Life Thrives in Strange Places: 14 Urban Ecosystems


Boars wreaking havoc in urban Berlin, dogs riding the subway in Moscow, a species of mosquitoes that only lives in man-made underground spaces and snakes that make their way up into our toilets – all of these creatures and more have adapted to human encroachment in surprising (and sometimes terrifying!) ways. These 14 unique urban and man-made ecosystems – including two of the most insane human communities of modern times – shed light on how we affect the natural world for better or worse.

Metro Dogs in Moscow


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Not only do dogs ride the subways in Moscow, stretching out across a row of seats while amused passengers smile down at them, they have adapted to their unusual urban habitat by developing new survival tactics. An astounding 35,000 stray dogs have actually figured out how to get from point A to point B, getting on and off at their favorite stops. Surviving off scraps, the dogs have realized which techniques are best at securing food, including sending off the youngest, cutest member of the pack to beg or barking loudly at a human holding food, hoping (often successfully) that they’ll drop it on the ground.

Microbes in the Gowanus Canal


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The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is a sickening sight, full of chemical sludge and such odd and disturbing ‘wildlife’ as discarded medical supplies, raw sewage, debris from scrap metal yards and various specimens of unidentifiable refuse. Now a Superfund site, the canal is home to fish that are too contaminated to eat (though it’s amazing that anything can live in that water at all). But there’s a silver lining to the stench and mess: the canal has become something like a huge petri dish for microbes that could hold the key to combating heart disease, AIDS and other health ailments. Two New York biologists found ‘white gunk’, a combination of bacteria, microbes and chemicals, under the canal bed that could form the basis of new antibiotics.

Chernobyl Reclaimed by Animals


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First a bustling urban home to humans, then an abandoned wasteland in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the town of Pripyat, Ukraine is now rapidly becoming a sanctuary for plants and animals. A documentary entitled ‘Chernobyl Reclaimed: An Animal Takeover‘ captured some the creatures that have come to call the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone home in the absence of people. Animals spotted there include wolves, wild boar, deer, moose and beavers. It’s not all paradise, however; although most mutations may not be obvious to our eyes, scientists say that radiation continues to affect the species that remain within the zone.

Berlin’s Wild Boars


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Thousands of wild boars have come to call the streets of the busy German city of Berlin home. Thanks to increasingly mild winters, plenty of wooded parks and gardens full of grubs, the boars have found the city to be more than hospitable, a preference which has unfortunately led to hundreds of car accidents, not to mention property damage. In addition to the dangers they face from the boars, which can weigh 250 pounds and sport sharp curved tusks, forestry officials charged with killing nuisance animals have to contend with angry animal rights activists who don’t want the boars to be harmed. Up to 7,000 boars now live in the city.

“There is no way that hunting can get rid of them all,” biologist Derk Ehlert told The Wall Street Journal. “Ultimately we must learn to share the city with the swine.”

Hemingway’s Cats, Key West, Florida


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Visitors to Ernst Hemingway’s estate in Key West, Florida, now a museum, will notice something peculiar: dozens and dozens of cats roaming the fenced property. And these aren’t just any cats – they’re descendents of the famous writer’s own six-toed ship cat that have interbred extensively, carrying on the unusual trait of polydactylism. This genetic defect, which is characterized by extra toes, is also commonly found in America’s Northeast and in Southwest England.

Cape Town Penguins


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Cape Town’s famous penguins frolic on Boulder Beach,  bathing and playing to the delight of human swimmers and sunbathers. This colony started with just a single pair, first spotted in 1983, which began to lay two years later. By 1997, thanks to both reproduction and immigration, there were 2,350 adult birds. However cute these critters may be, nearby residents weren’t too happy when the penguins began invading their gardens, making loud noises and pooping all over the streets and sidewalks. The beach has since been taken over by Cape Peninsula National Park to keep the penguins fenced in and away from urban settings.

People Packed in Kowloon Walled City


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One of the most extraordinary human habitats ever produced was Kowloon Walled City, originally built as a watchpost to protect the area against pirates during British rule, occupied by the Japanese during WWII and taken over by squatters after Japan’s surrender. Located outside Hong Kong, Kowloon became an insanely compacted, lawless, unclaimed city full of labyrinthine passages and towers that extended so high into the air that sunlight couldn’t reach the lower levels.  Within 6.5 acres, the city’s population grew to at least 33,000 by 1987. Residents were evicted and the city was demolished by the Hong Kong Housing Authority in 1993. The area where it once stood is now the Kowloon Walled City Park, where artifacts are displayed, including inscribed stones and old wells.

