Wherefore and Whither the Non-urban Areas?

 Posted by: Brian C. Verrelli, Virginia Commonwealth University, USA

The esteemed evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyma once famously wondered “Wherefore and whither the naturalist?”  in pondering the role of naturalists and the future of natural history studies. It is hard to imagine one without the other. I could not help but think something similar in recently reading about the documented impact of climate change in the U.S. National Park system. Specifically, it appears that temperatures in National Park lands have increased at a rate that is twofold that seen in the rest of the nation. The areas hit the hardest are in the higher elevations of the west, southwest, and into Alaska, where it’s not only become significantly hotter, but drier. With respect to the future of urban evolution studies, it left me pondering: “wherefore and whither the non-urban areas?”

As urbanization has some of the greatest impacts in the U.S. southwest deserts where the “heat island” effect is most intense, it’s hard not to draw a link between the rate of urbanization and the rate of temperature increases in National Parks. Most urban evolutionary biologists and ecologists are focused on the adaptive and non-adaptive responses local flora and fauna have in urbanized areas. Yet, in doing so, a major point of contrast is the identification of “non-urban” areas. Without these non-urban areas in our samples, we have very little understanding of what, when, where, and how these organisms have been impacted in urban areas. To be blunt: non-urban areas are hypothesized to reflect environments not impacted by urbanization. However, if our National Park areas, many which we come to think are the most protected and “pristine” areas left, are showing effects of urbanization on scales that are greater than almost anywhere else, how does this affect our assumptions of what “non-urban” areas constitute?

One of the great challenges of the field of urban evolutionary biology and ecology is to understand whether urban areas act as replicates in driving organismal change. In this respect, this recent study of National Parks only reinforces the idea that we need to also understand whether “non-urban” areas act as replicates if we are to understand evolution in urban areas.

Photo: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, photo credit B.C. Verrelli

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