How lockdowns changed animal behavior at Melbourne Zoo

“On a daily scale, I don’t think we are near as adaptable as the natural world,” she said.

Interestingly, few zoo animal behaviors changed significantly, although a British study showed that meerkats were more active in the absence of human visitors.

Dr.  Sally Sherwen said the pandemic revealed how adaptable animals are.

Dr. Sally Sherwen said the pandemic revealed how adaptable animals are. Credit:Penny Stephens

Dr. Sherwen said this was due to a philosophical shift in zoos over the past decade to minimize users ‘and visitors’ contact with animals, a marked change from the previous approach where animal keepers were “part of the herd”.

This is so that the animals can live lives that reflect their existence in nature as much as possible, where herd behavior and their relationship to each other develop naturally. It also gives visitors a more authentic experience of animal behavior in the wild, she said.

Zoo enclosures are also designed to give animals space where they can retreat from the public and interact with humans as much or as little as they want.

“The only thing that really changes in them [lockdown] periods are the visitors and the associated noise and odor, ”said Dr. Sherwen.

Another Melbourne Zoo group whose behavior changed during lockdowns was the orangutans, who seem to enjoy seeing people just as much as visitors to the zoo enjoy seeing them. Dr. Sherwen said great apes spent less time in areas of their enclosure where they would normally interact with visitors.

Melbourne Zoo’s orangutans spent less time in areas of their enclosure where they usually interact with human visitors.

Melbourne Zoo’s orangutans spent less time in areas of their enclosure where they usually interact with human visitors.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“Orangutans like to look at humans every now and then … there are opportunities for play and positive interactions with humans,” she said.

“This weekend they will spend a little more time on the platform [interacting]. “

Pets were much more affected by the pandemic, Dr. Sherwen because they became accustomed to having their owners around all the time, with several studies noting that dogs in particular became more dependent on human company.

The butterfly sighting at Melbourne Zoo, previously unreported and due for peer review, is a small example of a larger phenomenon of how wild animals reacted to the urban environment being quiet for several months at a time.

“There is undoubtedly a lot more activity,” said Dr. Sherwen. “When people change behavior, they become less traveled roads the animals are starting to recapture the space… people have reported [many] more birds around.

“Here in metro Melbourne [there’s] bird life that is incredible all around us. We have the most amazing species. ”

Dr. Sherwen said, however, that it was important to note that being confined to our home meant that we also paid more attention to the natural world around us; many of us may have for the first time observed animals that were there all along.

“People are not aware of how much wildlife lives in our urban environment. Even some of our endangered species are in relative urban areas,” said Dr. Sherwen.

“That connection to nature and wildlife is a really positive result of COVID. We are less distracted and more focused on nature … It is a really nice habit to carry on.”

Fascinating answers to confusing questions delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up to receive our new Explainer newsletter here.

Leave a Comment