What Wild Animals Were Really Doing During Covid-19 Lockdowns

Researchers around the world traced mammals’ movements and behaviors when fewer humans and cars were outside in spring 2020

Goat in front of shuttered outlet store on street
Mountain goats roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales, in March 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Cougars strolled down the streets of Santiago, Chile. Goats took over a small Welsh town. Jackals played in a park in Tel Aviv. And sea lions made themselves at home in a port town in Argentina.

These and many other stories—some of them fake—of wild animals reclaiming spaces once occupied by humans and cars emerged during the Covid-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020. But were animals really going to new places, or were people just paying more attention to them because they had nothing else to do? Were these animal behavior changes random one-offs, or was something bigger going on?

For years, these were open questions, but now, researchers say they have the answers. Instead of focusing on one particular species in a specific location, they took a big-picture view of how creatures of various shapes, sizes and regions behaved during lockdown. Overall, animals traveled longer distances and seemed to act more relaxed in the absence of humans and vehicles, the researchers report in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Sea lion in front of building on sidewalk
A sea lion roams around Mar del Plata, Argentina, in April 2020. Mara Sosti / AFP via Getty Images

The study is a collaboration between 175 scientists based across the world. Before the pandemic, they had all spent years separately studying a variety of animals by affixing location-tracking devices to them. So, when the pandemic hit and governments began to implement lockdowns, they realized they had a golden opportunity to pool their data. The lockdown became, in essence, a massive, unexpected, natural experiment to see how the presence of humans affects animals.

In the end, they analyzed location data from 2,300 individual mammals around the globe, from reindeer in Norway to Asian elephants in Myanmar. After comparing the creatures’ spring 2020 movements with the same period in 2019, some clear trends emerged. For one, animals journeyed up to 73 percent farther during lockdowns than they did year before, during a ten-day time frame.

This suggests the creatures felt more free to move around as they pleased, “without having to worry about where the humans were,” says study co-author Marlee Tucker, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, to the New York Times’ Emily Anthes. “Because, for a lot of species, humans are seen as risky.”

During shorter periods of just one hour, however, the animals moved less than they did in 2019, which the researchers say is likely because fewer people and cars were around to scare them into fleeing. Indeed, the animals roamed 36 percent closer to roads on average while they were devoid of loud and dangerous vehicles.

Then, as quickly as they changed their behavior during the lockdown, the wildlife reverted back to their old habits once humans and vehicles were out and about again.

“The most striking thing was that the responses were occurring over a very short period of time,” says Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta in Canada who was not involved in the study but co-wrote an accompanying Science commentary on the paper, to the Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni. “And it suggests that several species are very reactive to human activity.”

Jackals playing in a park in Tel Aviv
Jackals play in Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv in April 2020. Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images

That likely doesn’t come as a surprise to researchers, nor to anyone who’s ever watched a squirrel dart across the road to dodge an oncoming car or seen a snake slither away from a lawn mower in the grass. But the findings help reinforce the importance of steps humans can take to minimize their effect on animals—including many that are already being implemented.

Seasonal closures of beaches and hiking trails, for example, can help give wild animals the space they need during especially vulnerable periods, like breeding and nesting. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses on highways, as well as barrier fences along busy roadways, can help keep both animals and humans safe.

Even lawmakers recognize the importance of these types of solutions: The new, federal infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed into law last summer, includes $350 million for fences, underpasses and overpasses for animals. As Ben Goldfarb writes for Vox, this line item is a “tiny slice of the bill,” but is still “easily the largest investment in wildlife crossings in national history.”

“Clearly, this is a problem we know how to fix,” as Matthew Kauffman, a wildlife researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, told the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Jennifer S. Holland in 2020.

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