Monday, 8 April 2013

Urban ecosystems: the final frontier?

This month's volume of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment features a Trails and Tribulations essay that will likely hit close to home for any biologist who has worked in urban areas or places with high levels of human traffic. Titled "Trials of the Urban Ecologist," the piece is written by a group of researchers from the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University (Indianapolis, IN, USA).

Image courtesy of the Urban Ecology Collaborative

The authors' interest in urban locations--which they refer to collectively as "one of the final frontiers of ecological exploration"--stems both from the fascinating ecological complexities of these sites and from practicality. As they point out, over half of all people now live in cities, making the continued health and stability of these environments a necessity. Traditionally, scientists were more interested in replicating studies from "natural" areas within city limits in order to compare the two and verify the universality of certain ecological principles; modern research, however, is increasingly geared towards appreciating and characterizing the novel ecology of highly anthropogenically disturbed areas. There is, of course, an added bonus for scientists whose institutions are located in or near cities (and for metropolitan residents who are keen to keep in touch with nature): Urban areas offer easily accessible places in which to observe wildlife.

All research sites offer their own difficulties, but, write Dolan et al., scientists who cut their teeth performing studies in remote wildernesses may require a period of adjustment when making the transition to urban areas. There, they may face novel difficulties including feral animals such as cats, dogs, and rats; theft of equipment and other research materials; habitat destruction by residents, developers, or caretakers; and even the release of animals captured for examination.

Image courtesy of Landscape Architecture Daily

While working in Indianapolis, the authors have experienced a number of frustrating setbacks that they appear to have taken in stride--and from which they have learned a great deal about the hazards of working in an urban environment. During one project, for example, a study site was bulldozed; during another, landscapers frequently mowed patches that were supposed to be left untreated. These sorts of situations highlight the necessity of good communication, diplomacy, and patience--all of which are especially important (and challenging) during projects that involve multiple stakeholders.

In fact, Dolan et al. say that one of the most important outcomes of their work in urban ecology is the development of "a deeper appreciation of what it means to be teachers, as [they] share [their] research directly and indirectly with urban residents." Educational moments may happen on a small scale, such as when researchers explain what they are doing to curious passersby, or on a much larger scale, such as when media coverage of urban studies provides residents with the knowledge and drive required to influence local management practices.

Image courtesy of Radix Ecological Sustainability Center

"Trials of the Urban Ecologist" is a timely essay, given the increasing popularity of urban ecology over the last several years (and decades). It reminds readers that anthropogenic habitats are just as interesting and important as those that are more "natural" and "wild"--and stresses how urban studies can have long-lasting and far-reaching implications for conservation, management, and sustainability.

Dolan RW, Carter T, Ryan T, Salsbury C, Dolan TE, and Hennessy M. 2013. Trials of the urban ecologist. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 163–164.