Taylor Rubin, PhD student

Urban ecology of vertebrate scavengers

Species termed “scavengers” are best known for their roles as Nature’s undertakers. As in, they eat other dead animals. And in areas inhabited by humans, they eat our waste too. Wander down a New York City (NYC) street the night before rubbish pickup, and you may well see diverse scavengers—rats, raccoons, skunks and more—rummaging through garbage bags and bins, looking for a free meal of calorie-rich, human food.

In natural and other ecosystems, these animals play vital ecological roles, as they make decaying organic material available to decomposers, which then recycle the nutrients back into the system. This translates into ecosystem services (ESs) and disservices (EDs). After all, who wants dead animals lying around indefinitely to decompose slowly in the open air? Not only would that be gross, but also this scenario could imply a risk of disease.

At least one study has investigated the removal of roadkill by vertebrate scavengers (in a Welsh city) and another documented and quantified their ecological roles (in three British towns). Taylor aims to elucidate the urban ecology of vertebrate scavengers in NYC and the implications for the dynamics of zoonotic disease. She will assess their relative roles in mitigating disease risk (by removing pathogens, an ES) or exacerbating it (by spreading pathogens, an ED) as a function of the degree of urban development. Taylor’s specific research question and hypotheses are still to be determined, as she is completing her first year of coursework. She will narrow down her focus in summer 2024, when she plans to carry out a pilot field season.