Wild animals roamed much longer distances during Covid lockdowns, GPS study finds

Drastically reduced human mobility during the 2020 Covid-induced lockdowns led to rapid changes in the movement behavior of some wild mammals, according to a new study.

The research, published last week in the journal Sciencesheds new light on how human activities constrain animal movement and how they react when those activities stop.

The findings, according to researchers, including those from Radboud University in the Netherlands, provided insights into future conservation strategies for improving human-wildlife coexistence.

During the initial wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments across the world imposed strict restrictions on the movement of people in order to curb the spread of the virus.

This “anthropause”, as this period has come to be known, led to a drastic reduction in human mobility and vehicular traffic.

The period provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of human activity on wildlife behaviors.

Previous studies have shown that the need for animals to cross human roads is important for the conservation of many species.

Roads not only reduce habitat and limit movement and population dispersal for many species, vehicle collisions can also be a notable source of animal mortality.

However, scientists say little is known about the impact of roads on animal behavior across species and at global scales.

In the new study, leveraging the opportunity afforded by Covid-induced lockdowns, researchers assessed GPS tracking data from 76 studies.

The dataset encompassed 2,300 individual mammals representing 43 species from around the world.

Scientists evaluated how these animals changed their behaviors during the initial 2020 lockdown period and compared this with how they moved during the same period in 2019.

While individual movement and road avoidance behavior responses to lockdowns varied across species and regions globally, the new study revealed several consistent effects, researchers say.

For example, the study found that in locations where Covid-19 lockdown policies were stricter, animals traveled on average 73 per cent farther than the previous year.

This suggests that most animals in these locations were exploring more of the landscape when vehicle movement was reduced during the lockdowns.

Researchers also found that the length of short-distance mammal movements in populated human areas was reduced, and individuals traveled 36 per cent closer to roadways during lockdowns.

This could be because animals were less fearful of the road traffic or human presence in these regions and exhibited shorter fleeing distances.

The findings throw light on the ability of some animals to utilize human-inhabited areas and expand their habitats when human activity reduces, as well as on the lesser-known environmental impact of vehicle activity.

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