Texas A&M AgriLife wildlife data included in global study

A Texas A&M AgriLife researcher contributed to one of the largest international studies on wildlife response to changes in human activity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A white-tailed deer with velvet on its antlers walks through vegetation and looks toward the camera that was used to gather wildlife data
Camera trap data collected by a Texas A&M AgriLife researcher contributed to one of the largest international studies on wildlife response to changes in human activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Stephen Webb, Ph.D./Texas A&M AgriLife)


The study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, involved more than 220 researchers, 163 mammal species and over 5,000 camera traps worldwide. Its findings revealed that wildlife react differently to human activity, depending on where the animals live and their position in the food web.

Research born out of existing projects and partnerships

This far-reaching endeavor was made possible by Snapshot USA, a collaborative effort started in 2019 to sample mammal populations across the U.S. using camera traps, said Stephen Webb, Ph.D., Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute research assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Bryan-College Station.

“Biologists realized the importance of bringing together the vast amount of information being collected from existing camera trap projects taking place across the country,” Webb said. “By joining this effort, participating researchers agreed their camera trap data could be used by other biologists to investigate and analyze wildlife behavior.”

The researchers knew this vast data set would help establish baselines for wildlife presence, abundance and distribution, but they had no way of knowing how valuable the shared information would be following the drastic changes in human activity during the pandemic, he said.  

COVID-19 ‘anthropause’ sees exceptional alteration in human activity

As activity-related restrictions were implemented across the globe in early 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19 — a period of reduced human movement referred to by researchers as the “anthropause” — biologists saw an extraordinary opportunity for research.

“COVID-19 mobility restrictions gave researchers a unique opportunity to study how animals responded when the number of people sharing their landscape changed drastically over a relatively short period,” said Cole Burton, Ph.D., lead author of the study, associate professor of forest resources management at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Mammal Conservation.

Researchers accessed data from 5,400 camera-trap locations, primarily in Europe and North America, and utilized a variety of analytical models to quantify variation in animal responses across sites based on species traits, landscape modification and other site characteristics. They also incorporated the level of documented change in human activity prior to, during and after pandemic travel restrictions.

Webb said this statistical combination of results from multiple studies is referred to as a meta-analysis.

Findings differ from popular anecdotes on animal response to lockdown

While popular news stories during pandemic lockdowns promoted the narrative of wildlife roaming free and nature “reclaiming” urban development, the study’s findings indicate wildlife response to human presence or absence is far more nuanced.

“We did not see an overall pattern of ‘wildlife running free’ while humans sheltered in place,” Burton said. “Rather, we saw great variation in activity patterns of people and wildlife, with the most striking trends being that animal responses depended on landscape conditions and their position in the food chain.”

The study showed larger herbivores like deer or moose tended to become more active when humans were present, while carnivores like wolves or wolverines were less active.

Animals such as deer or raccoons in urban areas that are accustomed to humans may become more active around people and access anthropomorphic resources, such as garbage or plants, at night. However, animals living farther from cities and other developed areas are more cautious of possible human encounters.

Webb said these findings make sense when one considers the baseline of human exposure an animal is accustomed to.

“If wildlife are exposed to higher levels of human activity, they’re going to behave differently because they’re habituated to humans and kind of know what to expect,” Webb said. “However, animals that are truly in the wild or more rural areas aren’t accustomed to human presence. You must consider what the baseline of human exposure is for the animal to understand how it might respond.”

Studies like this, which include such a large amount of data on diverse wildlife species located across various geographic areas, help scientists analyze the subtleties of wildlife behavior beyond broad generalizations, he said.

Separate research to investigate impact of habitat management on wildlife

Webb is also utilizing camera traps to investigate the impact of habitat management on wildlife at the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management’s La Copita Demonstration Ranch and Research Area west of Corpus Christi.

Established in 1981, the 2,726-acre ranch is planning a variety of management activities including cattle grazing, brush removal, prescribed fire, fence construction and more.

Camara traps located throughout the property will allow Webb and other Texas A&M AgriLife researchers to quantify how these activities affect the presence and abundance of a variety of wildlife.

While Webb will conduct his own independent research using the camera traps, the data will also be available to other researchers for additional studies.

“When researchers collaborate and share information like this, it’s a powerful tool to better understand how our actions and habitat management techniques affect wildlife,” Webb said. “In turn, that empowers us to make better management decisions to advance wildlife conservation.”




Originally published with Texas A&M AgriLife Today

Share this post

Learn More