Question: Why did the mountain lion cross the road?
Answer: Because it was a pandemic lockdown and nobody was driving.
As a joke, this bombs. But as conservation science, it’s an intriguing new insight into how quickly animals can adapt when the din and crush of humans is muffled.
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus began circling the globe in early 2020 and many nations responded by ordering people to stay home, stories circulated of a reawakening of the natural world. Normally shy cougars roamed the streets of Santiago, Chile, a city of 6 million. Wild goats strolled down the sidewalk in a Welsh town while fallow deer grazed on east London lawns.
Quirky anecdotes aside, it wasn’t clear how wild animals changed their behavior with the sudden drop in traffic and general outdoor human presence. Until now.
“There were many media reports that nature was recovering during those first lockdowns,” said Marlee Tucker, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “We wanted to know: is there any evidence of this? Or were people simply paying more attention to everything while being at home?”
To find the answer, Tucker teamed up with more than 170 scientists from six continents. They pooled satellite tracking data for 2300 land-dwelling mammals from 43 species. The collection included GPS signals from ibex in France, wild dogs in Botswana, snow leopards in Mongolia, jaguars in Paraguay, elk in Wyoming and caribou in Canada, to name a few.
The researchers looked at the animals’ movements in early 2020, during the height of the lockdowns, compared with their movements during the same time the previous year, before COVID. The analysis revealed several key changes in animal behavior.
In countries with the strictest lockdowns, animals were far more footloose, traveling up to 73% more over a 10-day period than they did the previous year, the scientists reported June 8 in Science. In areas with a big human footprint such as buildings and streets, animals also showed a great willingness to get close to roads – 36% closer on average during the pandemic year. “This is probably because those roads were quieter during strict lockdowns,” said Tucker.
The new findings are just one way in which the pandemic has some small silver linings for the natural world. Use of coal for energy dropped in 2020 even faster than an overall decline in energy consumption. There were signs that fear of catching diseases such as COVID from animals might prompt people to drop wild meat from their menus.
The evidence of animals feeling more at ease with civilization during the pandemic wasn’t universal, however. The results illustrate just how sensitive animals can be to having humans nearby. In places with less strict lockdowns, animals traveled less during the pandemic year than during the previous year. “This may have to do with the fact that during those lockdowns, people were actually encouraged to go into nature. As a result, some nature areas were busier than before COVID-19,” said Thomas Mueller, an ecologist at Goethe University Frankfurt who worked with Tucker to design the study.
The behavior also varied by animal. While mountain lions in North America developed a taste for more urban adventures, black bears, bobcats and coyotes in the same areas didn’t.
Tucker has an optimistic take on the results. It shows, she said, that animals can respond to changes in human behavior, even when the concrete and asphalt remains. “This offers hope for the future, because in principle this means that making some adjustments to our own behaviour could have a positive effect on animals.”
Now we just need to find ways to simulate the quiet of a strict lockdown without a pandemic or being stuck at home.
Tucker, et. al. “Behavioral responses of terrestrial mammals to COVID-19 lockdowns.” Science. June 8, 2023.
Photo: ©Mark Gocke