Episode 4: The wonders of urban wildlife

National Geographic Explorer Danielle Lee reveals the incredible array of wildlife often hiding in plain sight in our cities. Her other mission? As a Black scientist, she wants to open the door for others to join the field.

Biologist and outreach scientist Danielle N. Lee, a National Geographic Explorer, leads a group of students into the field, setting up camera traps and collecting data for rodent research near the Southern Illinois University campus in Edwardsville.
Photograph by Joe Martinez

National Geographic Explorer Danielle Lee takes us on a tour of potential research sites around her home in the St. Louis area, sharing her passion for witnessing how wildlife (particularly rodents) thrives in neglected urban spaces—along with the reality of doing fieldwork as a Black scientist and how she hopes to inspire young African Americans to join her.

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(Sounds of traffic by a residential neighborhood)

DANIELLE LEE (BIOLOGIST): So I'm a solo hiker—I prefer to hike alone. And I'm a meanderer, so I have no idea where I'm going.

ELI CHEN (HOST): It’s July 2021, and I’m meandering with Danielle Lee, a biology professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

We’re in her neighborhood, in north St. Louis County, a very pretty subdivision with charming two-story brick houses, manicured lawns, and flower beds. But where Danielle and I are heading, just down the road, isn’t as pretty.

(To Lee) But this is a city-owned park?

LEE: This is a city-owned park.

CHEN: Wow.

LEE: This is Wilderness Park.

CHEN: Wilderness Park is a dense spot with lots of weeds, overgrown trees, and brush. We walk along the edge partly to avoid the many ticks and critters that live deeper inside.

LEE: And I'm really, really interested in what I would call these little urban green pockets. So parks would be green spaces, but I'm really interested in, like, low-use spaces. So for me, that would be like abandoned fields or nuisance properties, with lots of overgrown grasses and stuff that people hardly manage.

CHEN: Danielle wants to study field mice here to better understand how they thrive in urban settings.

LEE: I'm really interested in understanding how the rodents that we consider a problem make a living both off of us, near us, with us.

CHEN: As we walk around Wilderness Park, she tells me about how this space is ideal for field mice and many other kinds of wildlife.

LEE: We know that deer live around here; like we see deer all the time around here. We know that there's fox around here. We know that there's rabbits around here. We know that there are squirrels. We know that there are hawks.

CHEN: The more I walk around with Danielle, the more my eyes are open to the rich wildlife that’s so close to where she and her neighbors live.

LEE: I'm interested in the ways that all this amazing wildlife can live right next to us and thrive—and we don't recognize it. And because of that, it's actually under-studied. Like the things that's closest to us? We assume someone already is studying that and very often it's not.

CHEN: Danielle is kind of famous for being excited about science. If you don’t know her, a Google search will show you what a big deal she is, whether it’s her many Scientific American articles about conservation and STEM diversity, her tens of thousands of Twitter followers, or her Ted Talk on using hip-hop to teach science.

And a big reason she does all of that is because she didn’t see Black women like her doing science when she was growing up.

LEE: I was speaking to my younger self. I was putting out there what I wish I had had growing up. So the role model I wish I had—an example of science expertise or science enthusiasm. So I was dreaming at the time—I was still dreaming of potentially a career of being a science TV show host.

CHEN: You'd be great at it. 

LEE: (laughs) Yeah, it's like one of the jokes with one of my friends is that he was like, “I can see you like being in the ‘hood doing Crocodile—like the Crocodile Hunter stuff like, ‘Here we are, in the middle of the ‘hood, going after the robins.’”

CHEN: And she’s determined to help the next generation of African Americans see themselves as scientists.

LEE: As I did the science, I recognized I didn't want to just do it—I wanted to simultaneously share it with others at the same time. It's like I got in, so I'm leaving the door wide, wide open for anyone else to follow behind me.

I’m Eli Chen and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we get to know National Geographic Explorer Danielle Lee and how she went from being a young city girl who loved being outside to becoming a scientist who studies rats and mice.

She’ll share what it was like to be a female Black American scientist doing fieldwork in Tanzania and among white communities in the rural Midwest, and how she’s trying to change science to be better and more inclusive of Black communities.

More after this.

