When humans stayed home due to COVID-19, mammals hit the roads

When humans faced strict limits on their movements during 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, mammals took the opportunity to roam further, often travelling closer to roads, global analysis of GPS tracking data shows.

Researchers from more than 130 universities, institutions and organisations studied the effects of restricted human movement and traffic due to COVID-19 lockdowns on mammal movements, publishing their results in Science.

By drastically reducing the movement of people and vehicles, the COVID-19 restrictions in early 2020 provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of human activity on mammals, separate to the impacts of human infrastructure (like habitat loss due to development and roads).

The study analyses GPS tracking data on 2,300 individual mammals, from 43 species around the world (everything from big cats, to elephants, deer, lions and bears) and compares the animals’ spatial movements and behaviour in early 2020 to the same period in 2019. 

While the results were variable, the paper finds that animals travelled further through the landscape and closer to roads in those locations which faced stricter lockdown conditions.

In sites under strict lockdowns, animals travelled on average 73% further during the lockdown period than the previous year, suggesting most animals in these locations were exploring more of the landscape when human vehicle movement was reduced. 

Animals in strict lockdown areas also travelled 36% closer to roadways during 2020 than previously.

Animals in the study were tracked for an average of 59 days, at 1-hour and 10-day time intervals, with the researchers focusing on two key aspects of mammal movement – distance travelled, and distance to the nearest road.

“We expected that reduced human mobility during strict lockdowns would lead to an overall reduction in 1-hour displacements due to fewer avoidance and escape responses, or easier access to foraging areas due to reduced disturbance […] 

“For the 10-day displacements, we expected a different response because previous analyses of the effects of land-modifications on mammal movements have shown longer displacement distances in areas with low human footprint,” the paper explains.

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