by Claus Holzapfel, Associate Professor, Dept. of Biological Sciences
Two large planters comprising .3 acres on the Rutgers University campus in Newark are providing a unique area of urban wilderness -- a hotspot for biodiversity that is rich with opportunities for study and research.
Described as a “bio-diversity haven,” these two areas on the Norman Samuels Plaza at Rutgers-Newark have been created by hundreds of Earth Day student volunteers, working with staff members, faculty from the Dept. of Biological Sciences, and horticulture professionals from the nearby Greater Newark Conservancy. Six consecutive years of Earth Day activities have resulted in a huge increase in the number of native plant species growing in the planters, providing a wildlife habitat that is largely self-sustainable, as well as notable media coverage.
Granted, this small piece of urban wilderness does not conform to typical campus landscaping design. Indeed, during some seasons the gardens can look somewhat unkempt. But the site harbors a degree of biodiversity that is clearly unmatched by other inner city sites.
While a list of this urban habitat’s invertebrates is still being compiled (a public, one-day "Bioblitz" will be conducted in September 2012 for this), more than 200 wild plants species can be found growing in the planters, and more than 120 bird species choose this small area of campus for nesting and for resting during migration.
Ongoing research by members of the Dept. of Biological Sciences at Rutgers-Newark and NJIT has shown that the rich biodiversity found in these gardens developed as the gardens were converted from standard gardening practice to the current sustainable practices.
Additionally, bird strikes at campus windows – a problem for many years -- have been significantly reduced as the sustainable gardens have developed. Recent research found that the number of birds killed per year declined from about 600-800 per year to less than 200 in the last year. One likely explanation for this is that resting migratory birds now have good cover and food sources and do not need to move around on campus, thereby avoiding strikes at the abundant window surfaces. An ongoing banding study has shown that the health and weight-gain of migratory birds increased in tandem with the "re-wilding" of the planters.
Aside from the intrinsic value that the site has for urban biodiversity, and the opportunities this creates for educating the campus community – via weekly bird and nature walks in spring and fall; and via newly-installed signage that highlights the local biodiversity – this area has also became the focus of formal research at Rutgers-Newark, led by the following faculty members and graduate students:
- Dr. Jessica Ware lab: taxonomy and diversity of soil and litter dwelling arthropods
- Dr. Claus Holzapfel lab, Ph.D. student Julian Rondon: stop-over ecology of migratory birds in urban green space
- Ph.D. student Megan Litwhiler: use of berries by urban birds
- Dr. Maria Stanko (NJIT) lab: pollinator ecology of urban regions
These areas of urban wilderness are also used for course study by students at Rutgers and NJIT. Courses that use the site for instruction on a regular basis include "Ecology of Birds,” "Ecological Field Methods and Analysis" and “Scales of Biodiversity.” In addition, NJ high school students, from the Liberty Science Center’s "Partners in Science” program, and from the Aim High Academy, have been introduced to this unique environment .
Hosting an urban wilderness area on our campus is a source of pride for many. Rutgers-Newark is known as a unique place, not least for its celebrated human diversity. It is our mission to educate students about the world around us so they will be able to work in and for this world. This mission has been enriched with the development of this unique area of urban wilderness.