LEE: I grew up in South Memphis, Tennessee, and I spent a lot of time outside. And so I spent a lot of time watching animals right outside my door.

CHEN: Danielle’s mom worked for the former Memphis Park Commission, so when she was a kid, she would spend her summers at day camps in the city’s parks.

LEE: So I think that's where my meandering, solo-hiking spirit started because I would just gallivant out. And one of the things that kind of kept me focused is my mom would give me something to do, which was go look for four-leaf clovers. And I got good at it, and I would spend hours in the field doing it.

CHEN: The longer she spent outside looking for four-leaf clovers, the more she started to recognize patterns in the environment around her. Danielle says that was when she began to understand ecology.

LEE: You know, I knew the grass that was clover also tended to be—you saw lots of dandelions out there too. I noticed the bumblebees that would flit from clover flower to clover flower to clover flower. I knew after so long—when the grass got so long, they would mow it and then I wouldn't see any of those things again. I knew when— you know, like, I started putting things together like, OK, when the grass gets this long and the crabgrass gets tall, I gotta start looking for garter snakes. Like I understood a bit of a cycle to expect.

CHEN: As she got older, Danielle knew she wanted to do something with animals and tried applying to veterinary schools. But she didn’t get accepted into them. So instead, she pursued a master’s degree in biology.

LEE: I had the big dreams, like a lot of folks do. I was going to work with charismatic megafauna, like wolves. Yeah, wolves. That's what I had in my head, almost.

CHEN: You were going to become the wolf lady.

LEE: I thought I did. I wanted to, you know, do that like big-game stuff, super sexy stuff. But I wasn't thinking about mice. But in the process, I realized that the species that nobody was thinking about were perfect, because nobody was thinking about them. 

CHEN: And now Danielle has studied rodents for more than two decades. That includes field mice, prairie voles and the African pouched rat, a species that lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

African pouched rats are among the world’s largest rodents. They can grow as long as 35 inches, including the tail. And they have a superpower that could save people’s lives.

LEE: They do—they have an amazing sense of smell, great olfactory sense, and that great olfactory sense has allowed them to be trainable in focusing on detecting TNT, which is—that's one of the main ingredients in land mines.

CHEN: To study African pouched rats, Danielle went to Tanzania. But the wild ones in Tanzania were on a whole other level compared to the ones in her professor’s laboratory.

LEE: They're just super agile. They're very strong, like muscular. They're very strong. Like, literally, when I was first trying to handle them, I could not. They were hard to pick up because they bear their weight down.

CHEN: And anyone handling them needs to watch out for their teeth.

LEE: Imagine, like, you ever seen the old-school ice picks to pick ice up?

CHEN: Oh yeah. (laughs)

LEE: So imagine that part of it. So both of their teeth look like that: sharp, very, very long. Like up to two inches long. So I—we bought chainmail gloves to handle them with. So if it bit us, it wouldn't go through our skin.

CHEN: Danielle got acquainted one summer with the power of those teeth. Before we get into what happened, just a warning that this story might be a lot for people who get squeamish about blood.

One day, the rat she was studying was so difficult to handle that they needed two people to hold it down. And Danielle was holding the measuring tape near the rat’s mouth.

LEE: And I literally took my hand away for half a second and it snagged me. Like its nose, just a tent. Like just—it went to the right and it tagged me and would not let go.

Remember those pinchers that I told you about? They're both inside. Just just tag, tag, tag. I feel that motion inside my thumb, just—my thumb started feeling like mush. I was just like, Yep, that's gone. And I went down like, I was hurt, and I went—I collapsed on the table because it was no sense pulling away.

CHEN: It took three grown men to pry the rat’s mouth open so they could free her hand.

LEE: At that point, they finally get the rat off of me, and I'm sitting there. I'm in full shock. I'm laughing hysterically. I was like (laughs) I have a hole in my thumb. Just tell me, just tell me, I have a hole in my thumb, I have a hole in my thumb.

CHEN: To this day, she can’t feel a part of her left thumb.

So studying pouched rats had its challenges. But Danielle also had to deal with cultural challenges in Tanzania, pretty much as soon as she arrived.

LEE:  Like I was the first Black American a lot of folks had met while I was there.

