I am particularly interested in the effects of urbanization, which is among the fastest growing and most radical habitat-alteration processes worldwide, producing extreme changes in microclimatic conditions, habitat structure, community composition and species interactions. My main aim is to study how urbanization influences large-scale patterns of urban biodiversity, investigate to what extent these are consistent across taxa and environmental settings and different from non-urban patterns, and explore the mechanisms that drive them.
Some research topics I am currently pursuing are:
Global patterns of urban biodiversity
I am compiling a comprehensive global database of urban tetrapod biodiversity based on available large-scale online databases (the largest of which is GBIF), and the primary and gray literature. The questions I am generally trying to answer are whether at a biome, continental and global scales we find:
- Urban community simplifications
- Urban biotic homogenizations
- Latitudinal urban species richness gradients
- Latitudinal urban β-diversity gradients
- Urban niche-breadth gradients
Urban island-like systems
As I wrote in this paper (Itescu 2019) I find it fascinating to investigate to what extent island-like systems really are “insular”. Urban areas are especially interesting in this context because they can be viewed both as “islands” forming an archipelago of cities in a non-urban “sea”, or as archipelagos of focal isolated habitats (e.g., urban parks, cemeteries, natural patches, etc.) within them. I am, therefore, collecting distribution and trait data to test some well-known hypotheses and compare the patterns between islands, whole cities and habitats within cities:
- The species-area and species-isolation relationship
- The island syndrome
The influence of human culture and religion on urban biodiversity
Culture, religion, and local traditions have a great influence on the shape and composition of urban areas. I am trying to understand whether large-scale generalities exist in the way urban biodiversity is affected by culturally- and religion-driven urban characteristics. Me and Dr. Tanja Straka are now starting to study the question of how religious world-views shape biodiversity in cemeteries and the ecosystem services provided to visitors in the cemeteries of Berlin by combining biodiversity sampling in the field and social science tools (surveys, interviews).
Urban sacred sites as biodiversity conservation hubs
Urban ‘green’ spaces are thought to be local conservation hubs. Among these, urban sacred sites (cemeteries, churchyards, temple gardens, etc.) might be especially important in this regard. I investigate, globally, whether the biota in urban sacred sites is more diverse and includes higher proportions of native species than other urban and non-urban adjacent sites. I further examine whether urban sacred sites serve as shelters for rare or endangered species. To understand the patterns better I am also investigating how they are affected by site characteristics (e.g., site type, religious affiliation, site age, ownership).
What determines the success of species in urban areas?
Some animals are facing serious challenges in their attempt to survive and sustain in the urban environment, whereas others prosper and even expand their hold in urban habitats. Understanding how environmental conditions in the city affect the fitness of local fauna, and which traits favour urban life, is of major importance for the field.
Members of the Laridae family – gulls, terns and skimmers – are well known for their high ability to adapt to diverse habitats, due to their generalist habits. I am studying the eco-evolutionary factors that drive the success of these birds in urban environments, largely focusing on differences in diet and life-history traits between urban and non-urban populations of different species.
In another study, the M.Sc. project of Janis Wolf, which I do my best to mentor, we examine how different indices rank species on the urban affinity spectrum (the tendency of species for urban life) and how this affects the association between urban affinity and species traits. We study this in bats (collaborating with Dr. Christian Voigt).