Fast forward to the present, and the honeymoon in the sun may be over for mammals. They’re increasingly returning to the protection of night to avoid the Earth’s current terrifying super-predator: Homo sapiens.
My collaborators and I noticed a striking pattern in some of our own data from research in Tanzania, Nepal and Canada: animals from impala to tigers to grizzly bears seemed to be more active at night when they were around people. Once the idea was on our radar, we began to see it throughout the published scientific literature.
It appeared to be a common global phenomenon; we set out to see just how widespread this effect was. Might animals all over the world be adjusting their daily activity patterns to avoid humans in time, given that it is becoming harder to avoid us in space?
We needed to find examples that provided data for areas or seasons of low human disturbance — that is, more natural conditions — and high human disturbance. For example, studies compared deer activity in and out of the hunting season, grizzly bear activity in areas with and without hiking, and elephant activity inside protected areas and outside among rural settlement.
Based on reported data from remote camera traps, radio collars or observations, we determined each species’ nocturnality, which we defined as the percentage of the animal’s total activity that occurred between sunset and sunrise. We then quantified the difference in nocturnality between low and high disturbance to understand how animals changed their activity patterns in response to people.
Overall, for the 62 species in our study, mammals were 1.36 times as nocturnal in response to human disturbance. An animal that naturally split its activity evenly between the day and night, for example, would increase its nighttime activity to 68% around people.
While we expected to find a trend toward increased wildlife nocturnality around people, we were surprised by the consistency of the results around the world. Eighty-three percent of the case studies we examined showed some increase in nocturnal activity in response to disturbance. Our finding was consistent across species, continents and habitat types. Antelope on the savanna of Zimbabwe, tapir in the Ecuadorian rainforests, bobcats in the American southwest deserts — all seemed to be doing what they could to shift their activity to the cover of darkness.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the pattern also held across different types of human disturbance, including activities such as hunting, hiking, mountain biking, and infrastructure such as roads, residential settlement and agriculture. Animals responded strongly to all activities, regardless of whether people actually posed a direct threat. It seems human presence alone is enough to disrupt their natural patterns of behavior. People may think our outdoor recreation leaves no trace, but our mere presence can have lasting consequences.
Future of human-wildlife coexistence
We don’t yet understand the consequences of this dramatic behavioral shift for individual animals or populations. Over millions of years, many of the animals included in our study have evolved adaptations to living in the daylight.
Such diurnally adapted animals may not be as successful at finding food, avoiding predators or communicating in the darkness, which could even reduce their survival or reproduction.
Working on this study reminded me that people aren’t alone on the planet. Even if we don’t see large mammals while we’re out and about during the day, they may still be living alongside us, asleep while we are awake and vice versa. In areas where threatened species live, managers may consider restricting human activity to certain times of the day, leaving some daylight just for wildlife.
And it is likely that we need to preserve wilderness areas entirely free of human disturbance to conserve the most vulnerable and sensitive mammal species. Not all animals are willing or able to just switch to a nocturnal lifestyle around people. Those that try to avoid human disturbance entirely may be most vulnerable to the consequences of the expanding human footprint.