In a way, cities are giant science labs, providing an environment for organisms that’s unlike anywhere else on the planet. Even though cities have been around for thousands of years, the way that humans are urbanising our planet in recent decades has become radically transformative for entire ecosystems. Urban living is literally altering the DNA of life on Earth.
Elizabeth Carlen and Michael Parsons are two biologists from Fordham University who are studying these changes in and around New York City. While she calls Manhattan home, Carlen catches pigeons in cities from Boston to Washington, DC in order to figure out if any of these birds are related and how urbanisation impacts these connections. Parsons’ work finds him headquartered at a waste management facility in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighbourhood. There, the ecologist has a colony of free-roaming rats that he tracks using RFID chips, and he hopes the data will help him understand the “silent language” of rats, through scents called pheromones.
These are just two scientists, studying two species in cities. However, the field of urban ecology bears much broader implications in the future. In just over 30 years, more than two-thirds of all people on Earth will live in cities, and scientists have yet to fully comprehend how these built environments (and the humans that call them home) are affecting the biological world. The way that Parsons and Carlen seek to understand the most mundane of New York City’s wildlife gives scientists are gaining a head start in seeing how nature is evolving in response to urbanisation. It might even help humans get along with Gotham’s most iconic residents just a little bit more.