Mammals expanded out of their habitat during confinement

During the global outbreak of covid-19 in 2020, governments around the world introduced lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus, resulting in a drastic reduction in the human mobility and vehicle traffic. A new study published today in Science shows that this transformation altered the behavior of some mammals in their movements.

“Animals can alter their behavior in a relatively short period of time as a reaction to possible changes in human activity,” he explained to SINC. Marlee Tucker, from Radboud University (Holland) and first author of the study. The work offers valuable information to design future conservation strategies in order to improve the coexistence between people and wildlife.

Several moose jump over a fence

Several moose jump over a fence in Wyoming (USA). /Mark Gocke

The confinement phase, which in the article is named “anthropopause”, provided a unique opportunity to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife behaviors. Human pathways and the need for animals to traverse them are important for the conservation of many species.

Animals can alter their behavior in a relatively short period of time as a reaction to possible changes in human activity.

Marlee Tucker, first author of the study

“We can introduce small changes in our behaviors to minimize our impact on other living beings”, says Tucker. Thus, the researcher suggests “adjusting the time, frequency and volume of traffic in areas important for the movement of animals”.

Image of a herd of moose crossing the road

A herd of elk jumps a fence and crosses the road in Wyoming, USA. /Mark Gocke

In this sense, he also refers that “in some national parks you can only drive during the day so as not to disturb the animals at night.” The author adds that “you can even restrict the use of trails at certain timeslike mating, for example.

The current ordering of human life reduces habitat and limits both movement as dispersion of many species, research shows. On the other hand, collisions with vehicles are often also a notable source of animal mortality. However, in his opinion, little is known about the impact that roads have on the behavior of living beings around the world.

Mammals that explore further

Taking advantage of the pandemic shutdowns, Tucker and his colleagues compiled GPS tracking information from 76 studies. This dataset covered 2,300 individuals from 43 species of mammals from all over the world. Among them, cougars, moose, elephants and foxes. They then assessed how their behaviors changed during the start of the lockdown in 2020 (February 1st to April 28th), compared to the same period in 2019.

Animals traveled 73% further in places with greater movement restriction

In countries or regions with stricter blocking policies, mammals traveled an average of 73% further than in the previous year, in the months of the analyzed period. This indicates that most of the animals in these places further explored the landscape when vehicle traffic slowed. Consequently, the duration of short trips in human zones has been reduced.

Cover of the latest issue of Science. / Science

On the other hand, individuals of the analyzed species walked on average 36% closer to roads. According to the authors, this occurs because the animals were less afraid of road traffic or the presence of people in these regions and, consequently, had shorter flight distances.

An example is the cougar (concolor cougar): “The jaguars were closer to the roads during confinement, which suggests less fear of urban areas”, highlights the scientist.

This work offers a “complete answer” about the ability of some animals to “take advantage of inhabited areas by humans and even expand their habitats when people’s activity decreases”, as they value Colleen Cassady St. Claire It is Sage Raymondprofessors at the University of Alberta (Canada), who did not participate in the study.

Their results “highlight the environmental impact of vehicular activity, which is less publicly discussed than the effects of emissions, permanent road infrastructure and habitat loss”, they conclude.


Tucker, M. and others “Behavioral responses of terrestrial mammals to COVID-19 lockdowns” Science (2023)

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