Why it matters: Traffic can take a toll on wildlife.
Many previous studies have shown that roads can change the behavior of wildlife. But it was difficult to distinguish the effects of permanent changes to the landscape, such as the clearing of forests to build a highway, from the effects of everyday human activity, such as rush-hour traffic.
During the first weeks and months of the pandemic, cars disappeared while roads remained natural, allowing scientists to track the effects of traffic. The new findings reinforce those of smaller, more localized studies from the pandemic era, providing further evidence that many wild animals change their behavior — and quickly — when cars disappear.
In some ways, that’s good news, suggesting that even temporary restrictions on traffic, such as in critical habitats during certain breeding or migratory seasons, could benefit animals, said Dr. Tucker. “It shows that animals still have this flexibility or ability to modify their behavior in response to us,” she said.
Background: Scientists have investigated the ‘anthropause’.
The sudden global decline in human movement that followed the arrival of Covid-19 is sometimes referred to as the “anthropause.” Scientists around the world used it as an opportunity to learn more about how humans affect the natural world and what happens when they disappear.
The new study is a product of the Covid-19 Bio-Logging Initiative, which began in 2020. After the closures began, scientists who were already tracking wildlife movements for their own research projects began collaborating and collecting their data to learn more find out about animal movements during the pandemic. In all, more than 600 researchers have contributed more than a billion location records for about 13,000 animals across 200 species, said Christian Rutz, a behavioral ecologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the chair of the initiative, which has multiple lines of research.
In the new Science study, researchers compared the movements of terrestrial mammals during the first lockdowns, which began between February 1 and April 28, 2020, with their movements during the same time period in 2019. While the researchers found some general trends, they also found documented significant variability, with stronger effects found in some species and regions than others.
What’s Next: More data will be available soon.
The researchers are interested in exploring what happened after lockdowns were eased and whether wild mammals returned to their previous movement patterns as humans returned to their normal activities.
The bio-logging initiative continues and should be ready to publish more results on both bird and mammal movements soon, said Dr. Rutz in an email. “It’s so exciting to be able to share these findings after a three-year journey,” he said. “And we’re already thinking about the next steps for investigating human-animal interactions.”