Land & Environment

Shutdown Shift: Pandemic Lockdowns Changed Movements of Wild Animals Around the World

By Lael Gilbert |

A mountain lion photographed with a motion sensor camera in the Verdugos Mountains in 2016, with Los Angeles in the background.(Photo Credit: National Park Service)

Human mobility shifted dramatically during the first months of the global COVID-19 pandemic — schools shuttered, offices were locked, city parks became out of bounds and people stayed home.

These big changes in human behavior changed something else too: the way wild mammals moved on land, according to new research supported by Julie Young and Tal Avgar from the Quinney College of Natural Resources and published in the journal Science.

When human movement plummeted during the shutdown, unusual reports of animal activity began to trickle in from around the world — things like cougars roaming the streets of Santiago, Chile, and metro California. In a massive global effort, an impressive team of researchers collated GPS collar data of movements from 43 different species of land mammals from around the world. They found that in many places wild mammals traveled longer distances and approached roads more closely during strict lockdowns, taking advantage of the relatively quiet environment while humans hunkered down.

In Utah, on the other hand, things played out differently. Under less-strict stay-at-home mandates, the humans in Utah headed en masse to green spaces, and animals limited their movements to avoid contact. Young and Avgar, both from the Department of Wildland Resources, and Daniel Olson and Darren DeBloois from Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), were part of the team of 174 researchers who contributed and analyzed the global data.

"The UDWR has been tracking animals for many years,” said Blair Stringham, Wildlife Migration Initiative coordinator for UDWR. “We created the Wildlife Migration Initiative several years ago to help us understand wildlife movements.”

The UDWR program currently has over 10,000 animals fitted with tracking devices and has amassed over 44 million data points to inform management, which also benefits this type of research.

In total, data for more than 2,300 individual animals from around the world were included in the project, from elephants and giraffes to bears and deer. The researchers compared the mammals' movements during the first period of lockdowns, from January to mid-May 2020, with movements during the same time a year earlier and found that during strict lockdowns, animals traveled up to 73% longer distances in a period of 10 days than the year before when there were no lockdowns.

They also observed animals were on average 36% closer to roads than the year before, probably because those roads were quieter during strict lockdowns, the authors said.

In places with stringent restrictions on movement there were fewer people outside, giving animals the opportunity to explore new areas. But in areas with less strict lockdowns, like Utah, animals traveled shorter distances than typical, likely the result of people being encouraged to head to natural spaces as an alternative to staying home (some parks had more than a three-fold increase in use).

“While no one wishes for a global pandemic lockdown, the events offered a unique opportunity to study the effects of an abrupt change in human presence on wildlife,” Young said.

The research also broke ground for large-scale collaboration and data-sharing for these types of questions, she said. Several more projects are in the works using this kind of invaluable data.

“This kind of work allows us to explore the data and get a precise picture of how animals are using the landscape,” Stringham said. “That data can then be integrated in habitat improvement projects, roadway crossings, migration corridor maps, and other similar projects that benefit both humans and wildlife."


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Julie Young
Wildlife Biologist
Wildland Resources


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