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Ecologists' new lab: the asphalt jungle

By Michelle NijhuisSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2003



SEATTLE

Most wildlife biologists choose to work in wilderness areas and other pristine getaways. Not so John Marzluff. A professor at the University of Washington at Seattle, Dr. Marzluff spends his time chasing crows across the green lawns of the city's subdivisions.

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Unlike most wild creatures, the resourceful crow thrives on suburban castoffs, and the local crow population has expanded along with the city's housing developments. In the past 20 years, the number of crows has grown tenfold.

Marzluff and his students are studying the behavior of these urban crows and other, less resilient birds, figuring out how each species gets by. By sharing this data with local planners, they hope to preserve Seattle's disappearing biodiversity.

"We can't just set aside habitat," Marz-luff says. "We need to set aside functional habitat."

Urban biologists deal with complex questions, and they do not work alone. They must enlist the help of economists, sociologists, planners, and experts on human behavior. In the University of Washington's urban ecology program, Marzluff and a diverse group of researchers are combining their skills - and trying to understand and protect urban ecosystems.

Caution: Merging disciplines

Marzluff has studied crows and ravens in Arizona, Maine, Idaho, Hawaii, and Guam, but he had never lived in an urban area before he moved to Seattle. When he arrived at the University of Washington in 1997, he was struck by the immense wave of development that surrounded him.

"The amount of disturbance we create where we live makes all the other environmental issues pale in comparison," Marzluff says. Few biologists were interested in studying urban wildlife, so he looked for like-minded researchers in other departments.

By the next year, a half-dozen other faculty members had secured university funding to start the urban ecology program. In 1999, they were awarded a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The five-year grant, designed to encourage interdisciplinary work, provided funding for 10 to 20 PhD students each year - a "huge army of people," to Marzluff - and gave professors time to collaborate on research projects.

For the professors, who have spent decades immersed in the particular cultures of their own disciplines, working together hasn't always been easy.

Both faculty and students must meet regularly with Myan Baker, a consultant for the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education, who helps the group develop a common language across their disciplines.

Students must complete an inter- disciplinary group project as part of their thesis or dissertation. Such training, Marzluff says, gives his students interpersonal skills he was never taught in graduate school: "I've learned to be much more respectful of other disciplines."

Real-world problems

Josh Newell, who received his master's degree from the Urban Ecology program and is now starting on his PhD, has already had experience with different disciplines. During the decade he spent living and working in Tokyo for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, he says, "I was working with all sorts of specialists and getting them to talk to one another. I started to think that was the way to address environmental problems - you have to bridge those boundaries."

Mr. Newell's master's project examined the environmental effects of urban-growth boundaries, perhaps the most controversial planning tool in the Seattle area. He'll share his results with state biologists and local government officials - some of the same people who helped him develop his initial research questions. Such give-and-take is typical of the Urban Ecology program. "We want to make sure that our work is immediately applicable to their needs," Marzluff says.

This approach is helping to answer some longstanding conservation questions. For example, though Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife has spent decades encouraging residents to make their yards wildlife-friendly, the agency never analyzed the results of its efforts. Now, a group of Urban Ecology undergraduates is studying the program.

The University of Washington program is unusual, but it isn't unique.

The National Science Foundation funds two long-term urban ecology research sites - in Baltimore and Phoenix - and each has attracted a variety of natural and social scientists. At the University of Southern California, the interdisciplinary Sustainable Cities program uses the city of Los Angeles as its laboratory.

Tessa Francis, a doctoral candidate in the urban ecology program in Seattle, predicts that these programs will only become more and more popular. "The world is getting more impacted, not less," Ms. Francis says. "The future of ecology is not in pristine environments. So I feel a little bit ahead of the game. I even feel like I might be more employable when I graduate."

Timothy Quinn, chief habitat scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, puts it more bluntly:

"In the future, we're all going to be urban biologists."

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