EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, SHORT WAVErs. Emily Kwong here. This February, we are celebrating Black History Month on SHORT WAVE. All month long, as we do all year, we are honoring Black voices. Keep your ears open for a mix of new episodes and some of our favorite past conversations with Black scientists and researchers. Today, we start with an urban ecologist who wrote a book that she wishes had existed when she was a kid. Enjoy.
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It was 1 o'clock in the morning, and Cylita Guy was sitting at a picnic table in High Park in Toronto. A police officer wanted to know what she was doing, which wasn't going to be easy to explain.
CYLITA GUY: And as he's, you know, interrogating me and my field partner, asking us these questions, you know, my shirt starts to move 'cause I had this colony of, you know, 25 or so bats down there.
SOMMER: Cylita is an urban ecologist, someone who studies how plants and animals act in cities. For Cylita, that means catching bats, putting little radio collars on their backs to track them, and then, on cold nights, warming them back up so they can fly away, hence the shirt of writhing bats.
GUY: Finally, he - I guess he decided he wanted to address the elephant in the proverbial room, which was, you know, ma'am, your shirt is moving, to which point I said, you know, yes, Officer, I have 25 bats down there. They're warming back up. They're getting ready to fly. And he was like, OK, that's it. I've had enough. I'm going to leave. This is too much for me.
SOMMER: And did he walk away? Or what happened after that?
GUY: He backed away slowly. And then I think once he felt he was at a safe distance, he, like, spun around and, like, sped-walked back to his cruiser. It was a very interesting night.
SOMMER: And it was one of many nights Cylita spent chasing bats to find out where they spent their time, which she thought would be at the park.
GUY: Instead, what we found were bats preferred or were instead living in people's homes or, you know, on large trees on their property, so kind of unexpected.
SOMMER: Cylita says there's a hidden world of urban ecology, an entire ecosystem of animals that live in the cities humans build.
GUY: You know, around the world, there are a lot of species who are doing great in city landscapes. They actually do better in our cities than they do outside.
SOMMER: So today on the show, we talk to Cylita about the animals that love city life and why we need to understand how nature uses cities so we can design them to be better for all of us. I'm Lauren Sommer, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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SOMMER: Cylita Guy loves bats.
GUY: So the cutest bat, I think, has still got to be the Honduran white bat. They are all white, and they've got these, like, little yellow faces that almost kind of look like adorable little piglets - in my mind, at least. You should Google them. They're adorable.
SOMMER: And she says there's good reason to love them.
GUY: Bats have a critical role to play in our ecosystems. So they do a lot of good things for our planet and for us as humans, right? When they feed on insects, they act as free pest control for things like our crops and our farmers. Bats in tropical landscapes, they feed on pollen or nectar from plants, and so they're really important pollinators of a lot of plants in these tropical landscapes. They are a little creepy to some. I think that just comes from a - maybe a misunderstanding.
SOMMER: I talked to Cylita Guy about being an urban ecologist and writing about it in a children's book.
So, Cylita, I think a lot of us, we see pigeons and crows in cities, but we may not think of them as ecosystems, you know, the way we think of, like, a rainforest being an ecosystem. But it sounds like there really is this hidden world of animals that are actually thriving in cities, right?
GUY: Yeah. And that's part of why - so, you know, I spent a lot of time studying, you know, bats in the city that I'm from. And before I, you know, undertook this project, I think, like a lot of people, didn't really pay attention to all the wildlife - the plants, the animals, the insects - that I share our cities with. And it wasn't until I started doing work in urban ecology that I was like, wow, our cities are really wild places.
SOMMER: Yeah. And so being an urban ecologist - I mean, ecologists - you know, we have this image sometimes of, you know, people, like, hiking in the remote wilderness to study animals.
GUY: Yup, yup.
SOMMER: So urban ecologist - it's still an ecologist in the city, right?
GUY: Yeah. We are asking the same type of questions about, you know, the species that we share our planet with. We're still studying the interactions between species. We're just doing it in a slightly different landscape than we might imagine.
SOMMER: Yeah. So you wrote about bats and a bunch of other animals in your children's book. It's called "Chasing Bats And Tracking Rats: Urban Ecology, Community Science, And How We Share Our Cities." One of the cool stories has to do with a ratmobile, a scientist who drives around in this mobile rat lab. And she was trying to figure out how to track these rat networks, which really actually sounds hard, right? Like, how did she do that?
GUY: Yeah. Yeah. So the trick with, again, studying rats in cities - and this is the case for studying a lot of wildlife in cities. You know, rats spend a lot of time underground. And so if we think about something like putting a GPS tag on them, well, often they rip those GPS tags off themselves by kind of ramming it repeatedly against, you know, a pipe or a small area that they're trying to fit through. And if you think about something like what I would use, a radio transmitter, those signals don't transmit from underground. So a bit of a challenge. The methods that we might use, again, out in the wild, where there's no interference from anything else - much harder to use those methods in cities.
And so Dr. Kaylee Byers, who, you know, is the owner of the ratmobile, the one who tracks these rats throughout Vancouver, she opted to use genetics instead to understand how these rats were moving in our city landscapes.
SOMMER: So what did she find in terms of how rats are moving around cities? Like, what are they doing?
