Last year, as billions of people around the globe were in coronavirus lockdown, students of Queens College ecologist Bobby Habig discovered a bobcat roaming around the Bronx River in New York City, better known for its recent past as an open sewer and repository for automobile tires and rusted chassis than as a habitat for elusive wildcats. In January, a snowy owl, native to Canada's Arctic tundra, touched down in Central Park for the first time in 130 years and spent more than a month supplementing its usual diet of boreal lemmings with choice urban fare such as mice and rats. For weeks a coyote was spotted in the Ramble, a 37-acre "wilderness" of rocky crags and hilly forest in the heart of Central Park.
New York wasn't the only city where wildlife wandered freely. Sea lions galumphed up to shuttered storefronts in the Argentinian port of Mar Del Plata. Mountain goats, which normally live on the rocky Great Orme in Wales, munched on hedges and grazed flower boxes in the nearby seaside town of Llandudno. A puma was seen in the deserted streets of Santiago, Chile's capital city.
Urban areas such as these have long been deemed to be devoid of biodiversity, especially by Americans, who glorify wilderness and believe that nature can flourish only where cities do not exist. "It's been easy for people to think that cities, they're just these moonscapes, completely sterile environments with just humans and maybe trees or grass," said Seth Magle, director or the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Even scientists bought into the narrative and believed "we have no business spending any time or energy in cities," he said.
As Eric W. Sanderson, senior conservation scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society said, "I can't tell you the number of conservation analyses in which places like cities with high human influence were just blocked out because they have zero biodiversity value — they're wasted. There's nothing there."
This is called "the biological deserts fallacy" by the authors of a new paper in BioScience , who make the case that cities contribute more than we think to regional biodiversity. In fact, a raft of recent studies has found that long before the pandemic, the planet's cities were important refuges for an array of plants and animals, in some cases even threatened and endangered species.
While the value of urban areas to wildlife conservation remains contentious, there is a growing recognition that cities are key to the future of conservation as the human footprint expands relentlessly around the globe. In fact, researchers are increasingly working with city planners, landscape architects and urban wildlife managers to make cities part of the solution to the global biodiversity crisis.
Recent studies have found that animals from fishers to coyotes are appearing in force in urban areas. Magle points to the expansion of coyote populations in the United States as an urban success story. "Ninety-nine percent are good at avoiding us and eating squirrels and rats," he said. "In just the past couple of years, we're suddenly seeing a ton of flying squirrels in Chicago," Magle said. "We never thought of them as an urban species, and now we're seeing them all over the place." Another surprise, he said, is the return of otters to the Windy City. "Who ever thought, given the quality of the water, that we'd ever see otters in the city again, but now they're here."
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