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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More A Guide to Reproductive Diversity

By: Kenneth D Frank(Author), Jonathan Silvertown(Foreword By)
175 pages, 258 colour photos
This richly illustrated collection of vignettes describes the bewildering variety of sex lives playing out right under our noses.
Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More
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  • Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More ISBN: 9780231206075 Paperback May 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More ISBN: 9780231206068 Hardback May 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Cities pose formidable obstacles to nonhuman life. Vast expanses of asphalt and concrete are inhospitable to plants and animals; traffic noise and artificial light disturb natural rhythms; sewage and pollutants imperil existence. Yet cities teem with life: In rowhouse neighbourhoods, tiny flowers bloom from cracks in the sidewalk. White clover covers lawns, its seeds dispersed by shoes and birds. Moths flutter and spiders weave their webs near electric lights. Sparrows and squirrels feast on the scraps people leave behind. Pairs of red-tailed hawks nest on window ledges. How do wild plants and animals in urban areas find mates? How do they navigate the patchwork of habitats to reproduce while avoiding inbreeding? In what ways do built environments enable or inhibit mating?

Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More explores the natural history of sex in urban bacteria, fungi, plants, and nonhuman animals. Kenneth D. Frank illuminates the reproductive behaviour of scores of species. He examines topics such as breeding systems, sex determination, sex change, sexual conflict, sexual trauma, sexually transmitted disease, sexual mimicry, sexual cannibalism, aphrodisiacs, and lost sex. Frank offers a guide to urban reproductive diversity across a range of conditions, showing how an understanding of sex and mating furthers the appreciation of biodiversity. He presents reproductive diversity as elegant but vulnerable, underscoring the consequences of human activity. Featuring compelling photographs of a multitude of life forms in their city habitats, this book provides a new lens on urban natural history.



1. Nonflowering Plants
2. Herbaceous Annual Plants
3. Herbaceous Perennial Plants
4. Trees and Woody Vines
5. Butterflies and Moths
6. Bees, Wasps, and Ants
7. Dragonflies and Praying Mantises
8. Other Insects
9. Invertebrates Exclusive of Insects
10. Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fish
11. Mammals
12. Birds
13. Fungi, Bacteria, and Lichens

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Customer Reviews (1)

  • Great for dipping into
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 3 Aug 2022 Written for Paperback

    Where evolution is concerned, the city is a cauldron exerting its own unique mix of selection pressures on the organisms living here. The metronome beating at the heart of this process is sex. For this book, retired physician Kenneth D. Frank has explored his hometown of Philadelphia in the Eastern US state of Pennsylvania and documented the astonishing variety of sex lives playing out right under our noses. Many of these organisms can be found in cities around the world. Remarkably well-researched and richly illustrated with photos, this collection of 106 one-page vignettes shows what amateur naturalists can contribute both in terms of observations and in terms of highlighting the many basic questions that are still unanswered.

    That animals get up to all sorts of reproductive shenanigans is something I would know. I spent five years for my PhD degree looking at the sex life of a small fish, the three-spined stickleback, and especially how males have different options when it comes to siring offspring, known as alternative reproductive tactics. Frank, however, opens the book with some 30-odd vignettes on plants, reminding me that I really do not appreciate plants enough.

    Take purple cliffbrake fern (Pellaea atropurpurea) that does not need to be fertilized by sperm and whose embryos emerge from somatic (i.e. body) cells. Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) can form big showy flowers that are cross-fertilized (i.e. the regular bees-and-flowers story) or it can form smaller flowers that fertilize themselves under conditions of drought and shade. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) can do it all: self-fertilization, cross-fertilization, double fertilization*, single fertilization, or no fertilization. All these species are well adapted for variable conditions in city environments. Meanwhile, a tree such as Norway maple (Acer platanoides) can change its sex over the course of days, producing male flowers followed by female flowers, or vice versa. This prevents self-fertilization, which is a measure of last resort from an evolutionary point of view as it produces offspring that are less genetically diverse.

