Navigating biological invasion and structural racism in urban systems

This blog post is provided by Piatã Santana Marques and tells their #StoryBehindThePaper for their article “Urbanization can increase the invasive potential of alien species“, which was recently published in Journal of Animal Ecology. This blog post is also a special feature for Black History Month, in which the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. You can find a Portuguese version of the post here.

I have always been fascinated by the narratives of the #StoryBehindThePaper. I believe they are good examples of how science is often full of overturns and how researchers overcome problems. This is especially the case for research projects with long field seasons and intense fieldwork. Thus, when BES journals invited contributions from black scientists for Black History Month, I was excited to also tell my #StoryBehindThePaper. In the process of collecting stories for my post, some memories of my last field season made me realized that the story behind the paper of a black scientist can give us an idea of how structural racism out of academia can directly impact research. Here is my #StoryBehindThePaper.

I am an urban ecologist, interested in how cities affect the ecology and evolution of urban stream biota. Cities worldwide are continuously growing, and we are only starting to understand the reciprocal interactions between people, ecology and evolution in cities, especially in aquatic systems such as streams. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (available here), my colleagues and I studied how urbanization can affect the invasive potential of alien species by using the guppy fish, Poecilia reticulata as a model. For this, me and my field team had to drive around one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world, the city of Rio de Janeiro – Brazil, looking for small streams within the vast urban matrix. As one can imagine, urban streams are very modified systems, contaminated with multiple human derived chemicals. In many cases, urban streams receive sewage discharges. This means that sampling urban streams requires paying attention to incoming pipes and to the flushing noise coming from the neighbours. For obvious reasons, sampling has to be performed wearing protective equipment that makes you completely waterproof, which can be very uncomfortable in the hot weather of the Tropics. Despite that, we took the challenge.

The crew is ready for sampling urban streams. Note: picture taken in 2016, before the COVID-19 pandemics.

In our research, we found that urbanization increases the quantity of food for guppies, especially midge larvae. Urban guppies take advantage of that to feed more on midges than non-urban guppies. The consumption of large amounts of this nutritious food allows guppies to grow larger, store more nutrients as liver tissue and increase the number of offspring compared to non-urban guppies. These traits increase the invasive potential of urban guppies and boost their population numbers by 26 times compared to non-urban guppy populations.

The fact that invasive species such as guppies reach high densities in urban systems is well known, but our study is the first to show that a food-related mechanism can explain why. Midges are found in large quantities in urban systems thus, it is possible that not only guppies, but also other aquatic and terrestrial urban dwellers take advantage of this food resource. We are performing experiments to test whether we can replicate such food related effects, creating a lab-made urban guppy phenotype. Such information can be important to help us better understand the success of invasive species in cities.

Now, the above paper was led by a black scientist so there is more to the #StoryBehindThePaper. The scientific community is increasingly aware of the damages of structural racism within academia and many righteous initiatives have taken place. For example, the Society for Freshwater Science have recently created a task force focused on promoting Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. However, the scientific community tends to overlook that black scientists are also subjected to racism outside of academia. This is the most brutal and life-threatening part of structural racism which black scientists do not talk about because it is not academic and often involves humiliating situations. Here is the untold part of my #StoryBehindThePaper.

Urban streams can look quite nice in the picture.

During the fieldwork for the paper described above, I was frequently stopped by the Rio de Janeiro state police when driving to my field sites (precisely five times in a three-month field season). Although I was driving the university vehicle, with large university logos on the doors, I was always asked whose car I was driving and often had the trunk searched. The officers could never believe I was a scientist and I always had to give them a little lecture on urban ecology to prove I was not lying. Being approached by the police is always nerve-racking for a black person because any “wrong say” or movement can be a disaster. Black men and women are respectively 2.5 and 1.4 times more likely to be killed by the police during their lifetime than white men and women in the United States (Edwards, Lee, & Esposito, 2019). In Brazil, between 2007 and 2017, 75% of people killed by the police were black (Bueno et al 2019). Specifically in Rio de Janeiro, the state police have allegedly killed black people for carrying unharmful objects such as an umbrella and a drill, because those were confounded with rifles (news here). Thus, the full story behind my paper involves a lot of tension and fear of being one more victim of police violence. Needless to say, that reduced my productivity in the field. I had to share my attention between doing science and planning how to behave and what to say on my next encounter with the police. For safety reasons I also avoided carrying any field gear that could be deemed suspicious by the police. You never know if the long flow meter case can be mistakenly identified as a rifle.

I hope this post can give you a glimpse of how black scientists are facing the hard task of doing good science at the same time as navigating structural racism. I hope this also exposes that fighting racism within academia is honorable and imperative, but it is not enough. We black scientists, and the black community in general, deserve not being under the risk of being killed by the police at every corner. For that, it is important that the scientific community makes use of outreach tools to engage in fighting racism both within and outside of academia. Historically, science has been a hub for profound changes in our society and I believe that once the scientific community is really committed to fighting racism, we may begin to see changes.


Piatã Marques is an ecologist who sees wonders beyond the concrete of our cities. He did his undergrad and Masters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro -UERJ, the first university in the country to promote diversity and inclusion by adopting racial quotas for black and indigenous students. After completing his PhD at the University of Victoria, Canada, he is back at UERJ as a Postdoctoral fellow striving to encourage black students to become scientists. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @urban_streams .

Cited references

Edwards, F., Lee, H., & Esposito, M. (2019). Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(34), 16793–16798. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1821204116

Bueno, Samira, David Marques, Dennis Pacheco, and Talita Nascimento (2019), Análise da letalidade policial no Brasil, in: Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, FBSP, Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, 2019, 58-65, wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Anuario-2019-FINAL_21.10.19.pdf (Oct 5th, 2020).

One thought on “Navigating biological invasion and structural racism in urban systems

  1. Pingback: Entre invasões biológicas e o racismo estrutural nas cidades | Animal Ecology In Focus

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