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Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle…

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

by Menno Schilthuizen

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This is a good popular science book that walks the fine line between being extremely accessible but not dumbing down the thesis or the science supporting it. Schilthuizen presents an interesting overview of urban evolution—how plants, insects, birds, and animals have adapted to manmade/urban environments—in an extremely digestible way that doesn't skirt the fact that this is serious business. The tone tends to default a little onto the side of breeziness, focusing on urban fauna and flora's successful adaptations to issues like noise, light, and chemical pollution and the compartmentalization of cities' green areas without digging into the more disastrous and deleterious effects. Then again, this is not that book, of which there are already many. This is, rather, an optimistic—but no less rigorous for that—look at the ways nature (both what we think of as "nature" and the kind touched by human beings) prevails.

Schilthuizen's style is conversational and often very funny, keeping the array of information moving along: why mice in urban pocket parks have developed different DNA; moths whose wing colors changed to provide camouflage on the soot-covered tree trunks of industrial-age England; plants that filter heavy metals; the difference between rural and urban blackbirds, who do in fact sing in the dead of night (to avoid daytime city noises—and that's not the only sly Paul McCartney reference Schilthuizen works in); and the ultimate irony—how the post-Darwin transformation of the Galápagos capital of Santa Cruz into a tourist destination has resulted in enough urban homogenization to slowly reverse the differentiated effects on the bills of "Darwin's" finches, which are what led to its fame to begin with.

Lots to learn here, and it both goes down easily and sticks in the brain—the author presents his information well and usably. Recommended for anyone curious about the subject—and Schilthuizen loves him some citizen scientists, so the book may well achieve his goal of encouraging more folks with general interests to get involved in helping track urban evolution as it marches on. ( )
3 vote lisapeet | Dec 22, 2018 |
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*Carrion crows in the Japanese city of Sendai have learned to use passing traffic to crack nuts. *Lizards in Puerto Rico are evolving feet that better grip surfaces like concrete. *Europe's urban blackbirds sing at a higher pitch than their rural cousins, to be heardover the din of traffic. How is this happening? Menno Schilthuizen is one of a growing number of "urban ecologists" studying how our manmade environments are accelerating and changing the evolution of the animals and plants around us. In Darwin Comes to Town , he takes us around the world for an up-close look at just how stunningly flexible and swift-moving natural selection can be. With human populations growing, we're having an increasing impact on global ecosystems, and nowhere do these impacts overlap as much as they do in cities. The urban environment is about as extreme as it gets, and the wild animals and plants that live side-by-side with us need to adapt to a whole suite of challenging conditions: they must manage in the city's hotter climate (the "urban heat island"); they need to be able to live either in the semidesert of the tall, rocky, and cavernous structures we call buildings or in the pocket-like oases of city parks (which pose their own dangers, including smog and free-rangingdogs and cats); traffic causes continuous noise, a mist of fine dust particles, and barriers to movement for any animal that cannot fly or burrow; food sources are mainly human-derived. And yet, as Schilthuizen shows, the wildlife sharing these spaces with us is not just surviving, but evolving ways of thriving. Darwin Comes toTown draws on eye-popping examples of adaptation to share a stunning vision of urban evolution in which humans and wildlife co-exist in a unique harmony. It reveals that evolution can happen far more rapidly than Darwin dreamed, while providing a glimmer of hope that our race toward over population might not take the rest of nature down with us.… (more)

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