COVID-19 and the “Anthropause”: Studying the Impact on Human-Wildlife Interactions

1280px-Urban_Coyotes_(35970298854)

Urban coyote (Canis latrans). Credit: Connar L’Ecuyer for US National Park Service (public domain).

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

Since COVID-19 started spreading worldwide during the first months of this year, we’ve heard intriguing stories and watched fascinating videos of wildlife emerging in city streets emptied by lockdown measures, even in metropolitan areas. The “great pause” has brought about unexpected effects. “Peacocks stroll the streets of Ronda, Spain; a gang of goats wander around a seaside town in north Wales; a puma climbs down from the Andes Mountains into Santiago, Chile; and coyotes trot around San Francisco.”

Limited human mobility is a major aspect of the great pause—a pause that has deeply influenced our lives, from social interactions to the global economy. Now, in the specific context of human mobility, a team of international scientists has renamed it the “anthropause.” The team felt that a more precise term could be helpful. Although aware that the correct prefix is ‘anthropo-’ (for ‘human’), the team opted for a shortened form, easier to remember and use, “where the missing ‘po’ is still echoed in the pronunciation of ‘pause’ (pɔːz).”

Roland Kays, one of the scientists on the team, says that the anthropause is not only a pause—it’s also a change. People are moving a lot less in some places, but a lot more in other places. For example, use of residential areas is increased because people are not working downtown as they used to.

Kays points out that the news stories on how animals are responding to changes in human movement are based on anecdotal information. “Some of it might be just that people are home, hanging out in their backyards more and seeing animals more. Animals were there all the time; they just didn’t notice them. It’s interesting there has been a lot of media coverage of it, but we don’t know what the truth is.” The need for a global, quantitative analysis is obvious.

Giant golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus)

Giant golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus) fitted with a GPS tracking device. Credit: De Jong et al (2013) (CC BY 3.0).

Thus, under the umbrella of the International Bio-Logging Society, the team recently launched the “COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative,” which is described in an article published on 22 June in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Scientists will compare the movements, behavior, and stress levels of animals before, during, and after COVID-19 lockdown, using data collected with the so-called “bio-loggers.” Bio-loggers are routinely used all around the world by field biologists. They’re miniature electronic tracking devices that are attached to animals and track wildlife in their natural environment. The article’s lead author, Christian Rutz, explains: “These bio-loggers provide a goldmine of information on animal movement and behavior, which we can now tap to improve our understanding of human–wildlife interactions, with benefits for all.”

In order to build a global picture of lockdown effects, the team issued a call for collaboration. The international research community responded quickly, offering over 200 datasets for analysis. Thus, the team will integrate results related to a wide variety of animals, including fish, birds, and mammals, to uncover causal relationships.  For example, Matthias-Claudio Loretto, one of the article co-authors, explains that it will be possible 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.” The opportunities to understand human-wildlife interactions have been multiplied by the sudden, drastic, and widespread lockdown effects. In addition, across the globe, different countries have implemented similar COVID-19 control measures, resulting in effects that can be viewed as replicates of the same general perturbation—thus reinforcing the reliability of the observations.

Griffon_vulture_at_Gamla_nature_reserve

Wild Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) at Gamla Nature Reserve, Israel. On the vulture is a GPS tracking antenna and special identification numbers for tracking purposes. Credit: Minozig, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The scientists emphasize that society’s priority must be to tackle the immense human tragedy and hardship caused by COVID-19. At the same time, the ability to chart the impacts of human mobility on wildlife, for the first time and on a truly global scale, provides unprecedented value. They conclude that the results of coordinated global wildlife research during the anthropause may help to identify “unforeseen opportunities to reinvent the way we live our lives, and to forge a mutually beneficial coexistence with other species.”

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