To the untrained eye there are only trees and brambling shrubs, but Leslie Day’s eyes are seasoned experts, scanning Fort Tryon Park with the precision of a red-tailed hawk. “You see that, that’s whitewash from either an owl or a red-tailed hawk, one of them was probably sitting right up above these stairs last night, and those nests high up in the trees are the summer nests of squirrels, see how high they are!” said Day, author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, and former educator in ecology.
The park was no longer this static, nameless entity but a living, breathing place where the reverberating tapping of the woodpecker can be heard and nondescript trees and shrubs become Northern Hackberry’s, Catalpa’s, and Oriental Bittersweet. These are the markers of a biologically diverse ecosystem in which we may not be able to see all flora and fauna outright, but they are there hiding in plain sight.
Most Manhattanites are unaware of the tenacity of the native flora and fauna that is just a train ride away. Marielle Anzelone is a botanist and urban ecologist who studies the way that people engage with nature in the five boroughs.
“With media attention often focused on global environmental concerns, people have become distanced from the abundant nature outside their window,” Anzelone said. “The local has become the new frontier, exotic and unknown to its residents,” she said.
Cities are growing exponentially, with scientists projecting that by 2050, approximately 2/3 of the world’s population will be living in cities. This is an important feature when considering the fact that cities are places where manmade modernity and wildlife intersect.
New York City is home to more plant and animal species than Yellowstone National Park, and the world’s fastest animal—the Peregrine Falcon. Within New York City’s five boroughs exist lush urban jungles with many fruitful ecological surprises: red-tailed hawks keep dominion over the rodent population of Central Park, Monarch butterflies migrating south to Mexico are drawn to the fragrant wildflower beds of the Chelsea Highline Park, old growth forests can be found in Queens, native mussels growing in the Hudson River estuary, and Humpback Whales have been spotted feeding just six miles off the Rockaway’s. Just this past October, scientists identified a new species of frog living in and around New York City. Preferring the coastal bogs of Staten Island the newly discovered Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog has found a niche in one of the most densely populated, and developed regions in the world. Showing that even in areas that are heavily influenced by man, an abundance of ecological secrets can be hiding. For the last decade, two major ecological studies have been conducted in Tucson, Arizona and Baltimore, Maryland to catalogue the various “hotspots” for biodiversity in urban ecosystems.
Similar research is being conducted in New York City. In early November the New York Botanical Garden hosted the symposium: The Changing Nature of Nature in Cities, to explore the concept of novel ecosystems, largely the result of urban development. Panelists discussed if these stigmatized areas of unrestrained growth could be used to safeguard against environmental changes, as well as engaging urban dwellers about the wonders nature can hold.
Emma Marris, an environmental journalist and author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, was a speaker at the symposium. In her more recent work, Marris has experimented with the concept of “small nature,” focusing on micro-details of urban settings in her blog Everyday Nature to show the vitality that urban ecosystems can have even in the age of manmade dominance over nature.
“Ecosystems even without human intervention are not static…novel ecosystems in the city can exist by the sides of roads, and on top of abandoned railway lines, take Philadelphia’s partially elevated railway, the Redding Viaduct: the spontaneous vegetation up there was fantastically diverse, the colors were gorgeous, I saw a woodchuck, butterflies, and lots of pollination, and exuberance,” Marris said.
“I feel like we are getting to a place culturally where people can see spontaneous vegetation on an elevated abandoned railroad, and we are having less and less problems seeing that as beautiful and wild, and I think we should capitalize on that aesthetic shift and realize that on some level we may have more wilderness here around us in New York City than someone who is living in the heart of Yellowstone,” she said at the New York Botanical Garden symposium.
Urban jungle may seem like a contradictory turn of phrase, especially in a place like New York City where the cacophony of traffic, horns, and dense foot traffic is constant. However for biologically trained naturalists like Leslie Day and Emma Marris, the parks and city streets of New York City are teeming with life. Recent “bioblitz” studies conducted by ecologists, conservationists, and biologists have proven that there can be great concentrations of biodiversity hiding within a city. Urban ecologists and researchers are attempting to remedy this disconnect by conducting studies which investigate the biodiversity of urban flora and fauna.
