Nature's Urban Melting Pot

Last week, Carl Zimmer’s NYT science article began this way:

To study evolution, Jason Munshi-South has tracked elephants in central Africa and proboscis monkeys in the wilds of Borneo. But for his most recent expedition, he took the A train.

To those of you unfamiliar with the NYC subway, this would be the A train to upper Manhattan. Zimmer notes:

Cities attract only a small fraction of evolutionary biologists, who often work in lusher places like the Amazon. But urban evolution is attracting more research these days, because cities are fast-growing, and the urban environment is quickly taking over large areas of the Earth’s surface.

As I recently discussed, this trend is part of an evolution in ecological thinking. And it’s long past due. After all, if neighborhood gardens and green markets can thrive in cities, then so can all manner of wildlife. The unruly biodiversity of society at large is also reflected in the urban landscape, a point unintentionally made in Zimmer’s article:

Biologists find a mixture of native and non-native in all the life forms they study in New York, from the trees in Central Park to the birds of Jamaica Bay.

Speaking of Jamaica Bay, here’s a great article in yesterday’s NYT about “the city’s largest open space”:

A giant salt water puddle, pooled over 20,000 acres beneath the leaky eaves of southern Queens and Brooklyn, the bay lies at the far end of the Rockaways A line. And to ride that line from Times Square to Canal Street to Broadway Junction, and then through Ozone Park to Howard Beach and Broad Channel, where suddenly there are marshes offshore and ibises and egrets in the sky, is to understand that with a simple 90-minute trip one can find a wilderness within the city limits.

The notion that “wilderness” can exist within a metropolis–something that probably would have been deemed nuts several decades ago–suggests that our views of nature have matured and expanded, just like those of the scientists now discovering and cataloguing urban biological diversity.

12 Responses to “Nature's Urban Melting Pot”

  1. Dean says:

    I think that you are confusing wilderness with a biosystem or ecosystem. That there is an interesting and vibrant biosystem in urban areas deserving research is one thing, but that doesn’t make it wilderness.
     
    I think that by any definition, wilderness is a place where humanity’s impact is not dominant. It may not be trivial, it even be fairly significant. Where to draw that line is a reasonable debate. But comparing, for example, pre-Columbian native fire regimes with urban NYC is a stretch too far.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Dean,

    My point is recent posts is that “wilderness” is a cultural construct that has reinforced the dualism that humans and nature are separate.

    Today’s post references an article that uses the definition in a context that loosens this dualism, which I think is a good thing.

    For example, this week I’ll be taking my young boys to some of these various urban ecosystems, and one of the take home lessons for them, I hope, is that there isn’t one true nature–the kind that can only exist in a pure state in a wilderness, and the other kind that is found in suburban or urban settings.

  3. Leo G says:

    Thanx Keith for taking this on. As you have probably noticed, this is one of my pet bug-a-boo’s. Maybe it is cultural. Having been born and raised on the North Shore of Vancouver, I have experienced wilderness not only from my windows, but also from the myriad creeks and streams as a child. From walking for 20 minutes up to the base of Grouse Mtn. then disapearing into the forest. (and finding a cabin stowed away in those woods and spending nights there with friends)

    Perhaps if I had been born in downtown Manhattan, then I would have this incorrect belief, that humanity and nature are seperate.

         

  4. Gaythia says:

    I agree with Dean above that the correct concepts are those of biosystems and  ecosystems.  
    The most important thing is that we need to maintain the ecological viability of the entire planet.
    The problem with our focus on wilderness is that focusing on the last undisturbed lands means we are focusing on the leftovers.  Thus, they generally are lands that were not as ecologically rich as the areas that were subject to human settlement. 
    For example, here in Colorado,  the confluence of the South Platte and the Cache la Poudre rivers near Greeley, was chosen in 1870 for the Union Colony agricultural settlement.  This area undoubtedly contained very rich ecosystems at that time.  The scraggly remnants of those systems may be as important to the planet as a pristine mountain stream headwaters at 11,000 ft where ecological diversity is much more limited.

  5. Gaythia says:

    Keith, you are aware that the more “urban biological diversity” you have in an area, the more it is going to be an attraction for the occasional wandering predator (dare I say mountain lion?).
     
    ” After all, if neighborhood gardens and green markets can thrive in cities, then so can all manner of wildlife.”

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    So long as we keep the deer out of Times Square (unlike, say Boulder, which lets Bambi roam unimpeded), I think we’ll be ok.

