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How COVID-19 shutdowns have affected the animal kingdom


Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • COVID-19 shutdowns have affected human movement — and some animal behaviour
  • How horses can help protect the permafrost
  • Fixing the ozone hole has had another benefit, too

‘Lull’ in human movement due to COVID-19 is having unpredictable effect on wildlife

(Tang Chhin Sothy/Getty Images)

Photographs that went viral earlier in the pandemic seemed to suggest some environmental hope amid all the coronavirus woe: swans and dolphins seemingly appeared in the normally cloudy and crowded canals of Venice, which had gone quiet and clear during lockdown.

National Geographic later reported that the situation wasn’t quite so dramatic — the swans actually paddle around in the area regularly and the dolphins were filmed in Sardinia.

None of that diminishes the possibility, however, that changes in human behaviour during the pandemic might result in changes in animal behaviour, too.

Animals are “strongly influenced by the human footprint,” said John Fryxell, executive director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario and a professor in the college of biological science at the University of Guelph.

Fryxell also said that animals “respond to humans pretty quickly,” noting, for example, how deer and elk will change their behaviour when they know people are hunting in the area. 

“During hunting season, deer tend to move less often, concentrate their movements in core parts of their home range, are more vigilant than usual and have less access to places with abundant forage, so [they] feed at lower rates.”

In some places, animal behaviour appears to have changed more immediately. The New York Times reported that some animals were going hungry in popular tourist spots in Thailand and Japan because visitors who feed them aren’t showing up. A video posted to social media showed macaques running around a plaza in Lopburi, Thailand. 

“The fall in tourist numbers because of COVID-19 may have indeed brought about a shortage of food supply for them,” Asmita Sengupta, an ecologist in Bangalore, India, told the Times. This shows the “detrimental effects” of feeding the monkeys. 

“Once they get used to being fed by humans, they become habituated to humans and even display hyper-aggression if not given food,” Sengupta said.

One particular change in human behaviour might give a fair number of animals a new — if temporary — lease on life. Because many of us are staying home right now, road mortality for wildlife could drop.

“If you remove the number of vehicles, there’s going to be [fewer] road deaths,” said James Pagé, the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s species at risk and biodiversity specialist. 

The federation has been doing work with turtles, particularly in eastern Ontario and Ontario’s Muskoka region, and they find “the highest number of turtle mortalities are on the busiest roads.”

With fewer turtle road deaths, there’s the potential for a slight bump in the turtle population, he said.

Fryxell is quick to caution about making predictions on how the human response to the pandemic is influencing animals. But it is something that can be studied. “Maybe over the course of the summer we’ll see something that is meaningful,” Fryxell said, noting it could also vary from species to species.

Presumably, the pandemic crisis is a temporary state, and there is little to suggest any changes that might be observed in animal behaviour would become a permanent thing.

“We’re not looking at a kind of rewilding,” where nature is coming back, said Pagé. It’s more a “lull [in] human movement.”

Even so, the current state of affairs does offer a chance to think about the impact human behaviour has on animals. Said Pagé, “It gives us an opportunity to see what it might be like if we do reduce our movements.”

Janet Davison


Reader feedback

Self-isolation makes environmental action more challenging, no doubt. What are you doing in this time of social distancing to stay green? Let us know!

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.


The Big Picture: Protecting the permafrost

Reducing carbon emissions is pretty much job No. 1 for anyone who’s serious about stopping the most harmful effects of climate change. But there are some sources of seeping carbon that defy human ingenuity — such as melting permafrost. This layer of the earth, which covers an estimated 24 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, has stored carbon for millions of years, but it risks releasing a lot of it as temperatures rise in the Arctic. Experiments in Siberia, however, show that increasing the number of grazing herbivores — like reindeer, bison and horses — in the region could do wonders. Without these animals, the snow layer insulates the permafrost even when the temperature drops well below freezing. But when these creatures clomp around, they break up the snow layer and ensure the permafrost stays cold. A recent study suggested a concerted effort to let these animals graze the Arctic could protect 80 per cent of the planet’s permafrost until 2100.

(Shutterstock)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • In light of the coronavirus pandemic, climate action has become a bit of an afterthought, but this essay argues that the way that the world has responded to COVID-19 can hold some lessons for the environment. As the writer puts it: “While the disease is playing out more quickly than the effects of global warming, the principle is the same … If you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”

  • And let’s not forget that many people are helping move the world to a low-carbon future. The Global Wind Energy Council recently announced that worldwide wind power capacity had grown by nearly 20 per cent from 2018 to 2019.

It turns out fixing the ozone hole has had another benefit, too

(NASA)

A new study published in the journal Nature suggests the banning of a harmful chemical has had an impact on the meandering southern jet stream.

The jet stream is a fast-moving river of air in our upper atmosphere that moves weather patterns around. There are two major ones: one in the Northern Hemisphere and one in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Typically, the jet stream resides in the mid-latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere. However, scientists had noticed that it had been moving slowly towards the South Pole over time, which they attributed to ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere. 

This, in turn, has had an impact on weather and climate — though it varies from region to region. It was possibly also having an effect on ocean circulation and salinity, which is important to marine life.

Why was ozone depleting? One word: Humans.

Ozone is nature’s sunscreen. It protects plants and animals from harmful ultraviolet radiation produced by the sun. Take it away, and this radiation can damage our DNA. 

In the mid 1980s, scientists sounded the alarm over the depletion of the ozone layer (referred to as the “ozone hole”) over the South Pole. The cause was widespread use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), found in things like air conditioners, fridges and aerosols. Under the Montreal Protocol of 1987, CFCs were gradually phased out and are now banned. 

And the ozone hole healed. In 2019, the ozone hole was the smallest it’s been since 1982 (though weather patterns can still affect its size somewhat).

The authors of this new paper suggest that the shrinking of the ozone hole has, since 2000, caused a pause in the jet stream’s trip down south.

The result will be a change in weather patterns in the region, although how significant remains to be seen. The authors hope to see more studies on the phenomenon.

Whether or not the jet stream will remain at status quo or begin to head back to mid-latitudes is unknown — particularly due to a rise in CO2 emissions and its consequences.

Nicole Mortillaro


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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty



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