Seizing The Lockdown Moment For Wildlife Research
Many of us have seen pictures and videos of unusual wildlife shared on social media during the pandemic. While the slowing down of human activity may seem like a net positive for animals, the pandemic has also created challenges for some species. For example, urban dwellers such as gulls and rats who rely on food discarded by people may now struggle to find enough on their own. On the other hand, where outdoor exercise is permitted, resident wildlife in parks and other green spaces have potentially been disturbed by more human presence than usual. Meanwhile, in developing countries, economic hardship may result in a greater level of exploitation of natural resources.
A new article is calling for an urgent quantitative investigation into our shifting impacts on wild animals. This need is set within the broader context of how our ever-expanding population is transforming the environment, and how such knowledge is vital to building a sustainable future. Humans impact on animal behaviour in a variety of ways. These include movement patterns, foraging behaviour, and stress responses. While researchers usually have to rely on purely observational methods, the current situation of COVID-19 related lockdowns affords the possibility of building a global picture of animal responses to human withdrawal. The authors refer to this withdrawal as the ‘anthropause,’ and its sudden, widespread occurrence is unprecedented in recent history.
How can scientists seize the moment? The authors suggest collaborative projects involving the pooling of datasets from around the globe, with the aim of uncovering causal relationships. As different areas have different restrictions on human mobility, it is possible to compare aspects of animal behaviour across different sites and time periods. These findings can then be compared with animal activity in areas that are particularly remote and therefore relatively unchanged by the anthropause. The primary aim of these efforts would be to isolate the impact caused by human activity from changes occurring outside of our involvement, such as seasonal variation.
Several initiatives are already underway to make global, collaborative wildlife research a reality. For example, the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative uses data collected by ‘bio-loggers’ to track changes in animal behaviour. Bio-loggers are small electronic devices which are attached to the animals and used to measure their activities. Their use should enable researchers to better understand whether animal movements are more affected by built structures or the presence of humans. Similar initiatives are quickly gaining momentum, and require collaboration between biologists, human mobility researchers and other experts.
The authors recommend several steps to maximise scientific insight during this period. These include the continuation of fieldwork, the swift issuing of research permits and detailed record-keeping of official restrictions in each area where data collection takes place. Additional funding is also required to enable the envisioned research to take place, though this should come from a separate governmental budget and not be diverted from frontline efforts at developing a vaccine.
What can we hope to learn? Timely research could result in evidence-based proposals for improving our coexistence with non-human animals. We may discover that small lifestyle changes, such as modifying our transport networks, can have profound benefits for local ecosystems. Through demonstrating the changes brought about by the anthropause, animal advocates can challenge people to reconsider their relationship with the natural world. We may realize how important environmental health is to our own wellbeing in the process.