Identifying Ontario's Biodiversity: How Field Guides Help Conserve Endangered Species

Article excerpt

Ontario is blessed with a wealth of biodiversity, hardly surprising considering its size and diverse habitats. The province's more than a million square kilometres stretch from Pelee Island in the south--at the same latitude as northern California--to Fort Severn in the far northwest--at about the same latitude as Glasgow, Scotland. Some 66 percent is forested, close to 30 percent is covered in water or wetlands, and much of the remainder is designated urban or agricultural.

More than 30,000 recognized species of plants and animals inhabit Ontario, and many others, particularly insects, plants, fungi, and micro-organisms, await discovery. Little is known about these undocumented species, although in our ecosystems they often fulfill essential functions, such as photosynthesis and decomposition.

Most species that we know and recognize today arrived in Ontario after the last Ice Age. When the glacier that completely covered Ontario about 18,000 years ago melted and retreated northward, plants, animals, fungi, and micro-organisms began to re-colonize the province, mainly from refugia (areas that were not glaciated) to the south and east of Ontario. In evolutionary terms, this is a very short time, and few species have evolved in the province since.

Ontario's largest bodies of water have a significant effect on biodiversity. The Great Lakes have a moderating influence on the climate, allowing birds to overwinter and warm-water species, including the spotted gar and spiny softshell turtle, to survive this far north. The coastal marshes and tundra around Hudson and James bays entice migrating birds in the spring with an ample food supply, few predators, and large uninhabited spaces for nesting and rearing young.

Interactions with people also affect biodiversity--though not always in a positive way. When Europeans colonized Ontario, they introduced non-native species, some of which outcompeted native species; they deforested large areas causing habitat loss; and they over harvested many bird, mammal, and fish species. The most shocking event was the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which in the 1800s was considered the most abundant bird species in Ontario. Other familiar species that have been extirpated from Ontario include prairie chicken, Atlantic salmon, and elk.

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But there are also positive interactions between people and nature. People have long delighted in learning to identify their region's flora and fauna. Everyone from anglers and birdwatchers to gardeners and consumers of fruits and vegetables likes to have a name to put to organisms. At specialized levels, medical professionals need to identify different parasites, bacteria, and viruses, and farmers must distinguish weeds from crops.

Since 2001, the ROM has been helping amateur naturalists, ecologists, and scientists to identify Ontario's flora and fauna by producing a series of field guides. …