Urban Monkeys in Malaysia


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It’s not the fault of the monkeys in Malaysia that they’re now city dwellers, dangling from power lines, begging tourists for food and potentially spreading disease to humans. They’ve been forced out of their natural forest habitat by urban development. About 250,000 of Malaysia’s 700,000 monkeys, mostly macaques and leaf monkeys, live in towns and cities amongst humans. Veterinary experts warn that they carry blood parasites, herpes, malaria and dengue and could transmit these diseases to people.

Toilet Snakes Around the World


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Rationally, you can say that snakes can’t possibly live in sewer systems, ready to pop up out of the toilet when you’re at your most vulnerable. But tell that to the many people around the world to whom this has actually happened. While ‘sewer gators’ may be entirely the stuff of urban legend, snake-in-the-toilet stories are all too real, and usually result from pets or wild snakes making their way into plumbing systems. In 2007, a Brooklyn woman was shocked to find a 7-foot python in her toilet, while a Bronx man found a 3-foot corn snake coiled atop his own toilet last fall. In India, snakes in the toilet seem to be a common occurrence. While people usually aren’t harmed by these encounters, a Jacksonville, Florida woman wasn’t so lucky. One night in 2005, she lifted up the lid to her toilet and was immediately bitten by a deadly water moccasin with a head “three fingers wide”. As the woman was rushed off to the hospital, the snake got away, and the family still fears running into it in the dark.

Lonely Bacteria in a South Africa Gold Mine


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Two miles beneath the surface of the earth in fluid-filled cracks of the Mponeng goldmine in South Africa, a species of bacteria exists far beyond the reach of oxygen and sunlight. Scientists believe that the discovery of Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, a new species, could hold clues about alien life. Amazingly, this species – which lives all by itself in a place where nothing else can survive – extracts everything it needs from an otherwise dead environment, getting its energy from the radioactive decay of uranium in the rocks.

“One question that has arisen when considering the capacity of other planets to support life is whether organisms can exist independently, without access even to the Sun,” says astrobiologist Dylan Chivian. “The answer is yes and here’s the proof. It’s philosophically exciting to know that everything necessary for life can be packed into a single genome.”

South Africa’s Baboons


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Baboons are finding themselves bulldozed out of house and home by the rampant expansion of Cape Town, South Africa’s suburbs, so is it any surprise that they’ve chosen to make their home in these newly urbanized environments? 400 urban baboons have been cut off from other troops by human activity, and as a result, male baboons in charge of finding food and breeding partners are growing more aggressive. Local wildlife managers have turned to a ‘three strikes, you’re out’ tactic for misbehaving baboons, euthanizing repeat troublemakers. The baboons have begun breaking into homes and restaurants, but animal activists say that peaceful coexistence is possible, portraying the so-called pests as ‘tremendous recyclers of what we humans casually discard.’

Mosquitoes of the London Underground


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You’re not just imagining it – the mosquitoes that bite you while you’re waiting for the subway really are more vicious than those above ground. In fact, they’re likely to be a different species altogether – a species that evolved to live in man-made underground environments. The London Underground mosquito, which is found around the world, is thought to have evolved recently from the overground species Culex pipiens, and as opposed to that species, C.p. molestus is cold-intolerant and bites rats, mice and humans. It is believed that old tires carrying larvae may have introduced the population that spawned the new species.

Brazil’s Marmosets


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The adorable urban marmosets of Brazil, which have adapted to life in the nation’s developed areas, has learned a nifty trick to escape the cats that try to catch them. Unlike their jungle counterparts, these marmosets choose a favorite tree and return to it each and every night – because their favored trees either have limbs to high off the ground or smooth bark, so that cats can’t climb up. This behavior was noted by researchers in marmosets at the Belo Horizonte City Park in Minas Gerais, which is also home to about 115 domestic cats. Like the cats, many of these marmosets may be the descendents of former pets that were dumped in the park.

Medina Zabbaleen, Egypt’s Trash City


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Can you imagine living in a city where trash is stacked on absolutely every available surface, from streets and rooftops to the floors and tables of homes? Medina Zabbaleen isn’t so full of trash because the people don’t know what to do with it; rather, they’re a highly efficient community of trash collectors and recyclers, taking unwanted refuse off the hands of wealthier people in Cairo and bringing it back to their own city where they sort it and recycle as much as 80 percent of it (including feeding all of the food scraps to their pigs, which then provide meat – smart!).The city was featured in the award-winning 2009 documentary, ‘Garbage Dreams‘.