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Why house sparrows can eat starch: the evolution of city wildlife

A painting of a house sparrow.
Louis Agassiz Fuertes/USFWS
A painting of a house sparrow.

The creatures that live with us in cities – things like spiders, owls, lizards and mice – are evolving over time.

A new set of studies in a special issueof the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B looks at all kinds of organisms that thrive in cities and how city life affects the ways they evolve.

Ruth Rivkin is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and a guest editor of the issue.

“This is really the first accumulation of articles that looks at adaptation happening in cities. We’ve had a few examples previously, but this is the first evidence of what we call convergent adaptive evolution, in a huge array of species, to cities," she says.

Rivkin says the studies show several species' DNA structure, or genomes, have evolved in response to specifically living in cities. 

She says scientists have also discovered that living with people can lead to creatures evolving in novel ways.

"We have one neat studyin this special feature by Dr. Mark Ravinet that looks at house sparrows and how they have evolved," says Rivkin. "He’s essentially shown that because they’ve been living among humans for so long – about 11,000 years – they’ve been able to completely separate from other sparrow species, like Italian sparrows or Spanish sparrows, and he’s shown that they’ve evolved to have increased starch tolerance, so they’re able to consume human-related foods, like wheat, for example."

You can listen to the interview with Ruth Rivkin above.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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