Urban biology

Wildlife in towns and cities

Across the globe, the human population is becoming more concentrated into highly modified environments. Today, over half of the world’s population lives in cities. But here we are not alone; many animals live alongside people in cities. Some species even show higher population densities than their non-urban conspecifics. As the impacts of urbanisation further encroach upon natural habitats, cities may have an important future as the home of many animals.

Behavioural traits of urban adapters

Cities and towns are challenging environments for many wildlife species, presenting a loss of natural resources (i.e. habitat and food) and high levels of anthropogenic disturbance. Despite these disturbances, some animals can do extremely well in urban environments, adapting to anthropogenic sources of food, shelter and highly altered landscapes. The ability of many taxa to survive alongside humans in urban areas is well-known: what we are interested in are the specific behavioural traits that allow these animals to successfully exploit anthropogenically-altered landscapes. How do they respond to interactions with humans, our activities, and altered landscapes? Do these behavioural traits mean that urban adapter species are likely to thrive in the long-term?

  • Urban animals (such as squirrels) are sensitive to cues that inform them about levels of risk, allowing them to reduce costs by not over-reacting to innocuous stimuli, while ensuring that they are nevertheless reactive to genuinely threatening stimuli.  Scicurious  has produced a fantastic video ‘explaining’ the squirrel paper: Do-It-Yourself Science Zone – hunting squirrels for science
  • Ashleigh Wolfe called on the public to help fund her urban reptile research, using the crowdsourcing fundraising website Kickstarter to contribute towards raising more than $50,000.  Thanks to the generous contributions of her supporters, Ash is now out tracking bobtails and dugites.  Find out more:   Facebook
  • A recent poster at the Behaviour2015 Conference in Cairns on bird behaviour both in and out of urban areas in Western Australia  Bird behaviour poster

Bandicoots as urban engineers

Urban animals also add significantly to our quality of life.  For example, bandicoots are one of the only digging mammal species that have remained reasonably abundant across Australia.  In southwest WA, quenda play a critical role in ecosystem regulation.  As ecosystem engineers, they manipulate and move soil (biopedturbation) using their strong forefeet and claws as they forage for mycorrhizal fungi, invertebrates, tubers and seeds.  It has been calculated that an individual quenda can create up to 45 pits and displace ~10 kg of soil per day (up to 3.9 tonnes of soil per year) (Valentine et al. 2013).

  • We have been working with the City of Mandurah to identify urban reserves used by quenda.  This information will significantly contribute to how we conserve and manage urban bushland.
  • As they dig for their food, quenda spread important mycorrhizal fungi across the landscape.  Collecting and analysing quenda scats has revealed the diversity of fungi that these animals move between habitats.

Red foxes on your doorstep

A number of carnivore species do very well in and around cities.  They make ‘interesting’ urban neighbours.  Of all the species described as ‘urban adapters’, it is perhaps the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) that is most well-known.  Today, the red fox has been recorded in over 114 cities across the globe, including here in Perth, where they move about the landscape, making use of green spaces that provide important habitat connectivity.

  • Ed Swinhoe is currently investigating movement patterns and space use for Perth urban foxes.

Urban invertebrates

Urban areas are still home to a range of invertebrates: spiders and bees and butterflies for example.  Are these animals unaffected by urban development?  It is possible that for some spiders, it is not the size of the urban bushland fragment, but the quality that counts.

  • PhD student Leanda Mason is exploring the effects of urban fragmentation on mygalomorph spiders
  • PhD student Laura Ollerhead is investigating the effects of differences in temperature and available prey in urban areas on behaviour, growth and survival of spider urban adapters
  • PhD student Kit Prendergast is investigating competition between native and invasive pollinator species in urban areas.

See wWEB BLOGS on this topic

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