Do you get your groceries at 2am? Excluding shift workers, for most of us, that’s a time of day when our heads are comfortably resting on our pillows. But if there were some danger during the daylight hours, we’d likely shift our activity patterns to the nighttime to avoid that danger. It turns out that wildlife is doing just this in response to human activity.
Research by my friend Sandra Frey has been looking at wildlife behaviour in the Willmore Wilderness—a remote Wilderness Area in Alberta with little development or human recreational activity—compared to the popular tourist destination, Kananaskis Country where multiple human uses include not only tourism and camping, but also ranching, fishing, hunting, trapping, and outfitting, with oil & gas extraction, and forestry taking place adjacent to park boundaries. For two parks within the Alberta Rocky Mountains, they couldn’t be more different. Kananaskis is like the all night disco, while Willmore is like a 3-minute waltz in the living room with your Baba.
Most wildlife are agoraphobic of people. The more human activity, the more space wildlife gives us—both physical space and in time. Of course, some wildlife does really well around humans and flock to be around us, including raccoons and coyotes that join us in our urban lifestyle. But excluding these urban wildlife (which makes me think of a disco raccoon), it seems that wildlife just really want to avoid a crowd of us humans. So what does it matter that animals are changing their activity patterns to avoid us humans?
Well it turns out that it could be having a cascading effect throughout the whole ecosystem. Animals try to avoid their predators and competitors in both time and space. As an example, wolverines and martens compete for the same resources, but they’re both found in the same areas exploiting the same resources. They could either show up to the “grocery store” at the same time and fight over the tastiest voles, or they can show up to the same grocery store a few hours apart and never have to deal with one another. Kind of like how you’d like to keep going to your favourite coffee shop, but not have to run into your ex.
Sandra found some pretty neat changes in the time that carnivores were active:
- Wolves—who are “shy” of humans, were more active at night in areas with human activity
- Coyotes—who do well around humans, become more active all day long in areas with lots of human activity, though are active at dawn and dusk in areas where we aren’t
- Martens—become more active during the daytime in areas with human activity
This bodes well if you want to catch a glimpse of a coyote or marten when you’re out for a hike in the woods—just go to the already popular parks, right? Well sure, but these findings are also indicating a kind of domino effect could be going on (or is that a butterfly effect? No, not the movie). Wolves are more active at night when people are around, which could be forcing martens (who are both competitors, but can also be prey to wolves) to be active during the day. Are the martens responding to the presence of people, or are they responding to the presence of the wolves? It’s not clear as of yet, but either way if the marten’s hunting behaviour or physical adaptations are focused on night-time activity, martens may be less effective hunters during the day. This in turn can affect their ability to raise their young successfully, which is just an inconvenience when you think about any one individual marten. But if it’s happening at a population level, the effects could be disastrous.
But this isn’t just a story of wolves and martens—the whole carnivore community is being affected through these cascading shifts in activity patterns. It’s likely then, that the prey species is being affected, creating shifts throughout the entire mammal community. It’s like me avoiding my ex, who is avoiding his ex, who is avoiding her ex, etc. At some point, it’s going to get awkward when we end up in the same deli line.