Call it a Comeback: Wild Animals Take Over NYC

by Chris Mather, contributor

ANIMAL ALERT: Wild coyotes spotted in Manhattan! Deer population exploding on Staten Island! Hawks attacking Brooklyn residents! Parasite-infested dolphins in the Gowanus Canal! Sharks riding the N train!

By the headlines, you might think our beloved city is being taken over by wildlife. And you’d be half-right. The evidence:

But train-hopping marine life aside, this “invasion” isn’t all that strange. Take whales and dolphins, for instance: their migratory patterns take them just up the coast so it’s not terribly strange for them to wander into our brackish waters. This, especially, now that their numbers are finally rebounding after being over-hunted for a century. Or deer, who became scarce only within the last few hundred years and were abundant in all five boroughs before their habitat was cut down for firewood. Even birds of prey are reclaiming their perches after living in exile and years on the endangered species list. In a lot of ways we might not want to call this an invasion: we should probably call this a “comeback”.

Which begs the question: a comeback from what? What did Manhattan look like before it was overtaken by humans, asphalt avenues and concrete-and-glass towers? For their “Welikia Project”, a team of researchers led by Dr. Eric Sanderson investigated just that.

What they came up with is a remarkable interactive experience that shows you how Manhattan looked in 1609, before it became a city. Exploring block-by-block, users can see what kind of vegetation and animals most likely lived in their area, whether the block was on a hill or in a valley, and a whole bunch of other fascinating data.

Here at THIRTEEN, what is now a fifty-story office building was in 1609 a relatively isolated, tree-covered knoll populated primarily by rodents (some things don’t change, eh?). Meadow voles, mice (both white-footed and deer), squirrels (both southern flying and gray), and masked shrews all called our spot in Hell’s Kitchen home. Black bears and gray wolves patrolled the woods and bats, hawks and crows ruled the skies.

Midtown Manhattan in 1609

A visualization of midtown Manhattan in 1609, as recreated by Eric Sanderson and his team for the Welikia Project.

But what about those coyotes? They’re the real oddballs here: while some speculate they may have existed in this area before being pushed out by humans, the consensus seems to be that coyotes in New York City are a completely new thing. In fact, humans may be the reason that coyotes have shown up on our doorsteps. Coyotes are extremely opportunistic and seem to have made their way to the northeast as other top predators have been pushed out. Along the way they’ve picked up some wolf DNA through interbreeding — so much so that there is an informally recognized hybrid species called “coywolf“.

As much as 40% bigger than regular coyotes, coywolves are a genetic mix of coyote and either gray, red or eastern wolf. They’ve arrived in New York City by way of Canada and other points east- and northward. So, technically, we’re back where we started: an invasion! But it’s not all bad news. Experts think that an increase in coyotes, who bring with them a healthy protein appetite, may help curb a population problem that’s existed since (at least) 1609: those pesky rodents.

So what have we learned? Wild animals in urban areas represent a comeback, except when they don’t. But even when new species “invade” our cities, it’s possible — and maybe imperative — for us to co-exist. Maybe in the future we’ll see as much green as gray in our cities. It might look a little something like this:

New York City in 2409

From Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta Project, a vision of New York City in 2409

Earth: A New Wild airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.