How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

Lizards in Puerto Rico are evolving feet that better grip concrete surfaces. In New York City parks, white-footed mice carry genes for heavy metal tolerance. Europe’s urban blackbirds sing at a higher pitch than their rural cousins to be heard over the din of traffic.

What’s going on here? Evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen says manmade environments—cities, like Philadelphia—are accelerating and changing the evolution of animals and plants around us. He’s just published a book—Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution on this new field of urban ecology and will discuss his fascinating findings in conversation with WHYY’s The Pulse Host Maiken Scott at an Academy Town Square on Wednesday, April 11.

On April 1, he discussed his latest findings on CBS This Morning.

In his new book, Menno Schilthuizen argues that cities are changing the evolution of the plants and animals that live there. He will describe his findings at the free April 11 Academy Town Square.

The event is free and takes place at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Cash bar opens at 5:30 p.m. and the informal discussion begins at 6:30 p.m. Academy entomologist and urban ecologist Isa Betancourt will contribute insights into what’s happening in Philly based on her ongoing Logan Square Fountain insect survey.

After the program, Schilthuizen will sign copies of his book, and Betancourt will display insect specimens she collected in the fountain. To register, visit

Schilthuizen (MEN-no SKILT-how-sen), a senior research scientist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands and professor of evolutionary biology at Leiden University, is one of a growing number of urban ecologists studying how flexible and swift-moving natural selection can be. With human populations growing, people are having an increasing impact on global ecosystems, and nowhere do these impacts overlap as much as they do in cities, Schilthuizen has found.

In cities, wild animals and plants live side-by-side with people and need to adapt to a range of challenging conditions: hotter climate; the semi-desert of the tall; mini-parks which pose their own dangers of smog and free-ranging dogs and cats; traffic noise; barriers to movement for any animal that cannot fly or burrow; food sources left by people.

And yet, as Schilthuizen shows in his book, the wildlife sharing these spaces with us is not just surviving, but evolving ways of thriving.

The Academy Town Square series is designed to engage and provide relevant educational content to the public on environmental issues. The series is made possible by Warren Environmental Counsel.

The Pulse tells stories at the heart of health, science and innovation. Go on an adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with award-winning host Maiken Scott. New episodes of The Pulse are available every week on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Post by Carolyn Belardo

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