But with the fishermen, the behavior change in the anthropause happened waaaaay too fast to be genetic. Instead, it could be a change brought about by choices made by individuals or groups of animals. “You see that the personalities differ,” says Wikelski. “There may now be a selection for certain personalities to enter the cities, and this can spread through their culture.”
“The global experience with the transmission and retention of information in animal societies is simply incredibly beautiful,” adds Wikelski.
Scientists can observe such rapid and dramatic changes in behavior with increasingly sophisticated surveillance equipment. Tracking collars of course map the movements of an animal, but some are now equipped with inertial measurement units, or IMU, the same sensors that allow you to move your phone to control a game. This allows researchers to determine if a wild animal has suddenly accelerated, indicating that it may have been surprised. An even more sophisticated monitoring device could detect the animal’s heart rate or listen to its peer interactions with a microphone.
“It’s the Fitbit for animals,” says Wikelski. “Are they sick? They are fine? Do they interact? How fast are they moving? Are they getting up at the right time, at the same time as before? Are they active differently at night and during the day? “
During anthropause, researchers can combine this data that tracks animal behavior with data that tracks human behavior, especially traffic, to show whether a species could exploit our absence, or go about their business as usual in nature. As anthropause continues and eventually decreases, scientists will be able to see how a species adapts, answering questions that would have been impossible to solve without the pandemic.
Researchers have been trying to solve one of these puzzles for decades: are animals afraid of our built environment – roads, buildings and other infrastructure – or are they afraid of we? “We suddenly had no more humans in many areas,” says environmentalist Matthias-Claudio Loretto of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior and the University of Constance, co-author of the article on the ‘anthropause. So, he says, if animals visit these places during the end of the pandemic, “they’re obviously just just scared of humans.”
On the other hand, if a particular species has not entered a populated area even with humans who have disappeared in recent months, this could be an indication that it is the built environment that is keeping them away. But conservation biologists can look at the species that fact cross an area and note the paths they have taken.
The riddle becomes more nuanced in urban places where movement restrictions have not been particularly strict. Maybe a city has allowed its residents to walk, so animals still avoid public parks, but instead show up in places that are completely closed to people. Some cities may have restricted driving, while others have not – researchers can examine both traffic and animal data to see how species in different regions have adapted.
Anthropause offers scientists a unique opportunity to study how animals move around in built environments; this knowledge could inform further modifications in urban areas to ensure safe passage for animals. For example, maybe if we learn that a development or a highway has cut the habitat and population of a species in half, we could bring them together to encourage genetic diversity – isolated populations, after all, have tendency to cross. “It is not enough for managers to tell animals where to go,” said Wikelski. “Animals should tell us where they should go, where they want to go. This is the corridor defined by the animals that we need. “
But not all animal species have enjoyed the freedom to have fewer humans around. Generalists among them, such as coyotes, rats and wild boars, can move comfortably through the city streets, taking whatever food they can. But there’s nothing for a mountain lion in downtown San Francisco – its prey, like deer, remains in the mountainous regions south of the city.