Meet the Familiar: Synanthrope

Pigeons on a traffic light (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 August 2022

I had never seen the word “synanthrope” until I found it attached to this photo.

Passer domesticus as synanthrope (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are synanthropes. So are pigeons.

synanthrope (syn-anthrope) [from Greek: syn-anthrope: syn=”together with” + anthropos=”man”] is a wild animal or plant that lives near, and benefits from, an association with humans and the somewhat artificial habitats that people create around themselves.

Wikipedia: Synanthrope

We can be forgiven for not knowing this little-used word since its present meaning is only 74 years old(*).

Synanthropes live with us but we often disparage them. They are wild but too familiar, too “tame,” too weedy. Here are some more examples.

Dandelions (Taraxacum sp.)

Dandelions in the grass (photo by Kate St. John)

Horseweed (Erigeron canadensis) and pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) are native North American plants that like disturbed soil. We notice them in August when they start to look ugly.

Horseweed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of pilewort flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Two local mammals may be recent synanthropes, formerly shunning humans but now benefiting from our habitat.

Squirrels love our birdseed and shelter (attics).

Squirrel on the bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) prefer forest edges next to open areas, a landscape often created by humans. Have deer become synanthropes?

Buck in velvet at Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. (*) Merriam-Webster explains that the word was introduced by botanist Theodor von Heldreich at a botanical conference in Paris, 16-24 August 1878, making its first-ever use almost exactly 144 years ago.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

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