July 25, 2011

In the Field - In the City

Summertime means summer fieldwork for many academic scientists, but some researchers skip the far-flung places in favor of urban habitats close to home.

There are plenty of places to look at adaptation and evolution in cities, notes a recent article in the New York Times. Reporter Carl Zimmer talked with biologists who study urban populations such as mice, ants and fish inside the city's borders. The scientists included Dr. Jason Munshi-South, who is tracking changes in urban populations of animals. Munshi-South is studying white-footed mice, which inhabited the forests that became New York City, and over generations have adapted to city life.

Munshi-South studies mice he finds by visiting parks around New York such as the 130-acre Highbridge Park. Using DNA analysis, he and his colleagues have found that the populations of mice in each park are genetically distinct from the mice found in other parks.

There are many examples of urban adaptation, the article notes: "White-footed mice, stranded on isolated urban islands, are evolving to adapt to urban stress. Fish in the Hudson have evolved to cope with poisons in the water. Native ants find refuge in the median strips on Broadway. And more familiar urban organisms, like rats, bedbugs and bacteria, also mutate and change in response to the pressures of the metropolis. In short, the process of evolution is responding to New York and other cities the way it has responded to countless environmental changes over the past few billion years."

Other scientists interviewed study populations of ants within the medians of New York City street, and the affect of PCBs on Hudson River fish.

Closer to home, Biodiversity Institute scientists have looked at populations at parks and wildlife areas surrounding Lawrence, and once even documented a giant resin bee in a Lawrence backyard. The bee turned out to be the first one authoritatively identified west of the Mississippi River.

Check out the full article about New York biologists and their urban research here.

 


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Sometimes it's the work of other scientists that catches our eye at the Biodiversity Institute. The Science Life is a blog that distills a few of these observations from other science blogs, magazines, newspapers and our colleagues at other institutions. Join us as we highlight research discoveries in not only ecology and evolutionary biology, but also areas as diverse as archaeology, medicine, technology and climate change.

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