Animals amaze with their ability to adapt to urban life

    In 2008, humanity passed an important milestone — more people now live in urban settings than rural areas. Cities are now mega-population centers with many topping 10 million inhabitants. Changes in the remaining countryside are also substantial since 80% of plant production around the globe is devoted to human use.
    Wildlife has followed the human path with insects, small mammals and birds adapting to urban life. The changes necessary to survive in the artificial habitats within cities are leading to sudden physical and behavioral changes that are surprising researchers.
    Several characteristics seem to determine whether the transition to urban living is successful. The most important are called pre-adaptive survival traits. That’s how each creature can use its normal behavior to live in a world of concrete surfaces, tall buildings and fragmented green spaces.
     Birds are the most famous urban adapters. Pigeons are native to rocky areas but have taken to urban living. Cities have actually increased habitat for peregrine falcons since tall buildings offer excellent nesting sites, and cities have tons of pigeons for them hunt.
    Smaller birds are also adapting to city life. Around the world a variety of tits and blackbirds have become common in cities. In just the 100 years since this trend has been observed, the bodies of these birds have evolved with shorter bills and wings than their rural cousins. Both birds are seed eaters, and the shorter bills make it easier to dine at bird feeders and pick up human scraps. Shorter wings also allow these urban birds to navigate the windy “canyons” of high-rise buildings and are much more efficient for pushing off pavement to avoid oncoming autos.
    Success in urban areas is also raising the pitch of territorial and mating calls so they can be heard over traffic noise and changing the coloration of plumage. Vivid colors, white patches and distinctive patterns that make male birds attractive in rural settings can be fatal in man-made habitats.
    Creatures without behaviors and diets that can be provided for in human habitats are being lost or pushed into remote areas as cities sprawl. Song birds that can’t be heard above the roar of traffic are decreasing in numbers and larger animals like wolves and bears are running out of territory to hunt and find mates. A few like raccoons and coyotes adapt, however, and thrive in the fragmented green spaces available in parks and gardens, eating mice, rats and garbage to survive.
    Insects are adapting as well. Damsel flies born in urban ponds can fly faster and in more wind than those born in the country. Mosquitoes have colonized subway tunnels, breeding in puddles formed by leaking drains and sewage lines. They can’t easily move away from their breeding areas, so researchers can now tell which station a mosquito comes from by its DNA.
    We’re not sure yet how healthy high density living is since it’s new for humans to live so close together. It’s encouraging that any creatures can adapt to environmental change faster than ever expected. Let’s hope urban ecologists can figure out how to save the plants and animals finding it harder to change.



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