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Study finds land mammals moved farther during pandemic lockdowns

One of the largest comparative studies of its kind found that reduced traffic during Covid-19 lockdowns had immediate and immense impacts on the movement and behavioral patterns of animals.

(CN) — A study published in Science on Thursday illustrated the responses of 46 different species to Covid-19 lockdown measures, finding land mammals crossed greater distances than usual during the early months of strict restrictions.

The study looked at habitat change and location displacement during what researchers called the “anthropause,” a period of drastic reduction in human mobility. Specifically, they tracked how far individual animals traveled in two specific time periods. Scientists from 76 different individual studies contributed GPS tracking data to evaluate how behavioral patterns changed for these animals from 2019 to 2020.

Pandemic lockdowns in the spring of 2020 gave researchers a novel opportunity to examine how restrictions placed on human activity affected wildlife living near different human environments and high-traffic areas. The study included an international team of 173 scientists on five continents.

Findings show a reduction in motor vehicle traffic from urban, suburban, and rural areas changed how animals interacted with their surroundings, leading to more freedom of movement in crossing busy roadways. Their behavior adjusted dramatically in their range from searching for food, daily habits and their need to avoid people.

But this temporary freedom poses a threat to the animals when considering a return to the norm, said lead author Marlee Tucker of Radboud University in the Netherlands. Tucker said the important aspect of the study is “the comparison of behavior between the lockdowns and a baseline period.” Researchers were surprised to learn how fast the daily patterns of avoidance, food gathering and escape responses changed in such a short period of time.

Professor Colleen St. Clair of the University of Alberta wrote a separate perspective on the paper for Science. She found it remarkable that widely observed changes in mammal movement "occurred closer to roads with greater exploratory-type movements of the areas near them, and fewer of the rapid movements associated with fleeing from sudden disturbances and dangers." But she said greater movement by wildlife near roads isn’t entirely positive because it could contribute to more deaths from vehicle collisions and other conflicts with people, particularly with carnivores.

Most notably, the study showed a 73% increase in habitat displacement – a standout for Tucker, who also led a similar study in 2018 on how human impact reduced animal activity and lead to limited movement of nutrients and ecological interactions.

“When our movements were restricted, animals moved longer distances,” she said. In fact, animals moved closer to roads on average during Covid-19 lockdowns and were less inhibited in their relative habitats.

Elk jump over a barrier fence. (Photo by Mark Gocke)

The researchers say their results show that animals have the ability to change their behavior in a relatively short period, from just several weeks to a few months.

The findings, according to St. Clair, provide valuable insight for future conservation policy designed to improve human-wildlife coexistence. Until now, relatively little research has been done to understand the impact of roadways and human mobility as it relates to animal behavior on a global scale.

“Their results highlight the environmental impact of vehicle activity, which is discussed less often publicly than the effects of emissions, permanent road infrastructure, and habitat loss.” St. Clair said. “This study suggests that limiting vehicle activity where animal movement is constrained could have positive effects on populations that are threatened by isolation. Examples from many other species show that such isolation makes small populations more vulnerable to extinction. Grizzly bears (like brown bears in Europe) provide a familiar example of this effect and Italian brown bears showed greater movement during lockdowns.”

The researchers suggested barrier fencing and crossing structures as a way to mitigate the impact of vehicles on animals now that lockdowns have receded.

“Banff National Park is a famous example of this approach, but it's not practical everywhere,” St. Clair said.   

Tucker hopes that further developments of GPS tracking applications will aid in developing technology, policy and methods for human and wildlife interactions.

“Adjusting timing, frequency, and volume of traffic in areas important for animal movement,” she offered as one suggestion. “An example of this is that you can only drive during the day to avoid disturbing animals at night in national parks. Or restrictions on using walking trails during certain seasons.”

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Categories / Environment, Health, Science

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