist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. "We also found that, on average, they were 36 percent closer to roads than in the previous year. This can certainly be explained by the fact that there was much less road traffic during this period."

A number of species-specific case studies coincide with the research team's findings: cougars (Puma concolor) moved beyond city limits during lockdown, the abundance of porcupines (Hystrix cristata) increased in urban areas, the diurnal activity of the Florida forest rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) increased, and brown bears (Ursus arctos ) use new connecting corridors. Behavioral studies have already pointed in a similar direction. In 2020, for example, a team of researchers had shown that the birdsong of sparrows had improved and the lure calls of sparrow males made the animals more attractive (read more here).

"During the strict lockdowns, there were far fewer people outdoors, which gave the animals the opportunity to explore new areas," explained Thomas Müller from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University Frankfurt. "In areas with less stringent restrictions, on the other hand, we observed that mammals travelled shorter distances than in the previous year. This could be related to the fact that during these periods, people were encouraged to go out into nature. As a result, some natural areas were more frequented than before the corona pandemic – with an impact on mammal fauna."

The temporary absence of humans – called anthropause – was a unique opportunity to study how human presence affects wildlife. "With our results, we show that human mobility is an important driving force for the behavior of some land mammals," Tucker explained. 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 us hope for the future – because in principle it means that adapting our own behaviour can also have a positive effect on wildlife and the ecosystem functions it provides."