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Which animals are benefitting from coronavirus lockdowns?

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By Michael Marshall Humpback whales may benefit from a lack of cruise shipsDave Fleetham/Zuma Press/PA ImagesOverall, the pandemic poses many threats to wildlife worldwide, as conservation programmes struggle for funding and poachers make the most of reduced patrols. But there are some instances in which coronavirus restrictions may be benefitting certain species. Some of the…

By Michael Marshall

Humpback whales may benefit from a lack of cruise ships

Humpback whales may benefit from a lack of cruise ships

Dave Fleetham/Zuma Press/PA Images

Overall, the pandemic poses many threats to wildlife worldwide, as conservation programmes struggle for funding and poachers make the most of reduced patrols. But there are some instances in which coronavirus restrictions may be benefitting certain species.

Some of the heart-warming stories about nature thriving during lockdown, like the claim that dolphins had returned to the canals of Venice, are not true. But others do stand up. There is evidence wild bees will benefit from the decline in air pollution, which can disrupt their ability to smell flowers at a distance. And anecdotally, some wild animals are venturing into cities including wild cats in Africa. “Some people have seen caracals in their garden or crossing their gardens,” says Marine Drouilly, of the Panthera charity.

The International Bio-Logging Society is organising a global study of data from camera traps and other tracking devices, to see if wild animals really are shifting their ranges, but the results may not be available for two years.

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We do know, however, that the oceans are quieter and that’s likely to be a good thing. In Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, the first cruise ship of the tourist season was due on 30 April but it never arrived. Cruises have been cancelled because of the threat of covid-19. “There’s been no large vessel traffic, and we’re not expecting any until at least late July,” says Christine Gabriele of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Gustavus, Alaska. The only boats on the move are small local ones.

Gabriele is engaged in a multi-decade study of humpback whales. A key element is monitoring how they call amid the underwater noise caused by heavy boat traffic, using a permanent hydrophone anchored on the bottom of the ocean at the mouth of Glacier Bay.

It is early days, but Gabriele says “it’s very quiet”. That may mean the whales can spread out more widely. “They’ll be able to communicate with each other over much greater distances than they would be if it was a noisy environment.” It may also change how they call. “Will they have longer bouts of communication?” she asks. “Will they have more complex vocalisations?”

There is evidence that whales prefer the ocean with less shipping noise. In the days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, shipping ground to a halt, and one study found that whales’ stress hormone levels fell.

Gabriele is hopeful that the quiet will be good for the local humpback whales. Their population has been falling since 2013, with many individuals disappearing and few calves born. Numbers did pick up in 2019 but many of the whales remained emaciated, suggesting they were short of food.

“If it’s a productive summer and a quiet summer, that will be a real advantage to this population that’s been going through some really tough times,” she says.

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