GUY: So they don't move as far as we might think. They often stay within the city block that they are born in. In cities, we have these barriers that limit animal movement. If you think about crossing even a four-lane street - right? - as humans, we need crosswalks. We have stoplights. And so a barrier like that is very, very hard for an animal to make that journey.
SOMMER: As humans know, being in a city has big challenges, right? There is traffic. There's pollution. There are things that we know are not great for human health. And so is that something that actually affects the animals that live there, too?
GUY: Absolutely. So living alongside humans is stressful, right? We generate a lot of noise. We generate pollution. And so that does impact, you know, animal health as well. And there are lots of really cool scientists in many places in the world that are understanding how, you know, interacting with humans is stressing out species that live in cities, but also how doing things like eating our garbage or us, you know, feeding the wildlife, how that is kind of wreaking havoc on their health as well. If you think about something like a raccoon or a pigeon that's often going through the garbage, that's not good for them. And, you know, there are people around the world trying to understand how that impacts their health.
SOMMER: Yeah. And you write about the science of urban ecology, but you really focus on the scientists that are doing the work - you know, how they do it, you know, what they're puzzling through and their challenges and their failures. I mean, was it important to you to show that?
GUY: So it was. And, you know, part of writing this book in the way that I opted to is I wrote a book that I wish I had had when I was a kid. I think there are lots of children's nonfiction books about science, and they give us some really cool facts - especially, you know, books about nature. It's like, these are really cool - these are really dope facts about wildlife and things on the planet. But, you know, one of the questions that I always had when I was a kid was I'm like, this is great, but, like, how? How do we know these things? How do we find out these things? And it wasn't really until I went to university, until I went to grad school that I was exposed to this process of how we do science.
And so I wanted to write a book that showcased the process of science because I think that's really important, but also maybe showcase some of the people who we don't often think of as studying nature. You know, when I was choosing scientists to put in this book, there were no shortage of, you know, scientists of color to feature. There were no shortage of female scientists to feature. So that was something that's really important to me.
SOMMER: Yeah. And you also cover how, you know, being a scientist of color actually can affect being in the field, who you experience in the field, the data...
SOMMER: ...That actually gets gathered in the field. Yeah, how is - how do you see that play out?
GUY: Yeah. So, I mean, I have some personal experience with this. So I am a Black woman. One of my research assistants at the time, he was a Black man. And we found that we always had a much harder time with the police when it was the two of us working together. So if it was me and our post-doc, who is, you know, not Black - she's a white woman - they would come, ask us their questions, be like, OK, this is cool. Peace. We're out. Thanks for explaining it to us. And any time it was he and I, there - it took us much longer to get to that.
And I think, you know, it also plays out in particular in urban ecology. You know, a lot of the data that we often use is what I like to think of as, like, crowdsourced data. So we get everyday people helping us to collect data in their local neighborhoods - generally, you know, white, more affluent people going out there, learning about the nature in their city, which is great. They may not evenly kind of sample the environment. They may stick to the areas that they are familiar with. And so it also leads to gaps in our data and where that data is collected.
SOMMER: And in many cities, you know, lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color, it's well-documented, have less access to green space. But as a result, the biodiversity is lower there, and it's almost like a biodiversity kind of deficit in those neighborhoods then.
GUY: Yeah. And that's a problem, right? And there are a lot of scientists working on kind of the unfair distribution of nature and how a lot of, you know, longer-term policy in cities has influenced that. So now we can change it, and we need to change it. It's good motivation to make sure that we change our cities and design them into the future in a way that everyone has equal access to nature, no matter where they live.
SOMMER: Why do you think it's important that ecology and ecologists focus on urban areas maybe more than they have?
GUY: I - you know, I think urban areas are this important area to focus on because they are continually growing, right? Our cities aren't going away anytime soon. It's really essential that we understand how we can safely make space for nature in the cities because we know that having that nature around just leads to healthier ecosystems. It's better for our planet, and it's better for us, you know, as humans, right? Nature makes us not only healthier, but also just happier. And so I think continuing to ask questions about, you know, what do species need to survive in cities and how can we use that knowledge to design greener cities into the future is just going to be more and more important as our cities continue to grow into the future.
SOMMER: So for those of us who do live in cities, you know, what can we do, or maybe not do, to kind of support those ecosystems and those animals?
GUY: Yeah. I mean, that's always the question because there are so many individual actions we can take. I think the thing that I want to leave people with is, you know, one of the best things that you can do, especially to start, is to just go outside and take a walk and start to look for some of that nature that you share that city with, no matter how small it may be. It could be ants in the ground. It could be noticing that, you know, the tree in front of your school or your office building or wherever you are is slightly different from one a little further away. I think just, you know, get outside, do some exploring, learn what you share your city with and then see if you've got local programs in your community that are already working to try to protect and conserve some of that local nature.
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SOMMER: Cylita Guy is an ecologist, data scientist and author of the children's book "Chasing Bats And Tracking Rats: Urban Ecology, Community Science, And How We Share Our Cities." Cylita, thanks so much for coming on SHORT WAVE.
GUY: Thank you for having me, Lauren.
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SOMMER: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy, edited by Stephanie O'Neill and fact-checked by Katherine Sypher. The audio engineer for this episode was Patrick Murray. I'm Lauren Sommer. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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