Planet Earth

Nature's Urban Melting Pot

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAug 1, 2011 3:27 PM

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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.

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