When we talk about urban wildlife, we are referring to animals that live and thrive in human-dominated ecosystems. With an increasing number of species affected by climate change in an ever-expanding urban landscape, the arrival of wild animals in the city will soon become an inevitable phenomenon. To better accommodate animals in an anthropogenic environment, we need to further study and investigate the demographics and interactions of urban wildlife with the help of urban biologists and scientists.
Wandering through the streets of Hong Kong, it’s not uncommon to find all sorts of wildlife sharing the same urban space with people: the flock of nodding pigeons in front of MTR stations, waving to a bustling crowd on morning ; a little sparrow hopping around the outdoor restaurant table looking for fallen pieces of food; the lone rat running silently down the dark alley in the middle of the night; or even the family of wild boars strolling through the bushes for a beautiful walk between the mother and her children.
The fact that animals navigate the city almost as easily as the people – for whom the city is built – can sometimes seem like a threat or a blessing, knowing that the integration of wildlife into the human world has been somewhat inevitable since the expansion of the city. conglomerates over the past two centuries. But why do animals decide to move away from the natural world and settle in concrete jungles? How do they adapt to an urban environment so different from their original habitats?
Set urban wildlife
“Urban wildlife” is a term used to describe animals that have adapted their way of life to life in cities and suburban areas. Despite early human efforts to rid the city of wild animals, they eventually returned and integrated into city life almost seamlessly. This is largely due to the following decision people to plant trees, create parks and improve public sanitation in the city – for the health and economic benefits, not surprisingly, of human beings themselves. These urban interventions introduced a more ideal living environment for animals and people. The destruction of forests and nature following the process of industrialization and urbanization has also played a key role in forcing animals to abandon their natural habitats and turn to urban life for survival.
However, the evolutionary theory by 19th century Charles Darwin told us that adaptation, whether behavioral or biological, is a horribly slow process that takes generations for changes to finally be observed. So how to explain the seemingly rapid adaptations of wild animals in the city, which sometimes even occur within a human lifetime?
How do animals thrive in urban settings?
It turns out that some animals, especially smaller ones, are more flexible than we think in terms of their ability to evolve and adapt to their changing environment. Most of the time, these behavioral and biological changes are induced by human factors such as the introduction of artificial infrastructures and the “unnatural” urban lifestyle. Scientists call it the HIREC – or human-induced rapid evolutionary change – to highlight the impacts humans have on animals by creating an extreme ecological and habitual situation that often means life or death for the entire species. In general, small animals are more likely to live in cities because they need little space and little food to survive. It is also observed this evolution tends to occur more frequently for smaller animals due to their shorter lifespans and more offspring per pregnancy which allows for faster genetic mutations.
With the diminishing availability of natural habitats, wild animals are turning to the city for their new living space.
In fact, there are different examples of rapid evolution in animals around the world. crested anole, a species of lizard native to Puerto Rico, evolved to have larger toes. These allow them to better handle smooth surfaces, such as glass windows and painted concrete. The species is known for its ability to climb trees due to its scale-covered pads called lamellae, which are the source of its strong grip. During this time, scientists discovered that the white footed mouse in New York have evolved genetically to better digest human diets like pizza and fast food. The change may also be due to a difference in the availability of certain plants and insects in the city. Sometimes new species have even emerged from a drastic change in living environment. The culex pipiens molestus, for example, is a new species of mosquito that lives in man-made underground spaces and feeds on human blood. Their ancestor, however, is the culex pipiens – a common type of mosquito that lives above ground and feeds only on birds.
Can the phenomenon of urban wildlife prevent all species from disappearing?
Although there is a growing number of examples showing rapid human-induced evolutionary change, for most other animals evolution still takes a long period of time and may not be fast enough to keep them from becoming extinct. Another problem is that by including wild animals in the city, incidents of human-wildlife conflict may occur more frequently and create tension between people and animals. For example, the prolonged wildfires in California in 2021 had pushed coyotes to the suburban neighborhood who were later found preying on the residents’ pets. In Hong Kong, there are also cases of monkeys stealing or attacking humans for food in areas near country parks where they call home. To avoid such conflicts, we must investigate the ecological function of the city and its impact on survival. wildlife inside and outside the urban environment.
The need to monitor the urban ecosystem is not purely a preparatory reaction but an urgent reaction to the growing number of wildlife in the city. With the consequences of climate change worsening this year, animals are inevitably forced to migrate to urban areas due to the destruction of their habitats by rising sea levels, prolonged wildfires or deforestation. According to a study fact in 2015, there are more endangered species in the city than in rural areas per square kilometer. It turns out that the city provides an ideal and conducive environment for many animals to thrive as there is an abundance of food sources and shelter to avoid large predators.
To preserve our planet’s biodiversity, we must promote a wildlife-friendly environment in the city while simultaneously working to protect natural areas for those who cannot adapt to the man-made landscape. A lot to research is still needed to better understand the behavior and demography of urban wildlife as well as their interactions and migration patterns. In the meantime, the government should work with urban biologists to revise or re-examine the existing urban landscape to meet the needs of urban wildlife, for example by developing public parks and green spaces which can work as an intermediate area for animals to navigate the city. With an expansion of protected natural areas, people can be better connected with nature and hopefully more tolerant when encountering wild animals. All of these efforts serve to minimize conflict between humans and wildlife so that a future can be secured for animals despite ecosystem collapse in our shared world.
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