The Washington Post is reporting on recent research by entomologist Emily Hartop (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles), who just identified 30 new species of flies in a survey of backyards and gardens in LA. That’s a stunning quantity in such a densely occupied area, especially one whose pollution and industry can seem so hostile to life. But the news here is as much about the blind spots of natural science research. As Hartop relates, “cosmopolitan species are really understudied… Unfortunately, a lot of scientists haven’t actually studied the cities where they live.” Urban areas still are infrequent sites for wildlife research, but the NHM’s bioSCAN project is certainly a generative example of how that situation might change.
More than just revealing the everyday routine ignorance of or obliviousness to other species, a hurdle here is the scholarly division of labor for knowledge of species. As Magle et al found in their review article, “Urban Wildlife Research,” in Biological Conservation, journals on animal behavior, ecology, and general science journals rarely publish research on species in cities. They find, too, that “numerous barriers exist between researchers of animal behavior and conservation, with animal behavior scientists potentially viewing the more applied subject of conservation as less objective, less rigorous, or insufficiently challenging” (2012:31). That’s frustrating given accelerating urbanization, which is bringing more species daily into city space, where more than half of humanity now is also crowded. But the conceptual problem is whether or how to consider these as evolutionary adaptations when it’s hardly “natural selection” at work, in any basic sense of the term.
Also, it’s not just a question of finding what’s already hiding in plain sight; it’s a matter, too, of understanding how species change through urbanization. The technical term is synurbanization, by which urbanized species thrive as they benefit from anthropogenic resources. “What makes a species synurbic?” Francis and Chadwick argue that it’s not just the capacity to colonize or be located in urban ecosystems: “the term should be reserved for species populations that have higher densities in urban compared to rural areas, as a quantifiable measure of preferential urban association” (2012: 514). That is, species that parallel humans in finding cities to be better places to live.
In delineating this class of species, it’s interesting to see how domestication is elided and left untroubled, unfortunately. This designation of synurbic hives of synanthropes, taxa associated with human habitation, like lice or fleas or tapeworms and all manner of “weeds”—the category at work in Hartop’s project. This may include charismatic species (coyotes in Chicago, foxes in London), but they all seem to fall under the designation, “pests.” Domesticate are emphatically excluded, though the domus certainly includes all of these creatures; it’s just the difference between our capacity to manipulate and control one class, while fighting constant (losing?) battles with the other. In terms of the latter, the evolutionary dimensions leads to an interesting set of questions, as Francis and Chadwick summarize: “if rapid evolutionary processes are occurring in urban systems over relatively short timescales (particularly given the very recent emergence of densely populated industrial urban regions), can we expect to see the emergence of synurbic populations, genotypes and species on a global scale given the likely dominance of urban systems in the coming decades and centuries?” They formulate this question as a call for comparative studies of urban species, which should be fascinating. But the domesticity conundrum remains: if genetically distinctive species emerge from cities, how different are these from the species we’ve domesticated? The answer gets at a central conceit in the topic: that humans are the principal drivers of the process.