In DepthCOVID-19

Pandemic lockdown stirs up ecological research

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Science  21 Aug 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6506, pp. 893
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6506.893

Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation

After a COVID-19 lockdown earlier this year prevented biologist Eduardo Silva-Rodríguez from visiting his field sites in rural Chile, he moved his research closer to home. He and other Chilean researchers set up automated cameras to monitor wildlife in urban settings, including on his own campus at the Austral University of Chile, Isla Teja. The cameras soon captured surprises: rare animals, including endangered southern river otters and a wild cat called the güiña, roaming through pandemic-quieted cities where they'd never been documented before.

The snapshots are just one example of how wildlife is responding to what scientists are calling the “anthropause”—the dramatic slowdown in human activity caused by the pandemic. Some researchers are tracking how animals and ecosystems are reacting to steep declines in tourism. Others are pooling data on animal movements to probe large-scale responses to emptier roads and airports. The unique natural experiment is allowing scientists to compare how animals behaved before, during, and after the pandemic—and perhaps glean insights into how to better protect wildlife once human activity resumes full speed. “The lockdown has given us the capacity to find where we can optimize conservation,” says Amanda Bates, an ecologist at Memorial University.

In one collaboration led by the International Bio-Logging Society, researchers are contributing tracking data collected by satellite tags, radio collars, and other tools from some 180 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish from all continents and oceans. “There is a gold mine of data,” says ecologist Christian Rutz of the University of St. Andrews. Among other things, researchers will be investigating whether animals changed their movements during the anthropause—crossing roads more frequently, for example, or venturing out at unusual times of day.

A separate team of 16 researchers, organized by conservation biologist Nicola Koper at the University of Manitoba, is exploring similar questions for 85 bird species in Canada and the United States. Working with data from eBird, a citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the researchers are examining bird communities in 95 U.S. and Canadian counties. They wonder, for example, whether species that don't like noise, such as yellow-rumped warblers, became more abundant around airports. And they are checking whether low-flying species became more common near roads, suggesting fewer were dying in collisions with cars.

At popular destinations such as national parks, the tourism standstill has created research opportunities. In Ecuador's Galápagos Marine Reserve, the decline in visitors has been “unlike anything that would ever happen, short of a world war,” says ecologist Jon Witman of Brown University. He and his colleagues are studying, among other things, whether shy marine fish become bolder now that recreational divers aren't around, a behavioral change that could alter how the ecosystem functions. Witman is heading to the Galápagos this week: “We're chasing a fleeting moment,” he says.


Embedded Image

Normally timid jackals wandered in Tel Aviv, Israel, during an April lockdown.

PHOTO: AP PHOTO/ODED BALILTY

In the Bahamas, researchers are examining how the tourism crash is affecting critically endangered rock iguanas. Visitors routinely feed the iguanas bread, meat, fruit, and vegetables; now the change in diet “could have really profound effects,” says Susannah French, a physiological ecologist at Utah State University. Researchers hope to sail to the Bahamas soon to weigh the animals, take blood samples, and check their gut microbiota. The data could help local officials better manage tourists once they return, says Chuck Knapp, a biologist at the Shedd Aquarium.

In the Society Islands of French Polynesia, researchers are probing how coral reefs are faring now that hotels have gone dark. On one hand, local residents appear to be returning to subsistence fishing to make ends meet. That could mean trouble for reefs by removing herbivorous fish, which control algae that can blanket and kill coral. But empty hotels could help reefs if it means less nutrient pollution from wastewater, which stimulates algae growth. It's “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to better understand the links between humans and coral reefs,” says ecologist Sally Holbrook of the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, who works at the Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research site.

In Italy, ecologist Francesca Cagnacci also got a rare chance to see how the absence of mountain bikers, hunters, and traffic affected wildlife in the forests surrounding Trentino, where she is tracking deer and other animals with radio collars. In March, Cagnacci saw something very unusual in the hushed woods: deer and birds wandering during daylight. “I won't forget this for my entire life,” says Cagnacci, who works at the Edmund Mach Foundation's Research and Innovation Centre.

The anthropause has quieted the oceans, too. In California's Monterey Bay, marine ecologist Ari Friedlaender of UC Santa Cruz took to the water with colleagues in March and early April, when lockdowns reduced boat traffic. Equipped with a crossbow and special arrows, they collected blubber samples from 45 humpback whales. When they can return to the lab, they'll measure levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. They plan to collect new samples over the next year, when boat traffic is expected to pick up, in an effort to discover just how much additional stress—if any—the vessel noise creates for whales.

Scientists acknowledge that the opportunity to study the anthropause is coming at the expense of much human death and suffering. “It's our sincere hope that no one ever gets a chance to study this again,” Witman says. “But incredible things are happening in natural ecosystems.”

  • With reporting by Rasha Aridi.

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