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GSU Biologist Explains Short- and Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on Wildlife

Despite the abundance of negative news that has surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are inspired to share photos of animals reclaiming cityscapes and of skylines, usually clouded by smog, now clearer than they’ve ever been. These are short-term results of the Stay-at-Home order, not lost on Governors State University’s Professor of environmental biology John Yunger.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, scientists like Dr. Yunger are reflecting on how the coronavirus is leaving its mark on nature.

“The long-term implications of quarantining on nature are still very unclear, but it’s evident that this will be the topic of research for a long time,” said Yunger.

GSU Newsroom: What benefits do you see for the environment as a result of the Stay-at-home order?

Yunger: At this point a lot of the changes that are being witnessed in nature are anecdotal. From a scientific perspective there are many interesting observations that we can develop into hypotheses for later studies. For example, NASA satellite data shows clear patterns in the reduction of atmospheric contaminates like nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of manufacturing plants––such as fertilizer. These contaminates can be toxic to people if they breathe in too high of quantities. Parts of Europe have a 25 percent reduction in these contaminates. This could be because some of the manufacturing plants have been shut down.

GSU Newsroom: Photos are surfacing of cities normally polluted by smog, looking remarkably clear. What exactly is causing this?

Yunger: A notable reduction in CO2 levels has been recorded due to the halting of industry, as well as the decrease in traffic. In a lot of cities, including the Chicago area, the smog we see and the chemicals we record in the air are a cocktail of compounds and nobody really knows for sure what’s in there. Plants are reducing output that results in a clearing.

GSU Newsroom: Does wildlife benefit from the absence of human life in its habitat?

Yunger: Since the shelter-in-place has been in place for such a short period of time it’s not going to make much of a difference long term. That being said, there might be some short-term differences. Driving around, you might have noticed the most common roadkill is racoons. The number one cause of mortality of racoons in the Chicagoland area is vehicles. Considering this, the population of racoons might increase. Some wildlife may increase in the short-term.

GSU Newsroom: Will native or invasive species benefit more?

Yunger: This depends in part on the urban-rural gradient. People are beginning to flock to forest preserves and nature preserves just to get out of the house. Many of these are very large, but this is still the most human traffic they have seen in a longtime. Thinking of invasive bird species, such as pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows which are associated with downtown Chicago, it will be months before we can determine the impact of the shelter-in-place on them.

GSU Newsroom: GSU has noteworthy sustainability initiatives going. How are they impacted by loss of human contact?

Yunger: Most of our sustainable initiatives are still functioning on campus, like our solar panels. But others aren’t being used because they aren’t needed as much at the moment, such as the permeable pavers in the parking lots. The pavers filter any pollutants from vehicles from entering the water stream since every vehicle drips minor amounts of oil, but thousands of cars a day in the lot can add up. It reduces the impact. Unfortunately a lot of our Earth Day events, like our Cleanup event, have been postponed, but these are not things we reserve for only one day or one week.

There will be a lot of research that can be done on campus once we return. There is some evidence that suggests animals maybe be a reservoir for the novel coronavirus. There are theories that this virus came from wildlife, and questions about whether we are now transmitting it to our native wildlife. There was evidence in New York that the tigers and lions at the zoo were contracting the virus, and debates continue on whether our house pets can contract it as well. We don’t have enough test kits for humans, so testing pets are not the priority. Will mice have this? Racoons? These are things wildlife biologists will be researching.