The Anthropophiles

Some animals have learned to live and even thrive alongside the greatest ecosystem engineers on the planet. In Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen tells some their stories. On the basis of the non-ant animals that live inside ant colonies, called myrmecophiles as a group, Schilthuizen uses the term anthropophiles for those animals that adapt to our colonies/hives, or cities. It is a thrilling story, very well told. Evolution is, after all, “the greatest show on earth” (as Richard Dawkins put it in one of his less jerky moments).

Real-time evolution. By real time, I mean observable in human life-spans. The Grants in the Galapagos, measuring finch beaks through drought and famine, are one of the paradigms of this, but Schilthuizen is on the urban beat. Of course, as he points out, cities are very much like islands, isolating and fragmenting populations into genetically separate sub-species and even species. Just consider the challenges these creatures (yes, including us!) face: heavy metals and other poisons, fast cars, light pollution, noise, junk food, stress, heat island-effects, habitat destruction.

Urban birds have learned/developed to sing so they can be heard in the urban cacophony. Urban fish can tolerate heavy metals to a much greater extent than non-urban fish. Seaside plants are spreading inland because they can tolerate roadsides sprayed with salt all winter. Urban mammals can handle a higher-fat diet. And of course you know that Rock Doves are geniuses compared to their country cousins. (The country and the city mouse are really things.)If you’re like me, a non-biologist, you probably grew up learning what Darwin thought: evolution happened over long periods. But ever since D, humans have been following things like the peppered moth; mosquitos in the London Underground; Starlings in the Americas; Cliff Swallows at their highway overpasses; Hawksbeards; Anolis lizards (there are 500 and counting species in this amazingly adaptive genus); Cichlids; Eurasian Blackbirds…

I’m only skimming the surface of this excellent book. Read it. The world is becoming increasingly urban (here in the U.S., however, our politics remain hostage to the non-urban) so this is the shape of the future. 

1 Response to “The Anthropophiles”

  1. 1 Sherry Felix August 13, 2018 at 7:51 am

    Thanks for the tip. I’ve added this to my reading list.

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