In 2013, the City University of New York, in collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy conducted a so-called “bioblitz” in an effort to catalogue the variety of species in Central Park. This was the first biodiversity study in a decade, attracting students and scientists alike who identified many long-time residents as well as new species in the 24-hour bio scavenger hunt. The Bullhead Catfish was found at the Harlem Meer, a new species for the lake. Snapping and Eastern Painted Turtles were spotted at Turtle Pond, and in the North Woods, twenty-three migratory bird species were counted.
“During a bioblitz of Central Park, me and some other ecology enthusiasts discovered a centipede, and not only is it the smallest centipede in the world, but it’s also only been seen in Central Park—we discovered a completely new species!” Day said.
In response to the discovery of the elusive catfish, Dr. Waldman, author of “Heartbeats in the Muck: the History, Sea Life and Environment of New York Harbor,” said “There are a lot of cryptic species under our noses, and sometimes we don’t notice them until we look,” he said. That’s the value of a bioblitz.” The 24-hour search was telling. There appeared to be species diversity as well as different age classes represented in vast numbers.
“You could take these ponds and put them in the Catskills and they wouldn’t be out of place. Considering where they are, these water bodies are quite impressive,” Waldman said.
Take New York City’s airy Highline Park in Chelsea: its planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that overtook much of the rail tracks after trains stopped running in the 1980s. The park today draws on these origins, including some 300 species of perennials, shrubs, grasses, and trees into the design, as well as some of the previous species, which were present before the remodel. According to the Highline’s Horticulture Coordinator, Andi Pettis, these species were all chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Since the park’s opening in 2009, millions of humans and non-humans alike have flocked to its walkways.
“When the park first opened, almost immediately the monarchs found us on their migration route south to Mexico, and we saw lots of butterflies and larvae,” said Pettis.
“Other wildlife too, we saw praying mantis’, aphids, and then of course the natural predators of aphids, so because the plant life is so diverse it really created habitat for a very diverse population of wildlife,” she said.
Like Central Park, the Highline is characterized as a “designer ecosystem,” a manmade system that could potentially perform better than purely natural systems, according to Marris.
“So the new thing here is maybe using the techniques of landscape architecture in places labeled as “nature” or “wilderness.” But it is all semantics, no? The plants and animals don’t know if they are in a park or and arboretum or a federal designated wilderness. They just live,” Marris said in an interview.
Eight miles uptown, at the northernmost part of the Manhattan, approximately 60 percent of the area is designated as parkland. “We attract so many birds because there is a cornucopia of food for them—so if they are fruit eaters or herbivores—there are tremendous amounts of berries and herbaceous plants for birds and all the insects that feed on them,” Day said.
“Unless invasive species—like the Porcelain Berry Vine—take over trees, most of these non-native plants are of value to species, since we built up this environment with concrete and pipes underneath, the plants that can survive are usually the ones that are the hardiest,” she said.
The Long Term Environmental Research Network sites in Baltimore, Maryland and Phoenix, Arizona have also been particularly fruitful in their research on urban ecosystems. In Baltimore, research indicates that levels of plant species diversity were similar among urban and rural areas. Suggesting that urban environments are not ecologically deserted places, but actually possess significant biodiversity.
In Phoenix similar research is being conducted by the citizen science initiative, Salt River Project, to monitor the conservation of the McDowell Mountain Preserve. The Salt River Project hopes that the data collected will inform management decisions for the large, popular, and growing urban park.
“There is a great hope in this city, and cities in general,” Day said. Cities in the past have been birthplaces for environmental movements. Maybe because of the extreme grimness and grayness at times, but I have seen that people in cities collectively feel that they have the power to do something,” she said.