The Unexpected Places Where Endangered Wildlife Are Thriving

A new study finds that 30 percent of Australia's threatened species make their home in cities.
(Photo: Peter D Man/Facebook)
Dec 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

We all know that wildlife only thrives in pristine, natural environments, right?

Not so fast. It turns out that cities can be just as good for some wildlife and plants, including quite a few threatened and endangered species, which means conservationists should also take those areas into account.

That’s the word from a new study published Monday in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, which examined how Australia’s endangered plants and animals are faring in the country’s 99 biggest cities.

The conclusion: They’re doing pretty well. The researchers found that every city contained populations of threatened animal species, and 88 had endangered plants. On average, each city held 32 threatened species within its borders.

The researchers also mapped out where each of Australia’s 1,643 protected terrestrial species lived. They found that 30 percent occurred in cities. Not only that, they often existed in greater densities in cities than within natural settings.

(Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images)

They knew they’d find this to some degree because they already had examples of some threatened species that only lived within the confines of certain cities. “However, the starkness of our results surprised us,” said Chris Ives, a postdoctoral researcher with Leuphana University in Germany and the lead author of the study. “We did not expect to find that cities were substantially more important than nonurban areas for the conservation of protected species.”

Part of the reason wildlife does so well in these environments, Ives said, is because “many species favor the same environmental conditions that make human settlement attractive.” These areas all have access to water, good soil, high biodiversity, and other valuable qualities. Conversion of that habitat by humans creates both good and bad side effects for wildlife.

On the one hand you have traffic, clearing of native vegetation, and habitat fragmentation. On the other hand, cities can provide other benefits, said Seth Magle, director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, who was not affiliated with the study. Cities provide animals with new sources of food and water, such as lawns and trash cans, as well as shelter. “If you’re a prey species whose predator is not abundant in the city, then all of a sudden you’re released from that sort of pressure.”

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Although the study focused on cities Down Under, it could have relevance elsewhere. “Australian cities are quite low density on international standards, with patches of private and public green space present, particularly around their fringes,” Ives said. “For these reasons, our findings are most applicable to other ‘new world’ countries like the U.S., which may still be experiencing biodiversity losses from land use decisions made within the last century.”

Of course, not every species could survive let alone thrive in an urban environment. “Some animals are so specialized they’re never going to exist in any even remotely modified environment,” Magle said. “Think about something like a northern spotted owl that needs a massive tract of old-growth forest that’s basically in no way modified by humans.”

He added, though, that a lot of species can and do adapt to urban areas. “Increasingly we’re finding that that can even be true for some of the rarer species,” he noted. “Here in Illinois, the largest colony of black-crowned night herons is actually right outside my office, where I’m sitting. They’ve adapted to the space, and they’re doing just fine.”

Ives said their study shows that conservationists should keep cities in mind when developing ideas to protect threatened and endangered species. Any such plans would vary according to each species’ needs, but in general it’s important to protect urban green spaces and encourage things like wildlife-friendly gardening. According to Ives, it’s crucial to “understand how people value and use their environment so as to minimize conflict between city residents and natural areas and to help foster an ethic of environmental stewardship.”

Magle put it another way: “Wherever you live in the world, you live in some sort of nature. We can really enrich our lives by thinking about how we live with wildlife wherever we live. That can be a good thing.”