    The next major group Frank covers are insects and other invertebrates whose sex lives are just wicked. Male European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) are a lekking species, which means they congregate in a small area, the lek, to collectively advertise their presence in the hope of picking up a female. (One could theoretically argue that nightclubs fulfil a similar function in humans.) Male blue dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) are territorial and defend areas preferred by egg-laying females. The females can mimic the male in appearance and it seems these mimics avoid harassment by males. A problem for both sexes is light reflected by metal and glass, which is polarized—the light waves vibrate predominantly in one direction—and resembles light reflected by water. Some dragonflies end up defending the shiny surface of a car bonnet rather than a pond. Milkweed aphids (Aphis nerrii) are such pests as they reproduce through parthenogenesis: eggs develop into embryos without requiring fertilization, and all grow into females that will never mate. The bridge spider (Larinioides sclopetarius) thrives around outdoor lights, which form hubs where spiders "eat, meet, and mate" (p. 76). Males have secondary genitalia and first transfer their sperm to two so-called pedipalps: pom-pom-like appendages in front of their head that they use to inseminate females with.

    In comparison, vertebrates seem tame. As in many other reptiles, sex in red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans) is temperature-dependent. What I did not know is they simply have no sex chromosomes! Male bluegill fish (Lepomis macrochirus) build nesting areas to which they attract females. Afterwards, they nurse the broods on their own. Some males, sneaker males, forego all this effort and simply intrude on an ongoing mating, releasing their own cloud of sperm in the water (the sticklebacks I studied do the same). Male eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) leave a mating plug in the female’s genital tract which is hypothesized to have one or more functions (including a sperm blocker to other males, a hormone booster, or maybe an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone releaser). European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are a fine example of a species that is socially but not sexually monogamous, as paternity tests have shown. Notably missing from the book are mammalian predators such as foxes and coyotes that also thrive in city environments.

    The above is a small sample from the wide range of reproductive diversity on display in urban environments. Frank highlights where we know or suspect that certain strategies result in organisms either thriving or struggling in urban environments; not every organism can radically reorganise its sex life to take advantage of the city. Obviously, Frank has not observed all these phenomena first-hand, and the amount of research that has gone into this book is impressive. The reference section spans 32 pages, which is a lot considering the vignettes take up only 106 pages. Many include facts and data from five to ten different papers. He also uses this opportunity to highlight how many basic biological questions remain unanswered. For example, does nocturnal light pollution interfere with moths fertilizing flowers of white campion (Silene latifolia)? How do female dragonflies mimicking males mate and could this be a post-fertilization adaptation? Does artificial crowding in city parks cause male squirrels to become less aggressive over time? What Frank has done is track down nearly all the species discussed here: the book is richly illustrated with his (macro)photography, with some contributions by others.

    As much as Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More is a nicely curated collection of interesting nuggets, it lacks an overall narrative. In particular, the bigger picture of how reproduction translates into longer-term evolutionary changes is only occasionally hinted at. Menno Schilthuizen wrote a very entertaining account in Darwin Comes to Town, but it has become a serious subfield of evolutionary biology. As such, this is a popular science book that is great for dipping into (whether it would make for suitable bedtime reading depends entirely on what you are into...). And if you are looking for inspiration for student or PhD projects, the book provides numerous ideas of biological mysteries at your doorstep.

    * double fertilization is the default in flowering plants. One fertilized cell forms the embryo, and the other forms endosperm that offers nutritional support to the developing embryo.
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Kenneth D. Frank is a retired physician whose current research focuses on how plants and animals adapt to urbanization. His work has been published in journals including Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics, Entomological News, and the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society.

Jonathan Silvertown is a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution (2017) and The Comedy of Error: Why Evolution Made Us Laugh (2020).

By: Kenneth D Frank(Author), Jonathan Silvertown(Foreword By)
175 pages, 258 colour photos
This richly illustrated collection of vignettes describes the bewildering variety of sex lives playing out right under our noses.
Media reviews

"Cities are renowned as hot spots of human diversity. This book demonstrates that although less well known, this is equally true of biodiversity. Here this is viewed through the unusual lens of reproductive diversity – the variety of means by which organisms perpetuate their lineages. It is a volume filled with insight and lots of natural history nuggets, and it is beautifully illustrated. I imagine that most readers will find 'I didn't know that' moments throughout."
– Kevin J. Gaston, University of Exeter

"Although there are many theories about how nonhuman life survives in cities, new insight comes from a firsthand look at the diverse range of organisms that live alongside us. Flowering plants, birds, reptiles [...] Kenneth D. Frank takes readers on a walk through the city, illuminating a universal biological principle: finding a mate. Lavishly illustrated, full of naturalist erudition and evolutionary curiosities, this book reveals that courses in ecology can be found within walking distance."
– P.-O. Cheptou, evolutionary ecologist, CNRS, France

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