By Rhiannon Moore
By the year 2050, it is expected that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
This prediction made by scientists, is something I always come back to throughout my work as an environmental professional. The ocean covers 70% of our planet, and somehow, we have produced so much plastic that we have allowed it infiltrate every ecosystem on earth. We are finding microplastics, along beaches, in fragile estuaries, at the bottom on the ocean, and even frozen in arctic sea ice. Whales, fish and seabirdsea birds are found dead with their stomachs full of plastic. Within our ocean gyres, plastic has been found to out-number sea life 6 to 1. How have we let it get to this point?
These sobering statistics, and through what I have seen in my own work along the Great Lakes, is why I challenged myself to go plastic-free for one month to see if it was really possible to live without plastic. Below are ten things I learned and experienced when going plastic-free.
1. It was easier than I expected
When I first told friends and family that I was going to try to go an entire month without buying anything plastic, nearly everyone thought it was going to be impossible. What surprised me about going plastic-free for a month is that once you get in the habit the whole lifestyle, it’s pretty easy to accomplish without too much inconvenience! There is an alternative for everything, it’s just a matter of seeking out the alternative products that can be tricky.
With any lifestyle change such as this, there were easy parts and hard parts. The easy parts I found were in the shower—switching to bar soap, bar shampoo and yes even bar conditioner was a piece of cake. (See below for a list of my favourite plastic-free hygiene products!)
2. But… I did struggle in the grocery store.
Most of my challenges existed within the grocery store. So much of our food these days is packaged excessively. I found myself going to the grocery store to pick up several items, only to leave with a head of broccoli in my paper bag. The key to having a plastic-free grocery shop is being prepared. Always have a re-usable bag in your car, stashed in your purse or backpack or at work. Instead of plastic produce bags, I used paper bags (or just let the heartier fruits and veggies roll around uncontained in my cart!)
3. I felt happier
Going on my “plastic fast” had a number of unexpected outcomes. Once I stopped buying things I didn’t need, only to toss and sit in a landfill for eons, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I felt happier and less stressed, and most importantly, grateful for all the necessities that I did have. Once you start going “back to basics” you end up appreciating the simple things in life. When you eliminate useless items, your life becomes less about stuff and more about… well, life!
4. I inspired others to make a difference
Another benefit of going plastic free and sharing it over social media was the reaction from individuals. It was so uplifting to hear that my endeavour had inspired others to make simple switches and think more carefully about their purchases.
5. I met new people
Finding alternative products and doing things differently attracts interest from other people. You end up asking strangers or store owners questions, and vice versa. “Do you carry this product? I am going plastic-free.” can lead to “lets grab a coffee and I’ll tell you all about it!” (ok, maybe that’s a little too keener). I even had people I barely knew offer to pick up items I was running low on from Bulk Barn!
6. I embraced the “haters”
Going “plastic-free” sounds a little radical to some people. I had names thrown at me over social media, and strange looks from people in the grocery store. But those empty words and judgement was always silenced by those cheering me on. Most of the time, when people criticize you, it has nothing to do with you anyway. I learned to move past the judgements and educate others if they were willing to listen.
7. I ate healthier
Most processed and unhealthy foods come in plastic packaging. When you eliminate packaged items from your grocery list, you end up replacing them with healthy and fresh whole foods. Instead of chips and dip as snack food, I would have apples and peanut butter. Instead of salty crackers or sugar-packed granola bars, I would have roasted nuts or homemade granola.
8. I saved money
I ended up spending less money on groceries ($150 less to be exact!) and wasted less food because I was being more mindful of what I was purchasing. I used up what was in the fridge, and didn’t let cravings in the grocery store lead me to buy things I didn’t need. If I felt the urge to buy something, I would ask myself if I really needed it or if I could make do with that I already had.
9. I started thinking “big picture”
We live in such a throw-away society. Everything seems like it isn’t built to last anymore, and everything seems so short-term--including our personal outlook. As millennials, I think we really need to start thinking about what type of legacy we want to leave. I don’t want my legacy to be a pile of trash that outlives me, my children and my grandchildren. Going plastic-free was so much more than the simple act of saying no to plastic. It did open my eyes to the waste-management challenges we face in society and how dependent we are on plastic. More importantly however, it made me feel hopeful. Finding companies that are trying to make a difference, and feeling like I was making a difference myself, made it an up-lifting experiment that I continue to live by throughout the year.
