Remember the slew of “nature is healing” memes that were being shared a few months ago? For all their irony, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has indeed given Earth's ecosystems a short but sweet break from human activity – and it could provide the perfect opportunity to understand how humans have been meddling with the planet’s wildlife.
Writing in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, an international team of scientists has dubbed this effect the “anthropause,” a great global-scale hiatus of anthropogenic activity, and they hope to use this time as an opportunity to investigate the precise effect human activity is having on the planet and its inhabitants.
“We will be able to investigate if the movements of animals in modern landscapes are predominantly affected by built structures, or by the presence of humans. That is a big deal,” Dr Matthias-Claudio Loretto, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany, said in a statement.
The researchers define the “anthropause” as the “considerable global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel.” There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence about how the pandemic and subsequent lockdown has affected wildlife – sightings of pumas prowling the streets of downtown Santiago, reports of goats taking over a rural town in Wales etc – but there’s not much in the way of hard scientific evidence, yet.
The team hopes to change that through the “Covid-19 Bio-Logging Initiative,” a call for scientists all over the world to attach miniature tracking devices to a range of different species, aiming to reveal insights into the animals’ movements, behaviors, and stress levels. This will be compared to data from before the pandemic and, hopefully, explain how the lack of human activity has affected animals.
“The international research community responded quickly to our recent call for collaboration, offering over 200 datasets for analysis. We are very grateful for this support,” said Dr Francesca Cagnacci, Senior Researcher at the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy and Principal Investigator of the Euromammals research network.
It may not be strictly positive news, however. The researchers already note that numerous city-dwelling animals, like gulls, rats, and even monkeys, may experience more stress without access to human food. Numerous conservation groups have also highlighted that the Covid-19 outbreak has also brought about a surge in illegal poaching.
There is also the challenge of what to do with the findings. The whole of humanity can not stay in lockdown for eternity, but the researchers hope to pinpoint “relatively minor changes to our lifestyles and transport networks” that could make a big difference to the planet’s biodiversity.