Beyond humans: responses of urban wildlife to the COVID-19 pandemic
Published 8 juni, 2020
Researcher at department of Wildlife, Fish, and Environmental Studies, SLU
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, news websites and social media have been filled with stories about wildlife comebacks in urban areas due to the lockdowns in many parts of the world. In this chronicle, urban wildlife researcher Tim Hofmeester at SLU argues that these news stories tell us something about humans as well as wildlife.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many governments to introduce a (partial) lockdown, forcing people to stay at home or at least reduce their movements. At the same time, the use of social media has skyrocketed. People increasingly share sightings of urban wildlife in their gardens and there has been an enormous amount of ‘news’ stories circulating about the comeback of wildlife due to the reduction in human activity. Is it, however, a question how many of these stories are true?
Swans and dolphins returning to Venice, or a rare civet visiting an Indian city. These are some stories you might have seen passing through on social media. Unfortunately, these and several other stories were fake news. The swans and dolphins were photographed in other places where they are sighted more frequently, and the civet turned out to be another, more common, species that is also regularly seen in urban environments. It is, however, hard to distinguish real stories from fake stories, especially as they are often combined, such as in this video showing short movie clips of animals taking over streets around the world. Several of the clips in the video are not related to the current pandemic, but instead are classic examples of wildlife appearing close to humans, such as the otters in Singapore and the lions on the Skukuza golf course in Kruger National Park in South Africa. However, the fact that several of the images shown are not related to the lockdown doesn’t mean that wildlife is not responding.
The viral tweet about the comeback of swans to the canals of Venice is misleading. The tweet insinuates that the picture was taken in the city centre of Venice, while these swans were photographed in the canals of Burano, an island on the northern side of the greater Venice metropolitan area. Swans have been swimming around in that area for a long time. Photo from Twitter.Tim Hofmeester
Wildlife responses to COVID-19
We know from previous studies that animals shift their activity to become more nocturnal (active at night) in areas with high human activity. Similarly, a large international team of researchers recently demonstrated that animals move less in areas with a large human footprint. So it is no surprise that animals move into urban areas by day when people are in lockdown. This explains several of the real comeback stories, such as the gazelles on the streets of Dubai or the fallow deer in a neighbourhood in East London. Other sightings, such as the puma sighting in Santiago in Chile, might have only been partly caused by the lockdown, as a similar event occurred last year. In any case, I would expect wildlife, and especially wildlife that usually occurs close to urban centres to increase its use of urbanised areas during lockdown. However, I do not expect that these responses will have long-term effects as it is very likely that the animals will move out again as soon as we are released from lockdown, as was the case with the gazelles in Dubai.
Some groups of animals might even suffer from the lockdowns. Many species that have adapted to survive in urban areas did so by adjusting their diet to include food supplied by humans. A good example is the variety of wildlife species dependent on treats supplied by tourists as their main source of food. Due to the lack of tourists, all of a sudden there is a food shortage, and the high densities normally sustained by the tourists become a problem. Similarly, there are many urban animals that rely on food waste from the catering industry. Due to the lockdowns, they have a harder time finding food, which means they need to be more active in search of food, such as these New York rats. Again, this is a temporary increase in activity, which could be interpreted as a comeback, while it is more likely to result in a decrease in wildlife populations due to food shortage. So, unfortunately, I am quite pessimistic about the long-term benefits for urban wildlife from the pandemic, and I expect there to be more negative consequences than positive ones.
We too play a role
Another aspect to the increased sightings of urban wildlife is that during lockdown more people are sitting at home or working from home. This is likely to result in them looking through the window, especially as reduced travel also leads to reduced commuting times and thus more free time. This increase in observation leads to increases in the chances of spotting wildlife in the garden/street. Moreover, an increasing number of people started looking for wildlife and reporting sightings as a way of keeping their minds off of the pandemic. This leads to a skewed impression of the increase in wildlife (maybe there is not an increase in wildlife activity but only an increase in us actually seeing the wildlife being active). It is, however, also a great opportunity to collect valuable data on species distributions and the presence of wildlife in urban environments.
The lockdown might also change our attitudes towards urban wildlife. There are quite large differences in how people perceive urban wildlife, mainly depending on the species in question. In short, most people are not so fond of rats and pigeons, while many like to see small songbirds and squirrels. The many people sharing (fake) news stories about wildlife in urban environments during the pandemic might therefore present an interesting case study. Are people happy to share these stories because they bring a positive message in a time of uncertainty? Or do they show that people in general are more positive towards seeing wildlife in urbanised environments than we previously thought? Or perhaps people perceive a story about the comeback of rare wildlife in faraway places more positive than wildlife in their own backyard? Many questions to which I don’t have an answer, but that would definitely be interesting to study.
In conclusion, it is very likely that urban wildlife all over the world responded to the decrease in human activity. However, it will take some time for ongoing research efforts to show exactly how big that response was and whether it will result in any long-term changes. Social media are playing an increasing role in our daily lives and it will be really interesting to see how social media come to shape human-wildlife interactions now and in the future. But even if everything goes back to normal after this pandemic, I am glad to see that so many people enjoy sharing positive stories about urban wildlife, even if they are fake ones.
About the author and the feature
Dr Tim Hofmeester is researcher at the department of Wildlife, Fish, and Environmental Studies at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. His research focuses on the use of sensor technology and citizen science to study wildlife communities in Scandinavia and abroad. He increasingly focuses on the effects of urbanisation on wildlife and people’s perceptions of wildlife. Currently, he is running a citizen science project studying urban wildlife using camera traps in northern Sweden funded by SLU Urban Futures. The project was able to continue thus far due to the limited restrictions in Sweden, so in a couple of years these data will hopefully allow a test of whether the pandemic led to changes in urban wildlife behaviour. For this article he received great help from the other members of his research unit Megafauna & Sustainability who collected many news articles about wildlife responses to COVID-19.
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