CHEN: And as a Black American woman, Danielle says the way she talked and the way she dressed really stood out. The first time she went to Tanzania, she often wore her fieldwork scrubs.

LEE: I was getting the looks of disapproval. Like I was, I was getting the (makes sucking teeth sound) sucks teeth—


LEE: —disapproval look. It was getting in the way, like it was really getting in the way of me moving about town.

CHEN: So what did you do?

LEE: I bought a kanga, which is a colorful piece of cloth that women traditionally wear and they wrap it around your waist. Once I wore that, the disapproval looks stopped.

CHEN: Danielle also found herself unprepared when it came to interacting with the local community. For example, at the research facility where she studied pouched rats, she says she cleaned up and did her own chores. And the workers at the facility would feel insulted that she didn’t trust them to do that labor.

LEE: I really thought me doing my own work was a demonstration of respect for them.

CHEN: Yeah.

LEE: And until we talked, they didn't—they thought it was actually strange because their experience with Americans and Europeans up to then had primarily been people—I mean, it was it was very what I call traditional colonizer interactions, where Americans and Europeans show up and all these Tanzanians catered to them. So that's—and so they were used to that. And so me doing that differently, it was strange to them. They were like, “You do your own work. You talk to me like a person.”

CHEN: And over five summers in Tanzania …

LEE: I started cultivating my philosophy of ethics that was beyond animal care and welfare.

CHEN: Danielle says that scientists can’t think of their field sites as just field sites, especially if they’re located in or around where people live.

LEE: We talk about how to treat animals. We talk about the business ethics of how we spend our money. We talk about, in other words, the ethics of using our resources responsibly. We don't talk about the ethics of how we treat people in the communities that we work in.

CHEN: She thinks that scientists coming in from outside need to build relationships with the communities they want to work in and respect that local people also have expertise that’s valuable to doing science.

Danielle says that it’s really important, especially when doing urban ecology, where you’re doing science right in people’s neighborhoods.

LEE: I think urban ecology is especially good for that because folks recognize like, “Oh snap. I'm here working and folks are coming out in their porch, watching me.” You know, like I think urban ecology is going—it should be and can be the leader in teaching all of the ecology, especially that's done here locally in the states. Let's start adding this human dimension, and let's start being very intentional about our ethical approach of how we do our science.

CHEN: Coming up, we’ll learn about one of Danielle’s heroes: an African American scientist who did groundbreaking research on insects he studied in St. Louis. And we’ll see how she’s following in his footsteps as she looks into the impact historic segregation has had on urban wildlife and shows young people of color that they already have what it takes to do science.

More after this.

CHEN: In the early 1900s, a man named Charles Henry Turner moved to St. Louis after getting his doctorate in zoology at the University of Chicago. But being Black, he had trouble finding a university that would hire him as a professor—even the schools where he earned his degrees from.

LEE: They wouldn't hire him as a professor because they couldn't imagine hiring a Negro to teach white students.

CHEN: So Turner took a position teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis—the first Black high school west of the Mississippi.

LEE: So he taught at Sumner, and he continued his science research career studying insects. He did groundbreaking research in bee behavior as well as other invertebrates and ant lions and other bugs.

CHEN: Turner conducted that research at parks in St. Louis, and ultimately published more than 70 papers during his career. He did some of the first studies on honeybees and their ability to perceive colors and visual patterns, and how they change their behavior based on past experiences.

Danielle says a lot of people aren’t aware of him because his papers were often not properly cited by his contemporaries and he didn’t train any graduate students.

LEE: He didn't have what we call academic progeny in the traditional sense.

CHEN: She says the lack of recognition for his findings really hurt scientific progress.

LEE: So in the years that we weren't teaching about him, people were essentially rediscovering what he did. We waste time when we don't include all the information we have available to us.

CHEN: As Danielle looks for field sites to study rodents, she feels like she’s following in Turner’s footsteps, scoping out the same parks and green spaces in St. Louis that he did.

LEE: Like me, he was working with what he had, and he found a teeming, beautiful, exciting, vibrant research space in his own backyard. That's what I'm excited to do as well.

CHEN: A century has passed since Turner did his fieldwork in St. Louis and it’s still tough to be a Black scientist.

