Bio and the city

© Brett Hillyard

On more than one occasion, Chicago-area police have pulled researcher Stan Gehrt out of the truck he drives around the area. Often, they are acting on tips from wary community members, who report his vehicle—topped by large radio telemetry antennae and driving through neighborhood streets in the wee hours of the morning—as suspicious. “We have to assume the position [hands up, legs apart] and the whole nine yards,” says the biologist, based at Ohio State University.

Indeed, when he’s used his telemetry antennae to track coyote packs through rough neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, Gehrt says that he often blows through red lights, because stopping at lights during the early morning hours when there are no cars on the road and his quarry is most active would be, well, foolish. Such is the life of an urban biologist.

“Rural biologists don’t...

Biologists working in urban environments typically focus on the ecological interplay between humans and the other organisms with which we share our backyards, such as song birds, black bears, and raccoons.

“Urbanization is a pressing environmental issue worldwide,” says John Marzluff, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has studied corvids (crows, ravens and their kin) in the urban and suburban environment since doing his graduate work in the 1980s in Flagstaff, Ariz. Urban biology is “a transdisciplinary venture,” he adds, bringing together biologists, social scientists, city planners, and wildlife managers for the common goal of a more peaceful coexistence with our fellow animals.

“Urbanization is such a rampant activity right now, so it is forcing us to do more research and management,” agrees David Drake, University of Wisconsin urban biologist and past chair of the Wildlife Society’s urban wildlife working group. “I think we’re growing,” he says. Marzluff agrees that urban biology is on the upswing. He says that at several ecology journals where he sits on the editorial boards, submissions involving urban biology have been on the rise in the past few years.

Studying wildlife in cities and suburbs carries its own unique challenges.

One of the most extensive urban biology projects yet undertaken takes the ecological pulse of the hardscrabble city of Baltimore, Md. Charles Nilon, an urban wildlife ecologist at the University of Missouri, is one of about 30 principal investigators taking part in the National Science Foundation–funded project. He’s found that Baltimore’s bird communities (no, they’re not all Orioles) are much more diverse in neighborhoods where the average income of its inhabitants is higher (Bioscience, 2:139–50, 2008). “What drives birds in Baltimore,” Nilon says, “is vegetation.” Tonier neighborhoods usually have more trees, and the more trees, the more bird species frequent the area.

© Greg Lynch

An urban biologist’s usual quarry is an animal or plant species that is adaptable enough to wheedle its way into a metropolitan lifestyle and thrive. This means Canada geese, white-tailed deer, European starlings, and yes, coyotes. As these species become more common sights on streets and around houses and apartments, the need to understand their ecological dynamics increases. “Urban ecology is important because a lot of times we find higher densities of highly adaptable species in urban/suburban areas than we do in wild areas,” says Paul Curtis, an urban wildlife ecologist at Cornell University. Things like manicured lawns, bird feeders, and a dearth of natural predators provide “an ideal situation for species that can adapt to our living style and do quite well.” As an illustration, the US white-tailed deer population has grown from 300,000 in the 1930s to 30 million today—thanks, in part, to conservation practices and the urbanization of wild landscapes.

But working in the urban environment also makes sense because a city crawling with wildlife represents a wealth of accessible data, Marsluff says. “I can get replicated experiments on a geographic scale,” Marzluff says. “[The urban environment] does provide a nice, rich, satisfying experimental situation to investigate.”

That’s not to say, however, that studying wildlife in an urban setting is easy. Just ask Gehrt, who has spent the last 7 years radio-collaring and tracking coyotes around Chicago—establishing habitat use patterns, population densities and dynamics, and diet compositions. “When we do our radio tracking, we’re doing it in heavy traffic, with street lights at every corner,” he says. “It’s a challenge trying to keep up with them. They don’t stop at stoplights like we do.”

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