10. It leads to greater things
Challenging yourself brings confidence, and confidence makes you do unique things! I looked into initiatives I could get involved with to turn my passion into action, and came across an organization called “eXXpedition”. After submitting some information about my work to them, I was asked to join a crew of all female change-makers to sail in the Atlantic and collect data on microplastics in the Caribbean Sea this year. I am excited to connect with like-minded women who are hungry for change like I am, and continue sharing my experiences to raise awareness to protect our water, wildlife, and communities.
Rhiannon’s plastic- free bathroom:
• Lush shampoo bar, Honey I Washed My Hair
• Lush conditioner bar, Sugar Daddy-O
• Locally made bar soap
• Homemade tooth paste
• Homemade beauty balm (facial moisturizer, can be used for dry skin on other parts of body)
• WoWe bamboo and metal razor
• 7th generation tampons (Important: even if your applicators are cardboard, most companies still make the tampon itself out of a mix or rayon, polypropylene and polyester—check the ingredients before you buy).
• Homemade deodorant (works better than other natural brands)
• Wood comb/brush
• Bamboo toothbrush
• Tiger Balm for headaches and stiffness
• Makeup- Elate cosmetics has minimal packaging, good for you ingredients, and is based in Victoria BC
Rhiannon’s plastic-free kitchen:
• Steel scrubber
• Dr. Bronner’s “magic soap” bar: Can be grated and added to water in a re-usable spray bottle for everyday cleaning of surfaces
• Washable Dish cloth
• 100% cotton tea towels
• Glass Tupperware set
• Beeswax food wraps
• Wooden cutting board
• Steel or wooden spatulas
Rhiannon’s favourite plastic-free food items:
• Chickpea rotini from Bulk Barn.. or basically anything from bulk barn!
• Powdered coconut milk
• Riviera petit pot yogurt (comes in glass jars which I re-use for my homemade beauty products, and as candle holders)
• Oka or Edam cheese, both can be wrapped in wax or paper
• President’s choice garlic stuffed olives
• Heinz chili sauce (ketchup replacement—so good!)
Another favourite item of mine is my Steel Swell water bottle, which can be used as a thermos as well. It is my favourite “plastic-free” gift for friends and family. They all love it!
By Jackie Hamilton
If you are like I once was, the word forestry evokes an image of lumberjacks or large clear-cuts. I have learnt a lot while working in in the sector and I am writing today to try and convince you that forestry is not a bad word for biodiversity. I have had the pleasure of seeing forestry around the world. From what I have seen, our practices in Ontario are some of the best for biodiversity. I am not saying things are perfect, but I am making a plea to you today to learn more about forestry in Ontario. It might surprise you.
Ontario has a lot of certified sustainable forest land when compared to other places. This means that third party certification bodies agree our forests are being managed sustainably. For example the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a well-known and respected third party certification body. In this province, to be a Professional Forester you are regulated the same way an engineer might be. I am currently going through the process of becoming a registered professional myself. I can verify that the process is thorough and foresters in Ontario are competent and experienced before practicing.
Being a forester does not just mean cutting trees for timber, but that can be a part of it. As someone who cares about biodiversity, I want the products that we use everyday to be coming from sustainable sources. Ontario’s foresters are working to try and ensure this is the case.
Ontario forest products include many of the traditional uses such as furniture, flooring, and fire wood. But they are more recently becoming strong petroleum and steel replacements.New products include biofuel, plastic replacements and composite wood beams.
Most of our forests in southern Ontario are fragmented from development. They are facing threats like invasive species. Oonce you learn to identify an invasive species, you will begin to see them everywhere. These forests require active management to maintain ecological integrity and biodiversity. Otherwise, they will become something near monocultures of invasive species that support little diversity. I have seen several examples of this around abandoned industrial sites and even in people’s backyards. Because many of our forests are near our communities, we suppress natural disturbances like fire. Fires would naturally increase habitat and biodiversity. With fire suppression, forest management becomes even more critical for biodiversity.
A big and growing area of forestry is the one I work in, urban forestry. Forest management requires that you think long into the future about what your forest will look like. It also requires you to consider the ecological, social and economic impacts of your management decisions. It’s obvious that managing urban forests requires these same considerations. Maybe even more so.
The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry is the oldest Faculty of Forestry in the country. It’s also where I studied forest management and forest conservation. The faculty brings together foresters, economists, entomologists, ecologists, government, NGO and industry professionals. It facilitates open discussions about the challenges and opportunities facing forests in Ontario. The university is currently going through consultation to determine the fate of the 100+ year old institution. You can learn more about how the Faculty has affected others, and add your voice to the petition here.