CHEN: For Danielle to do fieldwork in white and Black neighborhoods, she’ll need what she calls “caring protocols.”

LEE: Do I have to worry about physical safety against another person, whether it's assault, whether it's a misunderstanding? 

CHEN: Even before a white woman threatened to call the police on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper in New York’s Central Park in 2020, there’s been a long history of Black people finding outdoor spaces unsafe to be in.

LEE: Black naturalists, Black field biologists have been saying for years—coming up with our own unofficial protocols for how to keep ourselves safe in wild spaces that are historically thought of as white spaces.

CHEN: Danielle says she first realized she needed caring protocols in the early 2000s. She was a Ph.D. student studying field mice and prairie voles among farms in central Illinois. And nearby residents often reported her to the local police.

LEE: And I'm working on people's farms, so I had permission. Like I was either working on rural farms that were owned by the university. So I had permission to be there. Police kept getting called on me. Neighbors were always calling the cops on me, always calling the cops on me.

CHEN: It got so disruptive that she had to talk to the local sheriff.

LEE: It wasn't that I was being called for trespassing. Folks were calling on me because I didn't belong there or this idea that I was suspicious. So it was, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it?” And of course, then as I got to talking with them and they see me with mice, they're like, “That's fascinating. Tell me more.”

And the local sheriff decided to put a system in place if people kept calling about Danielle.

LEE: You know, he asked me the pertinent questions: “How long are you going to be here? When do you come out? What do you do?” And he wrote it up. He's like, “I'm going to leave a detailed note with dispatch. So when the next calls[1] [2] [3] come about you, we can handle it and quit sending people out.” That's when it hit me that I had to have some sort of protocols.

CHEN: With caring protocols in mind, Danielle is scoping out places to study mice all around the St. Louis area to get a better understanding of mice populations across Black and white communities.

Historically people have associated poor areas, where largely Black, working-class families live, with outbreaks of mice and vermin. Danielle says it’s worth investigating what’s allowing mice to thrive in these areas, whether it’s substandard housing, a lack of city services, and how segregation—or policies that created inequities between Black and white communities—has played a part in all of that.

LEE: That overlaps with how we invest in trash services, how we’ve invested in building services, how we invest in which neighborhood gets parks and those parks are cared for and managed well. Well, all of that historically goes back to segregation policies of the 1950s, or even before—up to the 1920s. 

CHEN: In St. Louis, there’s a long, east-west road called Delmar Boulevard that’s often infamously referred to as the Delmar Divide. It basically divides the north half of the city, which is predominantly Black, and the south half of the city, which is mostly white.

Scientists in St. Louis have already found noteworthy differences in how wildlife thrive in these two halves of the city. For example, researchers at Fontbonne University have found in recent years that raccoons on either side of the Delmar Divide are genetically distinct populations. In other words, their findings suggest that the north and south raccoons aren’t breeding with each other. Danielle says that’s partly due to the traffic along that road.

LEE: So in urban environments, major highways or other high human-traffic spots—they serve like boundaries for wildlife. They can't cross them or they can't cross them readily.

CHEN: There’s also city services to consider, like how often trash gets picked up.

LEE: Raccoons love a good garbage pile or parks that have, like, trash that's overflowing. There are better services provided in the south.

CHEN: North St. Louis has long been underserviced when it comes to trash pickup, and there’s also many incidents of people from outside the city illegally dumping trash on vacant properties.

The city has thousands of vacant properties as a result of redlining and decades of disinvestment, especially on the north side. To a lot of people, they’re eyesores that attract crime. To a biologist like Danielle, these places are opportunities to study wildlife.

LEE: People aren't there. We're not managing those lands very, very closely. So they're not getting mowed a lot. They're not getting, you know, chopped down. So wildlife is actually able to thrive in those places, and so we see how wildlife—the land that they have access to, how they move. So the amount of green space they have is functionally different because of segregationist policies that were put on the books 50 years ago that still has an imprint on us today.

CHEN: Danielle says finding out what kind of mice live in the city and where they live could potentially help communities that are more affected by them.

LEE: How can we help communities that deal with a disproportionate amount of allergies and asthma that are carried by either dander or feces—potentially food contamination and sickness that is spread by these mice and rats? So think about rats and mice as vectors. So that information is important and it helps us to know where we can put resources so that people—we can help get rid of some of these diseases we see according to zip code.

