Urban swans have genes which allow them to cope with humans coming near, scientists have shown
By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor
1:00AM GMT 11 Dec 2015
City dwellers need a thick skin to put up with the hustle and bustle of metropolitan living, but a new study suggests urban wildlife needs different DNA to cope.
Researchers have shown that swans which thrive in the city are genetically different to those who live in the countryside.
Urban swans appear to have certain genes which allow them to handle the close proximity of humans. In contrast their timid country cousins have a genetic makeup which makes them far more wary, and it could explain why they choose to stay out of town, say experts.
"We often assume that animals become less wary of humans by simply getting used to them, our results suggest that at least part of this response might be genetically determined"
Wouter van Dongen, Victoria University
Scientists in Australia measured the distance that humans could get to 100 birds before they flew away.
They found that, on average urban swans will allow humans to come within 42 feet of them before they become anxious and take to the wing. However rural swans get spooked even when humans are more than 300 feet away. And a glance at their DNA suggests that the difference is genetic.
Lead researcher, Dr Wouter van Dongen, of Victoria University said: “Growing global urbanisation means that wild animals are increasingly settling near to humans.
“Although we often assume that animals become less wary of humans by simply getting used to them, our results suggest that at least part of this response might be genetically determined.
“This has important implications for conservation, particularly for the introduction of animals bred in captivity, which could in future be screened for genotypes that are associated with wariness, allowing them to be released to a location commensurate with their expected wariness.”
It is normally assumed that animals that live in urban areas become less wary of humans through habituation, but until now, no research has been conducted which tests whether animals’ preference for an urban or non-urban environment might be genetically determined.