By Matt Ellerbeck
When I was small child, I lived in the Greater Toronto Area in southern Ontario. As such, the urban sprawl that accompanied this region did not leave me many places to explore and connect with nature. I would spend my summers visiting family at campgrounds. It was here that I encountered my first ever salamander, a Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens). I was instantly enthralled by this charming amphibian. Years later, the memory of my first salamander encounter is still very vibrant in my mind. It is a testament to my passion for these creatures! This passion lead me to start my outreach education project: Save The Salamanders. The goal of my project is to raise awareness among the general public that many salamanders are in decline and in need of conservation. I promote behavioural changes, habitat management, and environmental stewardship. These are ways that individuals can help contribute to the conservation of salamanders. I strive to empower the public and encourage them to get active with the recovery of species.
Outreach education is important. The Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy (ARC) recognizes the need to increase awareness, appreciation, and understanding of amphibians, reptiles and their habitats. This education can then enhance conservation actions and stewardship practices. The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust also proclaims that education is one of the most important tools in the long-term conservation of amphibians and reptiles. Raising awareness, enhancing knowledge and encouraging people to take action, are important steps towards conserving amphibian and reptile species. This is why I have made it one of my top priorities.
Aside from my Save The Salamanders project, I am also a partner of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA). The ASA is the world's largest partnership for amphibian conservation. The Amphibian Ark (AArk) also featured me as one of their Amphibian Ambassadors. The AArk is a joint effort of several principal partners. This includes the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.
My efforts to contribute to the betterment of salamanders earned me the nickname Salamander Man. British author, Claire McClennan wrote about my salamander conservation efforts in her book: Another Chance Animal Rescues - Book 2 (2012). It was here that I was first referred to as Salamander Man. Since that time it has become my moniker.
The nickname has become a favourite among children, who are often one of my target audiences. This is important according to the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers' Network. Environmental education focused on children and youth is a particularly important strategy. It's an opportunity to intervene at a key developmental stage of life. Children can also be an important influence on their parents’ environmental behaviour.
Throughout my outreach education, I have heard time and time again from individuals of varying ages, “I didn’t know we even had salamanders here!” This statement alone represents one of the biggest hurdles salamanders face, lack of attention. Worldwide there are some 600 different species. Of these species, around half are listed as at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But how can people want to protect what they are not aware of? This is why I aimed to bring as much focus to the cause as possible. As such, I have appeared on TV, radio shows, and in many newspapers and publications across North America and Europe. This include high profile radio shows such as CBC in Ontario. I also appeared on Talking Animals, which airs in Tampa, Florida. The guests featured on this show tend to be prominent figures in the animal world, or notable celebrities who have ties to animal welfare. Past guests have included Jane Goodall, Chrissie Hynde, Paul Watson, Janeane Garofalo, Moby, Margaret Cho, and many others. I was also featured on Animals Today radio, which airs across 17 states, and on CiTR 101 FM, which provides listening to a base of over 2 million.
I sincerely hope my efforts will contribute to the betterment of salamanders. And that it will inspire others to do the same!
By Jenna Siu
When I was in grade school, I would spend some time at a friend’s lakeside cottage during the summer. We would catch toads and frogs and put them in a bucket with some water. I would think, "this is neat, they are slimy and weird looking."
That was about the extent of my interest in wildlife back then. I cared for animals, but I didn’t understand them. It wasn't until I immersed myself in the field of biology and I learned about the Earth’s geological history and the evolutionary history of biodiversity that I began to value the nature I saw around me. All of a sudden the rocks, plants and animals had stories behind them that I wanted to hear. It's easy to get caught up in our day-to-day human activities. We often forget that the planet we live on has billions of years of history and plenty of tales to tell.
The Earth is 4.543 billion years old to be exact. A timeline that is virtually inconceivable to us, with our short lives. The oldest evidence of life dates back to 3.5 billion years ago. Over a third of the Earth’s existence so far was spent going through geological changes that made it eventually habitable for life. Most of the biodiversity we are familiar with today are the descendants of the life forms from nearly 540 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion. If the geological timescale was scaled to the timeline of one year, this event would have begun on November 18 at 5:11pm! I found this analogy quite astonishing and it helped put into perspective our place in the Earth’s history.
Between then and now there has been a myriad of organisms where some lineages live on today and others have gone extinct. One story that has stuck with me is about one of the oldest lineages still around today, sharks. Sharks are some of the earliest jawed fish to have evolved around 425 million years ago. Their body shape has remained largely unchanged and species from millions of years ago would still be recognizable to us today as sharks. Some may describe them as primitive, but these animals have found an incredibly successful life strategy and stuck with it. They have survived warming periods, ice ages and four mass extinctions!
