Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Do cities simulate climate change? A comparison of herbivore response to urban and global warming

September 4, 2014

Cities experience elevated temperature, CO2, and nitrogen deposition decades ahead of the global average, such that biological response to urbanization may predict response to future climate change. This hypothesis remains untested due to a lack of complementary urban and long-term observations. Here, we examine the response of an herbivore, the scale insect Melanaspis tenebricosa, to temperature in the context of an urban heat island, a series of historical temperature fluctuations, and recent climate warming. We survey M. tenebricosa on 55 urban street trees in Raleigh, NC, 342 herbarium specimens collected in the rural southeastern United States from 1895 to 2011, and at 20 rural forest sites represented by both modern (2013) and historical samples. We relate scale insect abundance to August temperatures and find that M. tenebricosa is most common in the hottest parts of the city, on historical specimens collected during warm time periods, and in present-day rural forests compared to the same sites when they were cooler. Scale insects reached their highest densities in the city, but abundance peaked at similar temperatures in urban and historical datasets and tracked temperature on a decadal scale. Although urban habitats are highly modified, species response to a key abiotic factor, temperature, was consistent across urban and rural-forest ecosystems. Cities may be an appropriate but underused system for developing and testing hypotheses about biological effects of climate change. Future work should test the applicability of this model to other groups of organisms.