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Studying Urban Wildlife: UofL biologist specializes in 'synurbization'

by Laurel Harper, communications and marketing, special to UofL Today last modified Sep 28, 2010 11:00 AM

Want to know how many white squirrels really live on UofL's Belknap Campus?

Studying Urban Wildlife: UofL biologist specializes in 'synurbization'

Tommy Parker

Just ask biologist Tommy Parker.

The answer is three, but don't call them white squirrels, Parker said. "White squirrels are a species. What we have at UofL are genetic mutations."

A former inside linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, today Parker specializes in the study of population dynamics and behavioral adaptations of urbanized vertebrate species. His work has taken him to Oxford and the University of Exeter in England as a guest lecturer and to Columbia University to conduct a seminar on urban ecosystems. He also spent time as the USDA Forest Service's regional endangered species biologist for the Northeast before joining UofL in August 2008 as assistant professor and head of the university's Urban Wildlife Research Lab. In addition he chairs the Partnership for a Green City's urban forestry team and is the founder and head consultant of UrbEco Consulting LLC.

The issues arising from wildlife and their interaction with humans have been a lifelong interest for Parker - although perhaps an unusual choice for a kid growing up in Memphis' inner city. Despite his urban upbringing he spent many weekends and summers camping, hiking and fishing with his parents and grandparents.

"I never had an interest in any other subject," Parker said. "I majored in biology in high school and college, but I didn't want to go to med or vet school. I liked the research aspect of it. In my research I ask the question: 'What are the habitat and landscape attributes correlated with the synurbization - the process of becoming urbanized - of wildlife?'  

"As urban areas continue to grow, many people think wildlife leaves and that the animals are getting the short end of the stick. But they actually come in and thrive. That's when human and wildlife conflicts can occur."

Parker said coming to UofL has presented him the best of all worlds - plenty of time for research, a climate that is a milder version of what he experienced growing up in Memphis and the chance to teach environmental biology (65 students are taking his classes this semester).

He also gets to lead a team of student researchers. Currently one doctoral, two graduate and eight undergraduate students are helping Parker examine UofL's squirrel population to learn how healthy and viable the animals are, which in turn is an indicator of how wildlife is thriving in Louisville in general.

The work is important because, Parker explained, "Lots of people care about wildlife, but they don't understand how to care for wildlife. They know to take their pets to the vet, but they don't know that animals in the wild can get sick, too, and then it spreads through their population. We need to protect wildlife, as it's a part of our human experience, although sometimes we don't notice until it's too late. To do this we need to understand the dynamics and how we affect wildlife, and how they adapt to and modify our human habitats."

The next step will be to gather the 89 squirrels the team tagged earlier this summer for a health check, as well as to determine how many new animals may have migrated onto the UofL campus, which, with its park-like setting, is a squirrel oasis.

Once that is done Parker will turn his attention to the deer population - he wants to place a transmitter collar on a few so he can track their travels in the city - followed by a study of how bears migrate across the state.

He is hesitant to talk about the latter after the media frenzy involving a black bear's attack on a hiker in the Daniel Boone National Forest in June. However he thinks that bears might be more widespread than people know, but their nocturnal migration habits keep human encounters to a minimum.

And that, Parker said, his work is all about - ensuring people and wildlife live together harmoniously.

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