Uncovering the hidden diversity of species in urban areas | Urban Nature Project

Over the past year, the Natural History Museum’s Urban Nature Project team have been working together on a project funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Thanks to money from National Lottery players, we’ve been able to develop and test cutting-edge scientific tools and methods that will help study the natural world in new ways and transform our understanding of urban wildlife across the UK.

In this blog, the Museum’s UK Biodiversity Officer Sam Thomas talks about how we have been working with partners across the UK to better understand and protect urban nature.

Sam explains, ‘The UK’s urban nature is facing greater threats than ever before, from climate change to ever-increasing urbanisation, and so it’s vital that we find ways to protect urban wildlife before it’s too late. The scientific research we have started as part of the Urban Nature Project is going to help urban wildlife not only at the Museum, but right across the UK at this particularly challenging time.

‘All around towns and cities, from within the cracks between pavements, the gutters in streets to the parks, woodlands and rivers, there is a hidden diversity of species just waiting to be found. We have been developing amazing new technologies and techniques to peer into these hidden worlds.

‘To do this we have been using cutting-edge science to look at environmental DNA (eDNA) This is the unique fingerprints species leave behind as they move through their environment, from the biggest fish to the smallest worm.

‘Together with traditional wildlife surveys and other exciting new methods such as acoustic monitoring [recording and analysing the sounds in a habitat], this allows us to discover and monitor the extraordinary range of wildlife living in urban areas – from the large and obvious such as birds, mammals, and butterflies to the tiny and often underappreciated such as flies, nematodes, and mites.

Biodiversity officer Sam shows us how he is studying the garden as part of his Urban Nature Project research

‘All these different species play incredibly important roles in our towns and cities, by making them healthy and enjoyable places to live. By understanding where these species live, we move one step closer towards protecting them and safeguarding their future.

Setting up study sites across the UK

‘The gardens at the Natural History Museum are already an amazing place for nature, but one that is going to become even better over the next few years as we increase the area of some existing habitats and create entirely new ones as part of the wider gardens transformation.

‘We have been using the Museum gardens as our main study site for the last few years and we’ll be continuing to study our gardens going forward.  But in addition to this we will also be working alongside four other Real World Science partner sites in Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle and Belfast to establish a network of study sites across the UK. Working with partners like these is important if we want to ensure that the scientific tools we’re developing work for all different people, from experts to amateurs, and are relevant to all urban natural habitats up and down the country.’

A tray of clear tubes is in front of a blue background. In the tubes, the legs, wings and other pieces of insects floating in liquid can be seen.
DNA can be used to build up a detailed picture of an environment including many species which are often overlooked, such as invertebrates, bacteria and fungi

Thanks to National Lottery players and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, we’ve been able to develop and share these important new scientific tools, which we hope will make a positive difference to people and nature in urban environments.

Next steps

At present, our understanding of urban biodiversity is often based on a small number of obvious species. The new methods we are developing are helping us uncover a previously hidden richness of life in urban areas. In our own gardens we have discovered an amazing diversity of creatures living in our soils that we are only just beginning to understand and appreciate.

We look forward to making many more exciting discoveries and sharing our scientific research with others who study and protect urban nature in the next phase of the project, making a real difference for nature in our towns and cities. 

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