Synanthropes

The 15 November 2021 New Yorker contains an article about the deer population on Staten Island, the problems these deer create and the attempts to control their numbers. For the first time I paid attention to a word I had seen before, but ignored – synanthropes.

A synanthrope is an undomesticated organism that has adapted to live in close association with humans and their artificial environments and presumably benefits from human activity. Although usually applied to animals, synanthropes can also be plants and insects. The word is based on the Greek “syn” meaning together with and “anthropos” meaning man. Livestock and pets are not considered synanthropes.

Examples of synanthropes include pigeons, opossums, coyotes, rats, wild turkeys, Canada geese, crows and the deer of the magazine article, among others. Humans, either intentionally or unintentionally, provide food for these animals through direct feeding or through trash and garbage. Nests and shelter are found in, on and around buildings and other structures.

Some urban and suburban populations of animals are evolving and adapting to human habitats and often live at greater densities and achieve larger body sizes in association with humans than their wild counterparts. Mice have developed genes that permit them to metabolize fatty foods. Some birds have learned to line their nests with cigarette butts, whose residual nicotine discourages mites. Certain lizards are better able to climb concrete and glass buildings because their toes are becoming more “grippy”. Mountain lions near Seattle have even shifted their prey from large mammals such as deer to other “urban” species such as rats and raccoons.

Synanthropes, especially those, like deer, that evoke conflicting human emotions such as joy in seeing them yet frustration at the damage they can do to ornamental landscaping, when involved in vehicular accidents and as vectors of diseases such as Lyme disease, are difficult to control. Some want synanthropes totally culled or relocated, others want them left alone while others encourage methods of controlling population numbers.No matter what the suggested “solution”, emotions run high.

As more and more of the world’s natural spaces are being converted into human ones, biodiversity is decreasing and eventually we may not have wild flora and fauna but only synanthrope species that can live around humans in urban and suburban environments.

The pictured coyote and Columbia blacktail (mule deer), both synanthropes, were photographed at our ranch near Lookout CA (Modoc County).

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