Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Are cities creating new species of animals?
Recall the creation story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: four baby turtles living in the sewers of New York City come into contact with an unnatural-looking ooze. Pizza-eating and crime-fighting aside, these characters were something entirely new – a species of creature formed as a result of the (admittedly exaggerated) conditions of the city.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a fiction. But they're based on fact. The recent discovery of a new city-specific ant species in Manhattan proves it. As The New York Post reports, biologists have discovered a breed of ant living on traffic medians on Broadway between 63rd and 76th streets that's unlike any of the 13,000 known species of ants worldwide. It's a Manhattan-specific ant that the Post has inevitably referred to it as the "ManhattAnt."
It's not the first species discovery to take place in New York. A new breed of "sweat bee" was discovered in Prospect Park in 2010, and a new centipede species was discovered in Central Park in 2002.
Green radioactive ooze most likely isn't the reason these species developed, but mutation is a key part of speciation and evolution. Over long strings of generations, organisms adapt to conditions and environments, gradually mutating and becoming something different enough to be considered an entirely new species. Organisms respond to their environment, and it's probably fair to assume that the specific conditions of the city are the reasons these species formed the way they did.
That urban animals are different is not a particularly new idea. There's a growing field of science looking at urban wildlife such as birds and coyotes, though this work tends to focus on the effects of urban life on the animals' behavior. Synurbization, as it's known, is the process of animals adapting to their urban environments – be it through altered birdsong or changing hunting patterns. A much different question is how the urban environment affects the actual biology and evolutionary development of animals. The Manhattan ants are apparently one example of how the conditions of a city can have such an effect. [Of course there's also the possibility that this is just a species of ant that nobody had noticed before because no one was looking. But given that there are 13,000 known species of ants, it seems like there are probably enough people interested in ants to be on top of that sort of thing.]
This new species of ant – and the sweat bee and centipede before it – highlight the possibility that what has made these organisms different from all others is the city in which they live. It raises, I think, some important questions: What organisms will respond to the conditions of the city they're in? Will birds in Chicago evolve while those in Memphis don't? Will there develop a San Francisco ant as there has a Manhattan ant? And how will they be different?
Cities certainly have their own cultures. Maybe they have their own species, too.
Top image courtesy Flickr user alex_ford