In comparison, Homo species began to appear less than 2 million years ago. When scaled to a year-long timeline, our species, Homo sapiens, appeared on December 31 at 11:48 pm. In other words, we are a very young species, one that is in our infancy, geologically speaking. We have become an incredibly influential species in nature, for better or for worse, but when it comes our long-term success that is yet to be determined. Sharks, on the other hand, got something right to have lasted this long. Our species could probably learn a thing or two from them if we want to ensure our legacy continues.
Similarly, it is easy to overlook the millions of species we co-exist with. It is easy to think that humans are the greater species; everything that came before was leading up to us. However, in studying ecology we learn that it is a less linear progression and that species adapt in a way that makes them well suited for their particular environment. The evolution of biodiversity is more like a web growing outward in different directions rather than a tree growing only upward.
There is nothing like going to a harsh environment to see first hand the incredible adaptations species have to deal with these challenges. During my undergraduate, I took a field course to the Sonoran desert. Deserts are dry, hot and water is a precious resource, yet plenty of life has found unique ways to cope with the challenges. The saguaro cacti are succulent plants that have deep taproots that can reach groundwater. Some plants have small waxy leaves to better retain water in the dry heat. I began to see that one species is not necessarily superior than another, but rather each species is well adapted to its niche and is part of a greater, complex and well-tuned system. A system that has had millions of years to work out the kinks and that continues to adapt.
Over the last several years, I have started to discover the story behind a fraction of the biodiversity past and present. This is what compelled me to start caring about the state of biodiversity today. Listening to and observing the story of life on our planet changed my perspective from one that was human-centric to one that views each species, including us, as part of a larger picture in nature.
Now when I find a frog, my thought process is very different from my earlier days. I think about what species it is, why I found it in a particular area and what it was doing. I also think about how amphibians were the first land vertebrates and the adaptations that allowed for this new way of life. Now knowing more about their biology, I am more wary of catching and handling them than I once was. It can cause unnecessary stress for an animal and if not careful, any residue left on my hands could be absorbed through their sensitive skin and cause them harm.
We have learned a lot about the natural world through research and observation, but there is so much more to be discovered. When we know about the biodiversity around us and gain a greater understanding of it, we can appreciate it and respect it. After all, the history of the Earth and the biodiversity around us is part of our very existence, our story and necessary for our survival.
This blog is also posted on Jenna's website.
By Brian Millard
It has been estimated that we are losing species 1,000 times faster than normal, and have even deemed this period of time as the Holocene extinction. The irony of this whole situation is that the species causing these extinctions (that’s us, by the way) is the same species whose survival depends on the survival of other species on the planet! What a twisted web we have all laid. How do we undo what we have done and effectively protect Earth’s biodiversity? To make it make sense in my head, I’ve broken it down into 3 levels.
The first level is the individual level. Sadly, just like going on a diet, there are no quick solutions! So we have to get back to the basics. That’s right, it means using all three R’s! We should all be reducing our rates of consumption and waste production. We should only be using products with multiple practicalities so we can reuse them as much as possible. And finally, we must recycle what we aren’t able to reuse anymore. It is also important to support initiatives that preserve and protect biodiversity in your area. That can include supporting an environmental organization, joining in a BioBlitz, or starting up a tree-planting event or community garden!
The second level involves industry. We interact with companies and corporations on a minute-to-minute basis. There is are a small portion of people who are completely self-sufficient, and we usually call them “crazy forest people” and then watch their TLC reality show. We have a lot of power as the consumer, but we rarely use it on behalf of the environment. So here is my challenge to you! READY?! It’s quite easy, go through your life today and pick three brands that you encounter (yes, No Brand name is still a brand!) and go to their Contact Us page on their website. Send them a message and ask what their Environmental Policy is and what they’re doing to make it better. You might be surprised with the responses you get!
Finally, the third level is all about the government! Our voice doesn’t lose power after an election, and it’s important for us to not forget that. We need to constantly remind our government of their role as environmental leaders, and hold them to the promises they make while getting our votes. It’s actually super easy to get in contact with your members of parliament, just click HERE. Send an email or call or write a letter and make sure that your government is doing everything possible to protect and preserve our country’s biodiversity.
I would like to apologize for not providing a revolutionary idea on how we can help with biodiversity loss. It really boils down to reminding ourselves that every decision and choice we make has an effect on the world around us. Even if you aren’t a politician or the CEO of some corporation, you can do many things to protect and preserve the species we share Earth with. Since it’s almost 2016, let’s make a new year’s resolution to become more informed global citizens and active participants in the protection of Earth’s biodiversity!
This blog is also posted on Earth Unfiltered.
