That we've spent months locked up at home to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has provided scientists with an unprecedented opportunity. A global alliance of scientists is analyzing the effects of declining human activity on animal behavior in search of ways to share the planet that are more beneficial to all.
Thousands of critically endangered Ridley's tortoises arrive on the eastern coast of India every year in spring to spawn. This year, however, there has been an event unheard of in decades: most of the millions of animals born have made it to the sea, safe and sound.
Human confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic reduced traffic on the roads near those beaches, whose lights often mislead and attract these reptiles, causing many turtles to be run over. The fishing boats were not active either, saving themselves from being caught in their nets, one of the main causes of mortality.
Researchers from around the globe have joined in an ambitious, unprecedented initiative, which they have called “COVID-19 Biomonitoring Initiative”, And which aims to investigate the movement of animals, their behavior and stress levels before, during and after confinement. To do this, they will use data obtained from miniature electronic devices placed in animals and satellite systems that biologists around the planet were already using before the coronavirus pandemic began to study species.
“This project does not respond to a romantic vision of "we are going to help the animals of the world." Understanding the impact that human activity has on wildlife is a matter of crucial importance not only for conservation issues, but also to prevent future problems of disease spread”, Explains Christian Rutz, researcher at the Center for Biological Biodiversity at the University of St Andrews (UK) and lead author of the scientific article announcing this initiative, published inNature Ecology & Evolution.
This international consortium, formed under the umbrella of the International Biomonitoring Society (Bio-Logging Society) in collaboration with the Movebank research platform and the Max Planck-Yale Center for the Biodiversity Movement and Global Change, will integrate a vast number of results from a wide variety of marine, bird and mammal species to capture a global picture of the effects of confinement.
“Animals and humans are part of a complex ecosystem that, if healthy, provides us with countless benefits and services"Insists Rutz, adding:"We depend critically on nature as a species and we hope to obtain data that will allow us, by applying small changes in our activity, to find ways of living on this planet that are beneficial to all”.
A global alliance of scientists
During the confinement, this biologist began to see through social networks photos and videos of animals that enjoyed spaces until then occupied by humans: from pumas in the center of Santiago de Chile to dolphins in the unusually calm coastal waters of many cities of the balloon.
He then launched a message through the website of the International Biomonitoring Society, of which he is the president, proposing to the scientific community to join forces to study changes in species in different parts of the world. Within days he had received responses from hundreds of researchers joining the project and offering more than 200 data sets to analyze.
One of the working groups that joined the initiative is PAN-Environment, led by the Spanish biologist Carlos Duarte, at the head of the Red Sea Research Center of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Saudi Arabia.
“We will evaluate the impact of mobility and human activity on species and ecosystems. We will integrate a huge variety of information from species monitoring programs, from protected areas, sensor networks and citizen science”, Explains this researcher, who points out that they also intend to analyze impacts such as the increase in single-use plastics used to manufacture products for human protection in the pandemic; or the effect of illegal hunting.
“COVID has left many people in poverty and in natural parks in the United States have seen an increase in poaching; In the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, in this confinement they have imposed the highest number of fines for illegal fishing in a month than in all the past”, He says.
What do they hope to learn?
This international consortium of researchers will analyze the data obtained and compare it with time periods from previous and future years. They also hope to obtain high-resolution data on human mobility to be able to accurately quantify the impact of the activity. And for this, they appeal to large companies, such as Google or Apple, to give them that data for investigation.
“We will be able to answer questions that previously were impossible even to ask ourselves. We will investigate, for example, whether the movements of animals in today's landscapes are predominantly affected by buildings or human presence.”, Matthias-Claudio Loretto, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Radolfzell (Germany) states in a press release.
They also hope to identify which species are highly affected by human activity but still have the capacity to respond to change and which are highly vulnerable; Likewise, they aim to establish the critical thresholds above which the alterations caused by people have detrimental effects on animal behavior, alter the dynamics in ecosystems and that, in turn, has a negative return on human well-being.
“In this confinement, humans have suffered the psychological and emotional impact of being confined, of not being able to enjoy nature. Hopefully that will make us better understand and feel more empathy for animals that are usually confined due to our presence and activity, so that this encourages a new start, which should be green and blue, and more compassionate with the species with which we share the planet.”, Concludes Duarte.
Christian Rutz, Matthias-Claudio Loretto, Amanda E. Bates, Sarah C. Davidson, Carlos M. Duarte, Walter Jetz, Mark Johnson, Akiko Kato, Roland Kays, Thomas Mueller, Richard B. Primack, Yan Ropert-Coudert, Marlee A Tucker, Martin Wikelski and Francesca Cagnacci.Nature Ecology & Evolution, June 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-020-1237-z