October 10, 2016 Biodiversity No Comments
How species adapt to urban challenges

Cities are often regarded as lifeless

areas filled with concrete, where only a few invasive species strive. But with accelerating urbanization, it’s not only humans who relocate to cities. Most of us assume that new species are being discovered only in the most remote places on Earth. But paradoxically, the most recent observations suggest that wildlife has been slowly settling in cities alongside us. In fact, some species are more numerous in cities than in surrounding rural areas and sometimes even exotic species come to liking the new urban ecosystem. The explanation is simple. Species that inhabit urban ecosystems are either those for whom cities are like a little piece of paradise, perfectly fulfilling their needs, or those that chose to adapt to the new way of life because of some other overriding benefit of doing so.

“They learn the traffic patterns, and they learn how stoplights work”,

Stan Gehrt on coyotes’ behavior in urban areas.

A perfect example of such an adaptation are coyote populations from the urban area of Chicago. According to the recent estimates there are around 1800 coyotes living in the Cook County¹. Observation of their behavior suggests that they have adopted habits that help them co-exist with people even in the most densely inhabited parts of the city. One such habit is to decrease activity during the day, becoming mainly a nocturnal animal. This enables them to avoid conflict with humans, and to cross more easily and safely busy roads².

So, how do animals adapt to the life in a city?

Bigger size, bigger brain and sedentary life…

Some species benefit from the greater diversity of food sources that is available in urban areas. There are different species of insects, food waste, and even food provided by people, who enjoy seeing wildlife around. Omnivorous species, such as raccoons, rats, crows, hedge hocks or even bears, frequently ransack garbage bins close to settlements to enrich their diets. This improves their survival rate and stamina.

Interestingly, research confirms that urbanization affects the brain size of animals. According to Maklakov and his team, the brain of animals living in cities increases in size when compared to the same animals living in their natural environment. Larger brain size improves the ability of animals to learn and adapt to fast changing conditions. This is a great advantage when it comes to survival of a species.

Another advantage is that these animals can change their behavior to get the most out of city life. There is evidence that what were originally migratory mute swans now do not leave cities for winter since they are able to find enough food and shelter there already without needing to move. A reduction in the waves of migration, which can be dangerous to the species, combined with constant sources of food throughout the year also contributes to longevity. The new generation of urban animals have adopted a more settled way of life than their wild counterparts, who have to struggle more just to secure their basic needs³.

Although urban wildlife mainly stays away from people, conflicts occur when they share a small area of land. Regular exposure to people reduces the animals’ fear of us, and random feeding makes them even bolder to approach houses. In some cases, human-wildlife conflict arises from easy access of wild predator species to our pets. Cases when pets were eaten by a python are often on the news in Australia. In the long run, the key to co-existence with wildlife in cities is to establish the same relationship that our ancestors or people in rural areas have with them. They have to have fear us, because when they lose their respect of humans, they are more likely to attack and cause us harm.

Urban areas still do not make up for the lost ecosystems they take over, but it is about time we started to think a bit more about cities’ specific species composition. With growing numbers of wildlife in urban areas, it is crucial to start learning about their behavior in such a different environment. Over the last couple of centuries, humans have been steadily moving to urban areas, and even more people are expected to move to the city in the future. It should be of no surprise then that some species are following our example and are creating a new home for themselves in cities, where as a result new and different ecosystems also develop. Until we will learn more about how these new ecosystems function, we will have to brace ourselves with patience and respect towards those living creatures sharing a common space with us.



¹ http://urbancoyoteresearch.com/faqs
² https://goo.gl/fiUka8
³ http://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/snr07041f.pdf

Written by Sara Slavikova