10/10/2014 02:10 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

Coyotes and Cockroaches

Larry Gerbrandt via Getty Images

It is one thing to hear the plaintive wail of a solitary coyote under the stars while camping in the Grand Canyon. It is quite another to hear that same sound in a densely populated residential area within the city limits of the nation's capital.

The coyote was actually spotted in broad daylight on the ball field of the neighborhood's tiny park that offered hardly any tree cover. Its presence was not a comforting sight to dog owners, whose pets could conceivably become a meal if allowed to run free.

Much to the locals' relief, the coyote vanished the following day. But how did a creature commonly associated with the West's wide open spaces end up in an East Coast heavily urbanized neighborhood devoid of virtually any natural hiding places? The answer: coyotes are one of those species adept at leading a "cheek to jowl" existence with human beings, even in urban centers.

Not every species has that adaptive capacity to persevere as human settlements spread across the globe. In fact, a lot of species do not, as the World Wildlife fund's recent Living Planet Index attests. It analyzes biodiversity's current state of health and concludes that the populations of the world's animals, birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians have been reduced by half over the last four decades, primarily due to human activity.

Scientists also estimate species extinctions are occurring at a rate at least one thousand times greater than the natural pace, again with humans to blame. It is a downward spiral urgently in need of reversal through greater emphasis on preservation and restoration of natural habitats and the stressed species residing there. It means reducing negative impacts on biodiversity from ill-conceived development, environmental degradation due to pollution, global warming, introduction of invasive species, and unsustainable hunting and fishing practices.

So while coyotes are happily rummaging for scraps in the shadows of Washington D.C residents, many creatures are retreating (or perishing) in the path of civilization's advance. In the very same Washington, for example, there are far fewer songbirds and butterflies as their natural habitats along the East Coast are erased by humans.

Farther afield, walruses are piling up in excess numbers along the Alaskan coast due to the melting of sea ice from global warming, and the crowded conditions are leading to the fatal trampling of some pups, as well as more vulnerability to disease.

On the other side of the world, poachers are killing African elephants for their ivory tusks at a rate that threatens the creatures' survivability, already in jeopardy from loss of habitat to agriculture.

Back to the coyote and its indiscriminate diet. Could it conceivably have more staying power than human beings on a drastically degraded planet?

There is one species that could for sure. According to scientists, cockroaches would survive in the radioactive rubble left from a global thermo-nuclear war.