5 min read

Thank These Six-Legged Custodians For A Cleaner New York City

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/ghostofsasha/5725935308/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">Alexander Saprykin/Flickr/CC BY 2.0</a></p>

Takeru Kobayashi may be able to eat more than a hundred hot dogs in 10 minutes, but he doesn't hoover them off the sidewalk. New York's arthropods, on the other hand, aren't so picky. The little bugs who call the medians of The Big Apple home are capable of packing away tremendous amounts of garbage - the annual equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs on two major streets in Manhattan alone.

"This isn't just a silly fact," said Elsa Youngsteadt, a North Carolina State University entomologist who recently studied the trash-munching habits of New York City's smaller denizens, in a statement. "This highlights a very real service that these arthropods provide. They effectively dispose of our trash for us."

Youngsteadt and her colleagues measured how much food arthropods - which include insects and other invertebrates like centipedes - could eat during the course of a day. With food placed in a tiny cage, the scientists tried to "attract fat-, sugar-, and protein-feeding animals." Their bait choices would win no accolades from the First Lady: Oscar Mayer Extra Lean Franks, Ruffles Original Chips and Nabisco Nilla Wafers.

Over the span of 24 hours, curbside ants ate much more food than their invertebrate brethren who live in parks, the scientists reported Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology.

Urban ants aren't the only ones chowing down on the city's junk, either. When the researchers plated the food out in the open, rather than in a cage, substantially more victuals disappeared overnight. The hungry custodians? Rats, primarily, but also house sparrows, starlings, raccoons and pigeons. (Most animals, sensibly, opted for the potato chips and cookies instead of the hot dogs.)

Urban ecosystems aren't well-researched, said Christopher Swan, an environmental systems expert at the University of Maryland who was not associated with this report, to the New York Times. But considering the huge number of humans who live in cities - and the often surprising diversity of wildlife - it's important to figure out what's going on. "The environment in a city is performing a function," he said. "In this case, it turns out that arthropods are removing refuse. Studies like this have to happen, and this is a pretty good one."

Rather than trying to kill them (which is what one passerby had hoped Youngsteadt was trying to do during her research), city dwellers should treat road ants like tourists or film crews - with at least a pinch of appreciation for the roles they play in keeping the city healthy. Ants might not be popular, Youngsteadt told the Washington Post, but "they have a purpose in the city ecosystem that we don't even notice."