Photograph by Brendan McDermid, Reuters

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A dolphin in New York's Gowanus Canal died on Friday night.

Photograph by Brendan McDermid, Reuters

Doomed Dolphin Speaks to New York's Vibrant Wildlife

A dolphin’s death in a city canal shines a light on New York’s wild animals.

By the time New Yorkers spied a dolphin swimming through the superfund sludge of the Gowanus Canal last Friday, it was too late. The marine mammal didn't even survive long enough for a rescue plan to come together. First sighted on Friday afternoon, the dolphin perished at 6:00 p.m.

The reason the marine mammal died, and why the dolphin swam up the polluted waterway in the first place, is as yet unknown. But the sad story of the wayward creature highlights the strange nature of New York City, the global epitome of urbanity. Hidden within Gotham are native carnivores, marine mammals, and even species that have scarcely been seen before.

Marine mammals are arguably the most high-profile of New York City's wild residents and visitors. The Gowanus Canal dolphin was only the latest to venture within city limits. Just a month ago, a 60-foot-long finback whale (Balaenoptera physalus) became stranded in the Rockaway Inlet of Queens. The emaciated animal died the day after it was discovered.

There seems to be no singular reason explaining why marine mammals such as the Gowanus dolphin and Queens' finback whale wander up the city's rivers or strand on beaches. Each case is unique. But not all the city's marine mammal visitors suffer terrible fates.

In 2006, a hefty manatee (Trichechus spp.) took a long jaunt from its Florida home up the East Coast, including a detour down New York's Hudson River. The sirenian survived the trip, continuing on to Cape Cod before reportedly turning back south to a destination unknown. Hopefully the manatee didn't encounter any great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) on the return journey, a marine predator we know patrols the waters off New York.

Of course, New York City's whales, seals, and occasional manatee can only skirt the city along its shores and canals. You likely won't see a seal caterpillaring its way along Broadway.

Yet the city's interior also hosts a strange accumulation of wildlife, including native animals that are carving out spaces for themselves in the concrete corridors and exotic species that we have introduced to city life.

Coyotes (Canis latrans) may be the cleverest of New York City's hidden wildlife. Thanks to camera traps, and the occasional police chase through Lower Manhattan, researchers are keeping track of the wily canids and studying how they are so successfully taking up residence in many of the nation's cities. "Most small, urban parks will likely hold a pair and their offspring at most—coyotes are very territorial," said Cornell University ecologist Paul Curtis.

The secretive carnivorans bring a welcome element to urban neighborhoods—an appetite for rodents—and are experts at cracking open new niches alongside people.

Black bears (Ursus americanus) may be next. The bears have proliferated in northern New Jersey in recent years, and in 2010, a black bear came within three miles of the George Washington Bridge, a major thoroughfare between New Jersey and Manhattan. The bear obviously would have eschewed rush hour traffic and the tolls, but the local population is so bountiful that it's not unreasonable to think some enterprising bear might eventually wander into the big city.

Strangely, you may actually be more likely to run into a crocodylian predator in New York City than a black bear. New Yorkers have a nagging habit of importing—and losing—alligator-like caimans and other reptiles within the city.

In 2010, an 18-inch long caiman took refuge under a parked Datsun in Astoria, Queens. No one knows how the reptile wound up on the street, but given the trend of owners buying cute crocodylians and later dumping them, someone may have abandoned the poor little caiman.

This would hardly be the first time. In 2006, another little caiman was found in the leaf litter behind Brooklyn's Spring Creek Towers, while "Damon the Caiman" swam around a Central Park lake in the summer of 2001. These caimans are only some of the most famous—according to a New York Times report, the Brooklyn-based Animal Care and Control deals with about ten caimans each year.

Many other unusual and exotic animals have romped through New York. Under some of their most notable animal celebrities, the city's Parks and Recreation department lists guinea pigs, boa snakes, and even a tiger that escaped from a circus in 2004 and ran down Jackie Robinson Parkway before his owners were able to get him back.

The Big Apple even contains species that have never been documented before. No, not the ballyhooed "Montauk Monster"—actually a rotted raccoon—but a distinct species of leopard frog. Described early this year, the cryptic amphibian was given away by its unique mating call.