Tag Archives: urbanisation

Rebuilding Our Relationship With Urban Rivers With Dr. Cecilia Medupin

Rivers have played a monumental role in determining where people live. Their importance in providing water, transportation and a raft of other ecosystem services has meant that even today most of the world’s largest cities are situated close to a major source of freshwater, from Sydney to Delhi, Quebec to Karachi.

Yet despite their role in our history, urban rivers today are often facing increasing levels of pollution as a result of human activity. As well as often being a huge tourist drawcard, and an ongoing resource for fishers, joggers and portable BBQ toters, freshwater ecosystems carry a disproportionate number of aquatic species, which makes this trend increasingly worrying.

After meeting at last year’s British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, I got in touch with Dr. Cecilia Medupin, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Manchester. Cecilia works to increase peoples understanding of rivers, including the project Our Rivers, Our City. I asked Cecilia abut our connection with rivers, the challenges they face, and how to inspire research and change in urban rivers.

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Where the Wild Things Are

Urban aliens and threatened near-naturals: Land-cover affects the species richness of alien- and threatened species in an urban- rural setting (2020), Petersen et al., Scientific Reports, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-65459-2

The Crux

Land-use changes (in particular, urbanisation and everything related to it) have huge effects on biodiversity patterns – some habitats can support populations of many different species, others cannot. This seems intuitive on a large scale (think a rainforest vs. a large, industrialised city) and on a small scale (a small patch of concrete vs. a patch of soil in a forest), but what about on a medium scale, more relevant to management organisations? How different species of plants, animals and fungi are distributed in space on such a meso-scale is far more relevant to everyday management, compared to say a global distribution, or the organisation of a 10 x 10 metre quadrant.

Today’s authors (myself and my current supervisors) looked at how species richness changes with land-cover on a municipality scale. We also looked at whether these patterns differ if one considers the total number of species, threatened- or alien ones, and whether animals, plants and fungi react to concrete vs. forests in the same way.

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How Does Our Interpretation Of Urbanisation Affect How Damaging It Is?

Increased urbanisation may have a negative effect on the richness of moth species like this Vine’s Rustic, but it depends on what scale we consider richness (Image Credit: Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Urbanization drives cross-taxon declines in abundance and diversity at multiple spatial scales (2019) Piano et al., Global Change Biology, https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14934

The Crux

You would think that the effect of building a whole lot of stuff on something’s habitat would have a negative effect on just about anything. But building a whole lot of human stuff (maybe let’s retain a modicum of science-ness and call it urbanisation) hasn’t always been shown to be necessarily bad for species. There are a lot of studies out there which show that urbanisation is can be a negative for biodiversity (which makes sense, since for starters it generally breaks up habitat patches and introduces a whole lot more pollutants). But there are also studies showing that urbanisation can increase biodiversity.

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Dragon Guts in the City

Image Credit: Aravindhanp, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

City life alters the gut microbiome and stable isotope profiling of the eastern water dragon (Intellagama lesueuriii) (2019) Littleford-Colquhoun, Weyrich, Kent & Frere, Molecular Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15240

The Crux

It’s a pretty fair call to assume that if you build a city on a species’ habitat, it might be a little miffed. Yet as human settlements expand worldwide, many species are showing that they’re able to make rapid changes to their biology to adapt to living around humans.

This includes their diet, of course. As diets shift, many other aspects of a species’ biology follows, including the microbes that live in a species’ gut. And gut microbes influence a huge range of factors, including immunology, development, and general health. The response of a gut microbe community (the gut microbiome) to a new diet can in turn affect an animal’s ability to adapt to that environment.

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The Big Challenge: Increasing City Biodiversity

Image Credit: GuoJunjun, CC BY-SA 3.0 NO, Image Cropped

The Big Challenge Science Festival is currently in Trondheim, bringing a host of celebrities, scientists and futurists together. Their goal is to present solutions for the challenges the planet currently faces, and get people thinking about how they can adjust their lives to help the planet. While there are some big names in attendance, there are also a large number of local students and scientists working tirelessly on stands, and it’s them that I spent yesterday working alongside.

There’s some fantastic stuff on display. I was particularly impressed by the use of VR in a couple of exhibitions. One stand presented a worst case scenario for warming planet, with one of Trondheim’s most famous laneways submerged in water (although the man clinging to a floating car tire waving for assistance may somewhat disturb the kids). Nearby was another VR experience where you could shoot cars, carbon molecules and chimneys, transforming them into bikes, trees and solar panels respectively. The tent next to us had a great range of displays, presenting practical and simple options for living sustainably and also letting you snack on insects and other arthropods!

Our own stand was part of the Futurum exhibition, which postulated how Trondheim may look in 2050. It focussed on biodiversity, and how Trondheim’s wildlife will change over the next 30 years with increasing urbanisation and a warming climate. On loan from the Natural History Museum was a selection of species that could conceivably arrive in Trondheim with a 1-2 degree temperature increase. It was fun to see kids’ faces contort at the thought of a parrot being a common presence in Trondheim, but with Ring-Neck parrots already as far north as Brussels, it could happen within their lifetime.

I was pleasantly surprised at the willingness of some children to accept that new species weren’t necessarily a good thing. Most of them were entranced by the sight of a grey squirrel, but readily understood that it could mean the demise of the red squirrel and some local bird life. Likewise, I was surprised at how many parents could immediately recognise the species likely to disappear from Trondheim, and acknowledge how many more Black-Headed Gulls and Northern Lapwings they could see only twenty years ago.

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NTNU’s Tanja Petersen explains how species life the Pacific Oyster or the Grey Squirrel could be in Trondheim within 30 years (Image Credit, Øystein Kielland, CC BY 2.0)

It was also encouraging to see how many people have started to let portions of their garden grow wild in an effort to allow insects, and thus birds and mammals make their way back into urban areas. The exhibition had 2 fantastic videos compiled by Øystein Kielland focussing on the difference between a green area and a biodiverse one, and how fragmentation has devastated local plant and insect populations. So the number of adults who had already started letting areas around their house grow unchecked was encouraging. Two particular highlights were the couple who eagerly showed us the badger who had recently taken up residence in their backyard, and the girl who nodded eagerly and started telling me all about her insect hotels.

One thing I always struggle with in these situations is communicating uncertainty. Whilst it’s fun to see jaws drop at the thought of parrots in Norway, it’s difficult to communicate the ‘maybe’ factor in the amount of time it takes to engage someone in these issues. The point of the Big Challenge is to get people to act, so I hope that people walk away thinking that if they don’t start living more sustainably there could be huge species’ turnover, but I don’t want to present a worst case scenario, or talk in absolutes about issues that are very much only possibilities. So any success stories you’ve had communicating uncertainty in these scenarios would be very much welcome below!

I’ll be back at the Futurum exhibit at Krigseilerplass near the Royal Garden today. If you’re in Trondheim, I highly recommend stopping by. You can read more about the event here.