Coronavirus: wildlife scientists examine big ‘human pause’


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Paola Semenzato

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Bio-recording devices are trackers installed on animals, like this Alpine ibex, that record their movements.

The researchers have launched an initiative to track wildlife before, during and after the coronavirus blockade.

The goal of the UK-led team is to study what they have called “anthropause” – the temporary global slowdown in human activity, likely to have a profound impact on other species.

Measuring that impact, they say, will reveal ways we can “share our increasingly crowded planet.”

They describe the mission in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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MPIAB / MaxCine / Jacob Stierle

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Around the world, some animals have been tracked during the blockade

They outline “urgent steps” to allow scientists to learn as much as possible from the sudden absence of humans in many landscapes, including ensuring that researchers have access and permission to carry out their work, and can gain access to information about the human movement, as well as animal tracking data.

Professor Christian Rutz of the University of St Andrews is President of the International Society for Bioregistration.

He noted that bio-recorders, small tracking devices installed on animals to record their movements and other behaviors, have been collecting information on habitats around the world during the pandemic.

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Natacha Aguilar de Soto

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Tracking the whales could also reveal the impact “anthropause” has had on marine life.

“There is a really valuable research opportunity here, one that has been triggered by the most tragic circumstances, but it is one that we believe we cannot afford to miss,” he told BBC News.

Generally, studies trying to examine the impact of human presence and activity on wild animals are limited to comparing protected habitats with unprotected areas, or studying landscapes following a natural disaster.

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BBC news

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Disasters like Chernobyl can become tragic “natural experiments”

“But during confinement we have replicated it around the world, in different locations and for habitats where some species have been equipped with tracking devices all the time,” said Professor Rutz.

There have been plenty of wildlife social media accounts that apparently make the most of our absence, moving freely through surprisingly urban environments. However, in some places, the lack of human activity seems to have been detrimental: increases in poaching caused by poverty and the absence of ecotourism.

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Media captionThe post-human landscape of Chernobyl

“Nobody says that humans should be permanently locked up,” added Professor Rutz.

“But what if we see big impacts from our changes in road use, for example? We could use that to make small changes to our transportation network that could have big benefits.”

Professor Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth has been part of what could be considered the first anthropause study – a long-term investigation into changes in the abandoned landscape around the damaged Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

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TREE research project

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The Chernobyl wolves returned following the abandonment of the Exclusion Zone.

“A few years after the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone, Belarusian and Ukrainian researchers discovered that species associated with humans, such as pigeons and rats, were disappearing, but wild animals, wild boars, deer and wolves, were multiplying,” he said.

“Still abandoned more than 30 years later, the area has become an iconic example of accidental reconstruction.”

“At great economic and human cost, Covid and Chernobyl forced us to press the pause button on our environmental damage,” continued Professor Smith.

“Stopping some of those impacts entirely will be difficult, but it will be helped by what we can learn from these extreme events.”

Professor Rutz and his team noted in their article: “The scientific knowledge acquired during this devastating crisis will allow us to develop innovative strategies for sharing space on this increasingly populated planet, with benefits for both wildlife and humans.”

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Media captionBBC Victoria Gill observes wildlife species that enjoy confinement

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