The physical and behavioural characteristics of urban-dwelling mammals

A PhD study by Nattida Puenphasook supervised by Prof. Stephen Harris

and Phil Baker

A woodmouse


Habitat destruction and fragmentation, anthropogenic development and the deliberate and accidental introduction of species beyond their natural geographic ranges are resulting in the rapid alteration of natural habitats, the creation of novel habitats, and the movement of species into altered and novel habitats. Such processes are presenting species with new physical and biotic pressures to which they need to adapt if they are to survive and prosper; adaptations may be at the biochemical, physiological, morphological and behavioural levels. Such profound changes tend to affect species in different ways, ultimately resulting in changes in the structure and functioning of natural communities. In turn, the loss or decline in the abundance of a particular species may further facilitate the establishment of species that are able to withstand urban development by virtue of the loss of e.g. competitive interactions.

However, a species that succeeds in establishing itself in a particular place is not necessarily a successful invader in all regions, as some traits may simply pre-adapt it to live in the particular place. As species are exposed to anthropogenic stresses that differ from the selective pressures under which they evolved, they may modify their behaviour, or other life-history traits to be successful. Wild populations that have adapted to human populated areas may not exhibit traits with which we are familiar. There is evidence to suggest that wildlife residing in urban areas may not exhibit the same life history traits as their rural counterparts because of adaptation to human-induced stress. The presence of some wildlife species in close proximity to dense human populations can create conflict, forcing biologists or resource managers to address issues relating to urban wildlife

The impact of urbanisation on bird communities has been studied extensively, as has the advantage of having a relatively larger brain when adapting to new environments. They are easily monitored by skilled observers and provide a mechanism to explore urban effects and responses to different urban designs. In contrast, these issues have been largely ignored in mammals.


The overall aim is to determine whether urban-dwelling mammals exhibit unique physical and behavioural characteristics that are likely to affect their ability to adapt to urban life in relation to propensity to forage under predation risk, a fear of novelty (neophobia), ability to solve problems, ability to explore or exploit complex environments, the use of vocalisations to adjust for the high levels of different background noises, the relationship between adaptation and brain size, and so on by combining literature and laboratory data to compare phenotypic, behavioural and life-history characteristics between urban and rural animals. I would like to know how the level of urbanization affects their levels of adaptation. Moreover, I would like to determine the evolutionary relationships of other traits associated with the presence or absence of a particular species in urban environments. I will answer several fundamental questions: What are the physical and behavioural characteristics of urban-dwelling mammals? How does urbanization affect the structure of mammal communities? Do urban-dwelling species establish behavioural characteristics that are likely to increase their ability to adapt to urban life?

Contact details

Nattida Puenphasook
Mammal Research Unit
School of Biological Sciences
University of Bristol
Woodland Road
Bristol BS8 1UG, U.K.

Telephone: 0117 928 7593
Email: Nattida Puenphasook