At first blush, the answer to the question seems an obvious yes: pigeons (rock doves), rats, cockroaches — the list goes on and on. These animals do not merely survive in cities, they flourish. It’s a bit counter to our usual way of thinking, but it’s helpful to think of cities as just another ecosystem. An ecosystem is, after all, simply the system formed by the ‘interaction of a community of living organisms with their physical environment’. There’s no reason not to consider cities ecosystems, aside from our false dichotomy between man-made and natural. After all, man is a product of nature. As the human population continues to skyrocket, more and more cities are growing (or being created) in order to accommodate our needs. Being able to understand cities as ecosystems will, I predict, be very important as we move forward.
Consider the beaver pond: here is an ecosystem made up of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants and animals, formed by the damming behavior of beavers. They create this habitat type, and an ecosystem forms in its wake as organisms move into this new habitat. This is not so fundamentally different from the way we erect cities, only to have all sorts of critters move in with us. Many of the most successful city-dwelling animals are of small-to-medium size, and they are skilled opportunists or scavengers. Foxes can survive in cities, taking advantage of rats, refuse, and other abundant food sources. Raccoons are consummate opportunists and garbage-raiders. Even the Virginia opossum can find a home for itself in the city. Most of the time, city-dwelling humans will be completely unaware of their close neighbors. There are also animals that find cities a refuge when their ‘natural’ habitats have been damaged. Peregrine falcons are some of the most famous city residents these days. Skyscrapers handily mimic their cliff nesting sites, and the smorgasbord of pigeons and starlings ensures these formerly endangered falcons will not go hungry.
Furthermore, the above list is comprised entirely of familiar faces. Consider the thousands of faceless insects that have absolutely no problem with living in cities. Cities provide dozens upon dozens of nooks and crannies. When you’re small, a city is an absolutely massive, dauntingly complex habitat. Spiders, centipedes, flies, bees, ants, and so on are all animals we take for granted, but which are very much part of the ecosystem. If you doubt the influence of wildlife in cities, try to imagine for a moment how dirty the city streets might be without a vermin-based cleaning crew. If pigeons, rats, and ants weren’t constantly picking up after us, we’d be swimming in our own waste.
Granted, cities are a new habitat type, in terms of evolutionary time — few species are truly “city specialists”. Indeed, many animals simply cannot live in cities, and cities are less diverse than many other habits. In particular, cities are not good homes for large predators or herbivores that need a lot of space. You won’t find wolves or elk in any cities, obviously. Human cultural evolution has outstripped the pace of biological evolution. We’ve developed the cultural techniques to build cities much more quickly than other organisms have been able to adapt to this new habitat type. Rest assured, however, that if mankind continues to create cities for long enough, species will evolve to be city specialists. More and more forms of life will change to take advantage of this habitat. In a few million years, what is currently considered an ‘unnatural’ habitat could be as natural as a coral reef.
Cities-as-ecosystems reinforce the point that there’s nothing fundamentally unnatural about mankind. The frisson between our species and the natural world is due primarily to the fact that we’ve evolved the ability (via culture) to alter the planet faster than any other species. We’re working on a different timescale, basically, than biological evolution. We can outstrip many of the planet’s built-in regulatory mechanisms, and the abilities of life on the planet to adapt to our changes. But if we do not completely destroy the planet and all life on it, then life on Earth will eventually adapt to the changes we have made.
Note: This is not meant to be taken as argument against modern conservation efforts that depend on the distinction between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’. The goal here is to remind us that cities are home to wildlife too, and are going to be an important part of the global ecosystem moving forward. We should not simply ignore them as unnatural, and pretend that wildlife which lives in cities is somehow anomalous. Cities have a complex suite of organisms, and I think we’ve been neglecting them from an ecology/biology perspective simply because of the lingering dichotomy between Man and Nature.
Animals that are not native to urban environments are being forced to survive in cities. Sprawl has encroached on their environment, and animals are great at adapting. Though an unusual event, foxes attacked twin babies in London recently.
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