Rural Animals More Wary of Humans Than City Wildlife, Global Study Shows

A massive new study examining wildlife behavior during COVID-19 lockdowns reveals surprising details about how animals react to human activity. The research, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, involved over 220 researchers, 163 mammal species, and a network of 5,000 camera traps around the world.

The study found that animals responded differently to reduced human activity depending on their location and diet. Large herbivores, like deer and moose, became more active in areas with fewer people. This suggests they felt less threatened and ventured out more during the day.

In contrast, carnivores like wolves and wolverines tended to shy away altogether when human activity picked up. This highlights their preference for avoiding encounters with humans, which they likely perceive as a risk.

The research also found a clear distinction between urban and rural wildlife. Animals accustomed to city life, such as raccoons, often thrived during the lockdowns. They became more active, likely due to easier access to food sources like overflowing garbage cans and reduced competition from humans at night.

However, animals living in remote areas further from human settlements displayed a heightened wariness of human presence.

This study, nicknamed the "anthropause project" due to the global slowdown in human activity, capitalized on a unique opportunity. Researchers were able to analyze how wildlife behavior changed with a significant decrease in human interaction over a short period.

"COVID-19 restrictions provided an unprecedented chance to study how animals responded to a drastic shift in the number of people sharing their environment," explained lead author Dr. Cole Burton, a wildlife conservation expert at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

"Contrary to popular stories of animals taking over deserted cities, we observed a much more complex picture. Both human and animal activity patterns varied greatly, and the most interesting finding was how animal responses depended on their habitat and food chain position."

The research team, involving scientists from 161 institutions, examined data from various locations across Canada, including Banff and Pacific Rim National Parks, and several provincial parks in British Columbia. Their findings suggest that carnivores like wolverines, wolves, and cougars were less active in areas with higher human presence. Additionally, large herbivores in these areas often increased their activity but shifted to being more nocturnal.

These findings emphasize the importance of minimizing human disturbance on wildlife habitats. The study's co-author, Dr. Kaitlyn Gaynor, a UBC biologist, suggests strategies like creating protected areas or designated wildlife corridors to provide animals with the space they require. Seasonal restrictions, such as temporary closures of campsites during breeding seasons, could also be beneficial.

Dr. Gaynor highlights the need for tailored conservation approaches based on specific species and locations. In remote areas, keeping human activity low is crucial for protecting wildlife. In urban environments, where human and animal interactions are more frequent, nighttime provides a vital refuge for wildlife. Measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict after dark, such as secure trash bins and wildlife-friendly road designs, could be crucial for urban wildlife survival.

"Understanding how wildlife responds to human activity in various settings is vital for developing effective conservation plans with a global impact," concluded Dr. Burton. "Our research underlines this importance, and we're now focusing on improving wildlife monitoring systems, building on the success of camera traps used during the pandemic."

The study's findings are particularly relevant considering the expected surge in global travel and outdoor recreation post-pandemic.

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