    Also, its cool when the occasional coyote is sighted in Central Park… 

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    Eli is not quit sure what the point is.  Lots of people know about Jamaica Bay and the marshes facing the Rockaways.  It’s not a secret and never has been.  Birders, pro and amateur have been there forever.  It’s an important stopover on the Atlantic Coast flyways for many migrating birds as well as having a variety of marine life.
     
    In short, congratulations.  Get on your bike and ride out along the Belt Parkway.  Explore the reeds and marshes. Most of those dunes are old garbage dumps which have been aged to interesting  Go to Floyd Bennett Field and explore.
     
    http://queens.about.com/cs/parks/a/pk_jamaica_bay.htm

    [Eli, you’re such a piece of work. Why do you even bother reading this blog, if it’s all so pointless to you? At what stage in your life did you pass from curmudgeonly to just plain old miserable?//KK]

  8. Dean says:

    So there are two parts here: separation of man and nature, and separation of technological society from nature.
     
    So while dealing with your duality is a good thing, let’s not forget about ecosystems whose dominant function is not in some way controlled by or dependent on humanity. I would suggest that from bacteria to cockroaches to birds to deer, the great majority of animal life in NYC lives in some form off of humanity or its detritus. Not so 20 miles into Wrangell / St. Elias National Park where the bush pilot is going to drop me off next week. Both Alaskan natives and miners have lived there. It is wilderness either way.

  9. Gaythia says:

    Eli @7 sounds like a birder enjoying life to me.
    Dean is just trying to make us jealous.
    Carl Zimmer is the one that could tell us that we are mere vessels for micro-creatures and mini-ecosystems.  We don’t have to get on our bikes, we can just engage in navel gazing.  http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2011/07/30/bellybutton-biodiversity-update-wonderlands-upon-wonderlands/

  10. edG says:

    Here’s an interesting and predictable twist on the coexistence theme:

    “United States border fence threatens wildlife
    Barrier between the United States and Mexico divides habitats and puts species at risk.

    The 1,000 kilometres of impenetrable barrier constructed along the Mexico”“United States border, with the aim of stemming illegal human immigration, is also hampering the movements of animals, including several endangered species, a recent study finds.”

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110802/full/news.2011.452.html

    But they say the “species most at risk include four listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered or threatened “” the Arroyo toad (Anaxyrus californicus), the California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), the black-spotted newt (_Notophthalmus meridionalis_) and the Pacific pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata).”

    Not the kinds of things one would think of first. And, on the bright side, very easy to move for reintroductions or genetic diversity.

  11. Gaythia says:

    Oliver Sacks has a nice piece on horsetails growing on the High Line in the current New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/08/01/110801ta_talk_sacks

  12. Eli Rabett says:

    Now what would turn a fine bunny mean?  Well maybe a bunch of hippie punchers discovering what has been known forever and proclaiming themselves wonderful. 
     
    Eli is old enough to remember us hippies pushing back against development in Jamaica Bay and along the coast.  The reason it is there to enjoy is not Robert Moses nor is the so called sensible strategy you keep betting your ponies on anything new. 
     
    Eli and Michael, and Stoat and James were pushing it ten and fifteen years ago and more.  Unfortunately, your  hippie punching club engaged in their favorite sport then and now we have lost that time and the no regrets strategies are the no work now strategies.  Mucho gracias.
     
    Dave Roberts had this absolutely right when he reviewed Nisbets report
    ———————————
    So, why have I been avoiding this? To really tell that story, we need to travel back to 2005, when Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published “The Death of Environmentalism” and Grist hosted a big discussion of it. That paper contained a combustible mix that was to become familiar in subsequent years: If you cared to pick them out, there were good ideas about the need for technology innovation in clean energy. Those ideas were surrounded by a grand and elaborate exercise in myth-making that cast green groups as the fount of all error, a fusty and hidebound Establishment forever attempting to diminish and suppress the forces of the New Paradigm, led by, of course, S&N themselves.
     
    Predictably, the attacks aimed at green groups drew outrage from their targets. Just as predictably, the outrage was used as evidence that S&N are brave truth-tellers, renegades, the “bad boys of environmentalism.” I don’t know if S&N planned it that way, but the strategy turned out to be pure media gold.
     
    If S&N had come forward with nothing but a positive agenda for the future of clean energy, they likely would have been politely ignored by the mainstream media just like dozens of earnest green agenda-bearers before them. (Grist’s bookshelves sag under their weight.) But S&N capitalized on an insight that had been ignored by their forebears: nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals. They enjoy conservatives punching hippies. They dig centrists punching hippies. But they looove ex-hippies punching hippies. A pair of greenies bravely exposing the corruption and dumbassery of all the other greenies? Crack rock. . . .
    —————————————-
     

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