Anthropopause: how the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in Japan affected the behavior of sika deer

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, which decreased the population and changed the behavior of Cervus nippon (Sika deer) inhabitants, caused a decline in tourist visits to Nara Park, central Japan. In a recent study published in PLoS ONE, researchers examined the effects of andropause, or stagnation, on human activity.

Wildlife in an urban habitat is impacted by human activities and has picked up behaviors from interacting with humans. A tropopause brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak (and ensuing lockdown) could have an impact on animals that people feed, including sika deer. The deer species exhibits the typical bowing behavior toward human feeders and occasionally becomes violent if deer treats are not provided.

Previous research has documented the effects of tropopause on animal and bird behavior between 2020 and 2021, including changes in the white-crowned sparrow’s (Zonotrichia leucophrys) singing patterns in San Francisco, the cottontail rabbit’s (Sylvilagus floridanus) increased activity in Italy, and the number of avian species in the US and Canada, compared to pre-pandemic times, in urban areas.

Concerning the study
Researchers examined changes in Cervus nippon habitat use, population size, and feeding habits in response to COVID-19-induced andropause starting in 2020.

Between 2015 and 2021, the team conducted assessments on Cervus nippon in 3.0 tourist-popular Nara Park locations, including the areas close to the National Museum, Todai-ji Temple Nandai Gate, and the Kasugano and Ukigumo Park. The team measured deer counts monthly from June 2020 through June of the following year during the COVID-19 pandemic and in April of the pre-pandemic era, or between 2015 and 2019.

In order to assess deer counts (fawns, females, and males) and tourist visits during the pandemic period, route census surveys were conducted three times a day at all sites. Using video recordings made in the National Museum region between September 2016 and January of the next year and between June 2020 and the same month in the following year, deer feeding patterns in pre-COVID-19 and COVID-19 timeframes were compared.

Each month, 20 male and female deer were randomly selected for the behavioral pattern analysis. Fawns were not included because they did not fully learn the distinctive bowing behavior toward human feeds. The deer were not fed cookies by the researchers, who observed them from a distance of one meter.

Following the presentation of cookies, bow counts per animal were kept up until the deer either attacked the feeder (by headbutting, kicking, or biting it) or left. The analysis was carried out using generalized linear mixed modeling (GLMM). Fawns were deer that had just been born, as evidenced by their small stature, distinctive facial features, and white spots; adult male and female deer were recognized as larger animals with the presence or absence of horns, respectively.

The number of visitors rose between 2015 and 2019, then fell between 2020 and the following year. At the three locations, monthly deer counts were strongly connected with visitor numbers during the pandemic. Deer numbers in the Todai-ji region dropped from 167 (mean) to 65 (39.0%) between 2019 and 2020.

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Similar to this, there were fewer deer bow counts (per animal) during COVID-19 (6.40) than there were during the pre-pandemic years between 2016 and 2017 (10.0). Between June and November 2020, there was an increase in the number of visitors. This was followed by a fall from December 2020 to February 2021 and an increase from March onward.

During COVID-19, fluctuations in the number of tourists were connected with changes in the monthly deer population and the number of their bows, although their aggressive behavior was mostly unaffected. The results showed that opportunities to receive cookies from tourists had an impact on the deer’s bowing behavior but not their aggressive behavior. The animals’ use of their habitat changed quickly as the number of tourists fluctuated. Human feeders wearing masks had little effect on the behavior of the deer.

Overall, the study’s findings demonstrated that COVID-19-induced andropause decreased the population of sika deer and the number of bows they produced in response to cookie presentation; nevertheless, their aggressive behavior did not significantly change. The results showed that the deer population is responsive to changes in human activity and sensitive to such changes.

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The Great Buddha Statue, which is visited by most tourists, is located in the Todai-ji region. As a result, variations in the number of visitors to the location and the deer population there are likely related to and reflect the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic on Japan’s biodiversity.

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