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COVID-19 lockdowns presented a unique opportunity for wildlife biologists

a fox stands in the dimly lit street in front of a building with a white door and a string of flags across the window
Many species of wildlife altered their activity patterns when humans stayed inside during COVID lockdowns.

During pandemic lockdowns in 2020, wild animals were seen running through downtown areas, and a narrative emerged that “wildlife are reclaiming the outdoors.” New research suggests that the full story is more complicated.

A study published last month in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution compiled and analyzed wildlife camera data from over 100 sites in 21 different countries to explore how the widespread changes in human activity during the early pandemic may have affected the behavior of wildlife.

Austin Green, a postdoctoral biologist at the University of Utah and one of the study’s many co-authors, said the pandemic offered a unique opportunity for wildlife biologists.

“So it represented just about as quasi-experimental a design as you could get – meaning it had the conditions to look at the impacts of human activity on a global scale, … and to get these general ideas of how animals react to human influence,” Green said.

This study examined 163 species of mammals, analyzing how often and when they appeared on the cameras during pandemic lockdowns compared to pre-pandemic periods. The researchers included a measure of human activity, noting that some places saw an increase in human presence as more people turned to outdoor activities as a safe form of recreation.

“So, as that activity increased in more rural, backcountry areas, we saw decreases in wildlife activity across the board – where, as human activity increased in these more developed landscapes, we actually saw an increase in wildlife activity,” Green said.

Green said the increase in wildlife with increased human activity in more urban areas suggests that wildlife in those areas are already well-adapted to coexisting with humans.

“I think the biggest thing that this study does is it provides us with general trends that now need to be investigated on a case-by-case basis .... So we can actually identify the management practices, the conservation strategies that need to be implemented in those particular cases,“ Green said.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.