Increase in local fauna sightings during the COVID-19 pandemic

Ever since Malta went into partial lockdown, animals such as dolphins, turtles, and birds have been spotted more frequently than in previous years.

Different theories have been put forward to try and explain these observations and the factors which may be at play, with some suggestions being more credible. The habitats in which these animals thrive form part of highly complex ecosystems, thus not just one definite answer exists, with reasons changing according to the animal in question.

Pods of the Mediterranean species of Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncateshave been increasingly noticed in Sliema, Zurrieq, Delimara and Marsamxett Harbour swimming alongside boats and close to the shore. Also, both individuals and pairs have been observed wondering inside Mgarr Harbour and Valetta Grand Harbour. What is abnormal is that these cetaceans (marine mammals) have been regularly spotted swimming just meters away from the shore. When interviewed by Times of Malta and maltatoday, marine biologist Prof. Alan Deidun stated that dolphins normally avoid going close to the shore since it is a common site for activities that generate underwater noise, something which they are highly sensitive to as it serves as an indication of marine vessels that frequently hit them. Such activities include operating marine vessels, construction, acoustic surveys, and underwater excavations that have all been significantly reduced due to the COVID-19 partial lockdown.

Figures 1 & 2: Photographs showing a pod of Bottle-nosed dolphins swimming near the coast at Marsascala. Courtesy of Michael Sammut

Another possible reason for such an occurrence is predation, which is the preying of an animal on another. Dolphins were noticeably drawn to the shores and harbours in which pelagic fish such as tuna and mackerel congregate. They were also seen venturing in pods close to areas with fish farms. In 2014, the population density of the Bottlenose dolphins found in Maltese waters was estimated to range from 79 to 229, with the lower figure considered more realistic. Since then, no cetaceans have been reported to have been accidentally caught by fisheries (cetacean bycatch). Although there are seven known species of toothed whales and dolphins which thrive in the Mediterranean Sea, the increase in sightings only concerns the Bottlenose species since all photographic evidence from locals has shown just them.

The other three dolphin species that also frequent Maltese waters are the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), the striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) and the Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus). Other toothed whales found in the Mediterranean sea are the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), the Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).

The turtles are at bay

This summer there has been four confirmed Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) nests. On the 29th of May, the first nesting occurred at Ramla Bay in Gozo, an event that has not been witnessed in over 70 years. Thanks to Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) officials and Nature Trust – FEE Malta (NTM) officers and volunteers, between the 2nd and 3rd August, a wholesome 84 hatchlings emerged out of 105 eggs, resulting in a hatching rate of 80%. On the 4th of July, a turtle was seen making its way between rows of sunbeds at Golden bay, where the second nest was laid. The third nest was deposited at Ghadira bay on the 29th of July and the fourth nesting turtle was recorded on the 9th of August also at Ghadira bay.  The remaining three nests are similarly being safeguarded by NTM’s officers and volunteers as well as ERA officials.

Figures 3 & 4: Photographs showing baby turtles from the Ramla hatching emerging and making their way to the sea. Courtesy of Marvic Refalo.

Loggerhead turtles have been spotted nesting on Maltese shores in 2012, 2014, and 2018. The last recorded nest occurred at Gnejna Bay, from which 111 out of 112 eggs hatched. The increase of nesting turtles on Maltese shores is following a trend that is occurring throughout the Mediterranean, where turtles are opting to nest on busier and more disturbed beaches. Scientists have still not deduced the cause for such a phenomenon. Thus far, the most reasonable theory attributes their behaviour to the overdevelopment of sacred turtle nesting sites into tourism zones.

The increase in bird sightings

The partial lockdown was announced in late March, which coincided with the start of Spring, the time when bird migration occurs. During spring, birds leave their wintering grounds in Africa to migrate north to breed in Europe. On their way, numerous bird species rest on our lands where they restock their body fat to supply them with the energy required to fuel the rest of their journey. Also, being mating season, male birds are in full plumage therefore they are more easily seen.

These are only a few examples of the abundant fauna that are being observed more often than usual. Unfortunately, one can also include creatures such as rats into this group. They have been seen more frequently, scavenging for food in places they haven’t been recorded before. This was a consequence of the partial lockdown during which many establishments stopped taking out their rubbish, which used to serve as a regular source of food for the rodents.

It is evident that a decrease in anthropogenic pressures has influenced the environment for the better. Nonetheless, the most reasonable explanation appears to be that rather than the things around us have changed, it is instead of our perception that has changed. We have become more attentive to our environment, and all that thrives in it. This will, and should, hopefully, be a characteristic that remains well after the pandemic has elapsed. Giving the environment the attention it so sorely craves is what makes us not only appreciative of our beautiful home and faunal neighbours, but also aware of what needs to be done to help it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not reflective of ‘A Bird’s Eye View’ as a whole.


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