With urban areas around the world suddenly emptied of humans, people are sharing photos and videos on social media showing wild animals cavorting in the empty streets.
I started to collate some of them on Twitter, but I gave up because it’s really hard to confirm how many of them are fake news.
The Goats of Llandudno were a legitimate lockdown observation – but it turns out they’re regular visitors to the town. Some posts are clearly a joke (a herd of buffalo in the centre of Buffalo, NY), while others would seem pretty believable to most people with no specialist knowledge of the species or location, like the ‘rare Malabar civet’ in the streets of an Indian town.
Most posts provide very little context, no confirmation of the date they were filmed, and often no confirmed source. For the average responsible social media user, there is simply no way of verifying them.
It’s easy to understand why many of us believe these images are real. Urban areas are concentrated centres of human disturbance. More than any other environment on earth, humans have fundamentally changed the local patterns of biodiversity and ecological processes that once occurred where towns now stand.
We’ve altered watercourses, ripped out vegetation, suffocated the soil, lit up the night, and altered the availability of food resources for wildlife. We’ve evicted plants and animals, either forcefully or simply by not leaving any space for them to share.
So of course it makes sense that as soon as we stay indoors and remove traffic from the roads, nature will move back into the metropolis. Right?
The messaging associated with many of the posts is positive, along the lines of ‘look how quickly nature moves back in after humans are gone!’. These times are really rough on all of us, and we’re desperate for some good news, which explains why these posts get so many likes and shares. Others take a darker tone, claiming the observations are evidence that humans are the ‘problem’ for biodiversity. As soon as we’re gone, Nature returns.
The science of urban ecology
It’s not that simple. The sudden lack of humans in an urban area is essentially a different kind of disturbance. Animals that have avoided (or adapted to) busy high-traffic areas will change their behaviour in response to the new conditions. Of course this will happen more quickly for animals already living in, or close to, urban areas. Many animals that don’t like urban areas, still won’t like them without humans, because the resources they need just aren’t there.
Most of the posts I’ve seen are of large mammals (less than 0.5% of global biodiversity), mostly opportunistic predators, scavengers or herbivores, which are common in urban and peri-urban areas. The fact that wild goats, pigs and deer are roaming urban streets is not an indication that our mere absence will restore nature!
We are also more likely to notice larger animals moving about, a type of observation bias. It’s unlikely we’ll see any posts about insects taking back the streets. Some insects are lot more resilient to urban environments anyway, because they need less space to find a niche. And even if some species did respond positively to empty streets, few people would notice.
The benefits for many insects, especially pollinators, will most likely come over time, from an increase in fast-growing flowering plants, where people have stopped mowing or spraying herbicides to ‘tidy up’ roads and footpaths.
Full ecosystem recovery will never happen in the lockdown timeframe we face. Ecosystems depend on interactions between living things, not just the presence of individual animals, and it takes a long time, and a lot of space, for those interactions to restructure a system.
While this ‘harmless’ kind of fake news may cause no direct damage in terms of human actions (unless people break ‘stay at home’ rules to go out looking for fake animals!), the indirect effects can be damaging to public trust and understanding of science. We saw similar problems with the insect apocalypse saga.
- Presenting exaggerated or false information about biodiversity and conservation as if it is fact can inspire people to take ineffective or inappropriate conservation action, e.g. taking up beekeeping to ‘save the bees’. It can also turn people off from engaging with the real issues, once they discover a story is fake news.
- Simplified ‘good vs. bad’ statements send mixed messages about ecological reality. If wild animals returning to urban areas is something to celebrate, why aren’t we excited about urban rats coming out of hiding too?
- It can create confusion about the process of science, especially the difference between data and evidence. Verified observations can be valuable to ecologists, if they can inform experimental research projects. But a single unverified anecdote is relatively meaningless on its own (the windscreen phenomenon is a great example).
Who cares, you ask? We’ll never stop misinformation being spread – it’s an ancient human behaviour. And wild animals really are wandering the streets, somewhere in the world, because of the COVID19 lockdowns. This will genuinely be a really interesting time for urban ecologists!
The main reason I’m not sharing any of the lockdown wildlife posts, is because I think it sends the wrong message about how we interact with nature.
The ‘nature takes back empty cities’ messaging is just the reverse of the segregation we already experience in urban areas. We separate ourselves from biodiversity by removing and excluding it because we think it’s a nuisance…and then we all suffer from losing the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides.
It shouldn’t be an EITHER/OR scenario. Instead, we need to plan our urban ecosystems better to ensure we increase biodiversity permanently AND sustain human wellbeing as shared goals.
© Manu Saunders 2020