How close do you think you are to wildlife right now?
When I ask people that question, they often contemplate how many miles it is to the nearest national park or forest. Closer to home, maybe they think about a nearby park or stream. Sometimes they tell me about that time a deer walked across the yard or an owl perched in their tree. But the real answer is that we’re surrounded by wildlife all the time.
Almost no matter where you are in the United States, there are squirrels, rabbits, sparrows, and hawks. Most likely coyotes and foxes as well, and that’s not even mentioning the enormous array of insects we all live with. Those count as wildlife, too.
But there’s a reason we all think about faraway, and usually rare, species when people use the word “wildlife.” Not only are those the animals that dominate the nature shows, posters, and adorable memes, but they’re also the most thoroughly studied. Urban areas are the fastest growing ecosystems in the world, and the ones most inhabited by people. Yet from a wildlife perspective, they are the most poorly understood.
The entire planet is urbanizing, and every city is different. So ultimately we need data from, well, everywhere. That’s why we’ve been taking lessons we learned in Chicago through the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo and exporting them around the country. We’re creating, for the first time, a worldwide network for urban wildlife research: the Urban Wildlife Information Network (UWIN).
At the moment, this network consists of eight cities of varying size: Chicago; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Madison, Wisconsin; Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado; and Manhattan, Kansas. But we’re finding local and global partners interested in joining our network and exploring their own urban ecosystems. In time, we’ll be able to discover whether, for example, foxes in Los Angeles behave the same way as foxes in Austin, Texas—and if not, why. When we know what’s similar and what’s different about these cities, we’ll know how to predict urban wildlife dynamics and patterns worldwide. And then we can truly start the work of building a wildlife-friendly planet.
Why hasn’t this been done before? This geographic blind spot is fairly easy to understand. People become wildlife biologists because they’re inspired by elephants or lions—something they saw on National Geographic or Animal Planet—usually not because they’re fascinated by pigeons and mice. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that, in the narrative of nature and wildlife, cities have long been cast as the villain—endless expanses of concrete that pave over wildlife habitat and leave only devastation behind.
But the cities kept growing, and along the way some animals adapted—like they always have. Coyotes thrive in the heart of America’s largest cities. Endangered species like the Butler’s garter snake are found in urban areas. Prairie dogs can be found burrowing in city parking lots. And cities themselves are working to be more “green”—creating more parks, open space, and wildlife corridors, for example. There is an opportunity to take these human-modified ecosystems and create real change on behalf of our wildlife counterparts.
That’s why a new breed of wildlife ecologist—the urban wildlife ecologist—has begun to emerge. There’s a critical need to answer some basic questions like: why do some species adapt to cities while others can’t? How do wildlife communities in cities interact with humans, and one another? And, perhaps most critically, how do we create environments to allow wildlife to thrive in an urbanizing world?
The Urban Wildlife Institute has been trying to answer these questions since 2009. We began with a notion that we’d start gathering data the same way we would in any unexplored environment, by casting a wide net and examining as many different dimensions of urban wildlife as we could. We built three massive transects, each 50 kilometers long, that radiated out from downtown Chicago, and along those transects we established more than 100 field stations. Some are very urban, some are fairly rural, but all of them give us insight into how wildlife adapt to rapidly growing metropolitan areas.
Because so little is known about urban landscapes, we use a variety of technology to gather all the data we can. Motion-triggered camera traps give us insight into medium and large-sized mammals. Acoustic monitors help us understand bats. Citizens collect data on birds through websites like eBird. When we put all of these data together, we start to form a picture of how wildlife can persist, adapt, and evolve in a city like Chicago.
We learned quite a bit from these studies. We discovered how deer and coyotes co-occur on the landscape, we learned the role of buckthorn in shaping wildlife communities. We learned what groups of species are most likely to be found together, and we began to convert these findings into policy recommendations that can shape the future of Chicago’s green spaces.
But somewhere along the line we realized that the data we’d gathered weren’t actually the most important thing. Critical as they were for shedding some light on Chicago’s wildlife, that was all they could do—teach us about Chicago. The most important part was the process, the techniques and protocols we developed to understand the wildlife in a city, and helping communities to engage in identification and conservation of local wildlife. This included our transect design, our long-term approach, and the technologies we employed. We’re proud to share these techniques with our partners near and far and create a better world For Wildlife. For All.
By: Seth Magle, Ph.D., Director of the Urban Wildlife Institute, Lincoln Park Zoo
Seth Magle, Ph.D. is the Director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo, a science center dedicated to mitigating human-wildlife conflict. Seth first became interested in conservation and ecology as a college student in 1997 while observing black-tailed prairie dogs living in sidewalk median strips near his home in Boulder, Colorado. Daily interactions with these resilient animals made him wonder what adaptations enabled these small mammals to persist in highly urban habitat and which factors contributed to their distribution and abundance. Eventually he completed an honors thesis on the behavior of this urban-adapted keystone species; he ultimately expanded on that research for both a master’s degree and a doctorate.
However, Seth’s interests go far beyond prairie dogs to encompass all wildlife species impacted by urbanization and human development. He has also engaged in research on movement behavior of white-tailed deer in a rural landscape characterized by high prevalence of disease outbreaks, assessments of the diversity of bird communities residing in agricultural habitat and the conservation of Canada lynx reintroduced to the southern edge of their historical range, where they are threatened by roads and traffic.
Seth strongly believes that if rare and imperiled species are to be conserved in our modern world, we must understand and mitigate all potential impacts of urban areas on wildlife. To that end, he engages in studies of urban wildlife that span a broad range of scientific disciplines, including behavioral ecology, conservation genetics, landscape ecology, environmental education and human dimensions of wildlife. His vision is to help create a world in which urban ecosystems represent an important component of the worldwide conservation of biodiversity.