CHEN: So just as doing fieldwork in Black neighborhoods could lead to social justice in underserved areas, Danielle sees it also as a way to perform social justice and improve equity within the realm of science. In other words, doing science in Black communities and in partnership with them could help change the way we think of science spaces and who takes part in science.

LEE: We don't typically think of Black spaces as science spaces. And I would love to rethink this idea of Black spaces as science spaces. And what that means is we treat people with respect. 

CHEN: Danielle really wants to show people that science spaces are accessible to everyone. And that people with science degrees aren’t the only ones who have scientific knowledge of the spaces they study.

LEE: Just imagine how much different, you know, this engagement with the community—your concern for safety dissipates when you come in and go, “You're right, I am othered. I don't live here and I don't belong here. And I would like to make your acquaintance, get to know you, and then have your permission to be here and engage in this work.”

CHEN: And over time, she believes that the inclusion of Black communities in scientific research could change the way young people see science and help young people of color see themselves becoming scientists.

That’s the long game. At the moment, she has another tool for getting her students to see that they’re empowered to do science.

LEE: My whole thing is I like to take pop culture references and then help people understand that they already have a really good comprehension of foundation and science already. Like you already know a lot of science, you already know a lot of behavior. And I use their vernacular and cultural lexicon that is already familiar. And then I relate it to these scientific terminologies.

CHEN: Danielle does this by using hip-hop songs that are related to biology concepts. For example, at her Ted Talk in 2019, she showed how the lyrics of “O.P.P.,” by Naughty by Nature, could help explain breeding behaviors among birds.

Basically, in the ‘80s, scientists discovered that songbirds were more polyamorous than expected, and it turned out that this phenomenon, called extra-pair copulation, or EPC, was behind the questionable parentage of many baby birds. So Danielle drew that line between “O.P.P.,” the term in the song that refers to sexual infidelity, to the scientific term EPC.

Drawing those connections between what students have heard to concepts they’re taught in the classroom allow them to see that they already understand biology. And it’s a way for Danielle to connect science to her community.

LEE: So much of what education has done and what traditional science education has communicated is that you're an empty vessel and we need to pour it to you. And I'm like, “No, you're quite full. You're quite brilliant. Let me give you the book of just words and let me show you the connection. Like, this word is the same as that word. This term is just—I'm just teaching you vocabulary. You have a good base to begin with. You are not an empty vessel.”

That's the part, in my opinion, that makes what I do revolutionary. It’s like, I just simply don't—I don't treat inner city or underserved audiences because they haven't been served as if they're not worth serving. So they're worthy of being served science. And I don’t treat them like they’re ignorant.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

And if you can’t get enough of Danielle, be sure to check out that Ted Talk where she uses O.P.P. by Naughty by Nature to explain biology.

And you can also hear two personal stories she’s told live on stage for the science storytelling podcast The Story Collider.

And for more on the emerging field of segregation ecology, we’ve also linked to a piece about how access to green space is affecting the behavior of urban coyotes. 

All this and more can be found in our show notes in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Khari Douglas, Ilana Strauss, and Marcy Thompson.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills, who edited this episode.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Julie Hau is our photo editor. And our copy editors are Caroline Braun, Amy Kolczak, Cindy Leitner, and Jennifer Vilaga.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Danielle Lee.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.

And I’m Overheard's senior editor Eli Chen, host and producer of this week’s episode.

Thanks for listening, and see you all next time.


Want More? 

Check out Danielle’s Ted Talks on how African pouched rats can help people find land mines and using hip-hop to communicate science.

And you can watch National Geographic’s video on Danielle’s work with field mice.

Also explore: 

If you’re interested in the emerging field of segregation ecology, learn about how access to green space is affecting the behavior of urban coyotes. And here’s the scientific summary of the study on raccoons in St. Louis.

You can also listen to stories Danielle’s told live on stage for The Story Collider podcast: one on a terrible exchange with a science website editor and another on her experiences in Tanzania.

And read her thoughts on science outreach at her Urban Scientist blog on Scientific American.

Find Danielle Lee’s Twitter @DNLee5.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.