Of course, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on humanity, and this is nothing to be celebrated. But as Australians stay at home and our streets fall quiet, let’s consider how wildlife might respond.
Throughout history, nature has shown a propensity for reclaiming land once humans have departed.
Ecological succession can occur when humans abandon cities. This is where short-lived “pioneer” species initially occupy sites and are replaced over time by shrubs and trees, ultimately supporting more diverse wildlife.
It’s hard to predict exactly how healthy and biodiverse these systems can become, but they will almost certainly be examples of “novel ecosystems”, having crossed irreversible thresholds due to human impact, such as vegetation reclaiming an abandoned building.
Quieter, darker, greener cities
Cities can be hostile places for urban wildlife due to fragmented habitat, pollution, road collisions and disturbance from and conflict with people. But under a coronavirus lockdown, these threats are greatly reduced.
Light pollution may also fall in cities as a result of coronavirus – such as if office buildings turn off overnight lighting and sportsgrounds are empty.
This would benefit nocturnal species such as moths and bats. Artificial light can interfere with reproduction, predator and prey interactions, and migration.
At the end of March, traffic congestion in Sydney and Melbourne was reportedly down more than 30% on last year. Fewer cars and trams would benefit species that communicate acoustically (such as frogs and birds).
Fewer people actively using city spaces may mean less disturbance of urban bird nesting sites, especially those that are routinely removed from commercial properties.
Depending on whether authorities see weed control as an “essential service”, streets may soon look a bit greener.
Weeds often get a bad rap for taking over gardens and roadsides. However, some, such as dandelions, provide excellent flowering resources for native bees, butterflies and birds.
Deserted roads could potentially add to existing wildlife “corridors” or strips of vegetation along rivers and streams. This would allow species to move from one place to another – potentially recolonising areas.
Once traffic returns to levels observed before the pandemic, we should preserve observed animal movements using safe passage strategies such as vegetated overpasses that connect bisected habitat or adequately sized underpasses to allow wildlife to safely cross under large, busy roads.
In the longer term, this crisis may bring innovation in business communication and human behavioural change – including reduced work travel. This could influence land-use changes in cities, potentially giving space back to nature.
The current need for people to stay at home might be triggering a human disconnection from nature. In some cases, this can lead people to become emotionally distanced from what happens to their natural environment. This could be ameliorated by exercising in local parks or other natural environments.
You can also use your time at home to positively contribute to wildlife in your urban area. If you’re looking to keep kids entertained, try developing a “renaturing” plan that aims to care for, or bring back, a species or ecosystems.
There are also many ways to retrofit your home, garden or balcony to help plants and animals.
Or discover the incredible species living alongside us by simply paying attention to nature near your home.