SLU news

Mammals move less in human-modified landscapes

Published: 30 January 2018

On average, mammals move distances two to three times shorter in human-modified landscapes than they do in the wild. These findings were recently published by an international team lead by researchers at the Senckenberg Nature Research Society and includes SLU, in the journal Science. It is the first time this topic has been examined at a global scale and for many different species at once. The authors highlight that these results may have far reaching consequences for ecosystems and in turn, for society.

Most mammals are on the move every day while searching for food, to find a mate or to seek out shelter. Some larger mammals like zebra generally move longer distances, while smaller mammals, such as hares, usually cover shorter distances. A team led by biologist Dr. Marlee Tucker, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University Frankfurt, has shown that the extent of these movements is significantly reduced in human-modified areas. In these areas, mammals move distances that are only half to one third of what they cover in more natural areas.

In this study, Tucker and 114 coauthors from various institutions collated movement data from 803 individuals across 57 mammal species from around the globe. To do this they used the data portal, Movebank, which archives movement data from researchers across the world. The study looks at everything from hares to wild boars to elephants. The scientists in the team equipped individual animals with a GPS tracking device that recorded each animal's location every hour for a period of at least two months. The researchers then compared these data to the Human Footprint Index of the areas that the animals were moving. The index measures how much an area has been changed by human activities such as infrastructure, settlements or agriculture.

During a period of 10 days mammals only cover half to one third of the distance in areas with a comparatively high human footprint, such as a typical German agricultural landscape, compared to mammals living in more natural landscapes. This is the case for the maximum distance covered within a 10-day time frame as well as for the average distance. The analysis shows however, that at shorter time scales than 10 days, such as one hour, mammals do not move any differently across landscapes of varying human footprint. This means that the human footprint affects the ranging behavior of mammals over longer time frames, but does not affect their movements at shorter time frames.

Potentially mammals move less because they have changed their behaviour in human-modified landscapes. It is also suggested that in some of these areas there might be more food available so that animals do not need to cover such large distances. In addition, landscape fragmentation and barriers created by infrastructure might limit mammalian movements.

The researchers are concerned that the reduced travel distances could affect ecosystem functions that hinge on animal movements. It is important that animals move, because in moving they carry out important ecological functions like transporting nutrients and seeds between different areas. Additionally, mammalian movements bring different species together and thus allow for interactions in food webs that might otherwise not occur. If mammals move less this could alter any of these ecosystem functions.

Navinder J. Singh, a co-author of the study from SLU says: "There is an increasing emphasis on the development of green/blue infrastructure especially in Scandinavia. It is also among the national environmental goals for Sweden. If one were to define that green/blue infrastructure is something that should minimize conflicts with animals and ensures a safe passage for movements and survival for animals, then this study has a very important message. Clearly, animal movements need to be considered in infrastructure development such as roads and railroads, energy generation and transmission, and urbanization among others, otherwise we will continue to have moose in our gardens, crops raided by wild boar, large scale biodiversity loss, diseases moving from animals to humans, and thousands of road and train traffic accidents with wildlife."

Contact person at SLU

Navinder Singh, Researcher
Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
+46 (0)90-786 84 49, +46 (0)70-676 01 03,

The article

Marlee A. Tucker Moving in the Anthropocene: Global reductions in terrestrial mammalian movements. Science 26 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 466-469
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam9712


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