.By Jenna Quinn
I often find myself explaining my job to people. Family, friends, acquaintances - it is not uncommon for me to get a “and that is your job!?” response when I tell them about how I spent the day counting butterflies, walking trails, measuring trees, rescuing turtles, identifying salamanders, locating lady slippers, or any other highlight (I rarely talk about the office work…it just doesn’t measure up!). The most common question I get about the monitoring projects is why? Why should I care about salamanders? What do they do, how do they help, why do we monitor them?
Studying zoology at university, I struggled to understand how everyone in my life didn’t find everything I was learning as fascinating as I did. I’d bombard my family and friends with whatever animal trivia I learned that day and expect them to be just as awed and wowed as I was. When I get asked about why salamanders are important, I often feel like I did back then. “Because they are incredible, awesome, cool creatures!” I, like many others, see an intrinsic value in salamanders just because they exist. I want to watch them, learn about them, protect them. The truth is that everyone sees value in things in their own way and for some people salamanders just aren’t on the top of the list. And that’s okay! Luckily there are a lot of other reasons why we should all care about salamanders and keep them from going the way of the Dodo.
Salamanders are both a predator and a prey species, making them an essential link in the food chain in most forest ecosystems. They are ferocious predators of insects and arthropods making them a natural pest control. Some salamanders, like the Spotted Salamander, have larval forms that eat aquatic insects, helping to control pesky populations of mosquitoes by feeding on their larvae. Some larger salamander species (not found in Ontario) even eat small rodents!
Salamanders are, in turn, eaten by rodents, birds, and snakes. As the most common vertebrate species in most forests, they are an important and abundant food source to sustain other wildlife. By being efficient predators of insects and providing ample food for other species, salamanders play an important role in transferring energy up the food chain. They also help manage decomposition and nutrient cycling in the forest ecosystem by being active predators of invertebrates.
One of my favourite reasons to care about salamanders unsurprisingly tied back to monitoring. Lungless salamanders, like the abundant Eastern Red-backed Salamander, are excellent indicator species as they are highly sensitive to contaminants in their environment. They can be quick to respond to environmental stresses like pollution and can therefore be very informative!
Whether the sight of a salamander makes you feel squeamish or delighted, there are many great reasons to protect them. So, let’s ensure they can continue to play an important role in our ecosystems!
By Raechel Bonomo
My favourite holiday memory is learning to make mashed potatoes in my grandma’s kitchen. Her hand gently clasping mine as I firmly squished down into a large yellow bowl using an old wooden-handled masher. I recall the way she recited the intricate family recipe. It is laced with table cream, a pinch of salt and the secret ingredient that has kept the mashed creation a must-have on our holiday table.
Learning how to make these potatoes felt like an initiation of sorts. It was one almost every female member of my family has gone through. No holiday meal is truly complete without this dish.
Carefully prepared meals are often a quintessential part of the holidays. More than that, food structures human lives into three parts: breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are copious articles telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat, the newest recipes to try and what foods to eat to lose weight.
But what if eating was as simple as consuming whatever happened to swim by?
Oh, to live like a fish.
Although our finned friends are as dependent on food as humans are, they’re not nearly as picky.
What a fish consumes boils down to their species, size and region. Larger fish, such as the anadromous salmon, tend to munch on smaller saltwater species like herring, who in turn opt for zooplankton and krill.
While other large freshwater fish such as trout will snack primarily on insects and smaller fish, sometimes what a fish eats is simply what it can fit in its mouth.
Largemouth Bass have been known to consume an interesting array of things, ranging from the typical crayfish to the odd small bird or two. This species is known to eat frogs, leeches, snakes and even small mammals.
Food availability and competition in an area also play a role in what a species may eat. Habitat degradation and pollution can negatively impact what’s on the menu. It often altering aquatic "food webs" by forcing species to opt for different food sources. With the introduction of invasive species such as Round Goby in many watersheds across Canada, sometimes getting a sufficient bite to eat is harder than simply chomping down on whatever floats a fish’s way.
Round Goby compete directly with other bottom-dwelling fish.,They not only eating similar prey but sometimes even preying on smaller fish, such as darters and logperch. By reducing the availability of food for native species, Round Goby over-populate areas by dwindling the numbers of species, including Northern Madtom and Eastern Sand Darter. Gobies will also intrude into the nests of native species and snack on their eggs. This prevents any offspring from hatching, impacting the life cycle of a native species and contributes to the decrease in population.
In the wake of the growing number of invasive species like the Round Goby, food has never been more important to native species. Fish need this sustenance for their development so they can reproduce, which helps keep populations of native species afloat.
Food plays an important part in every species’ life. From humans to fish, from a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes to a school of plankton. Food is the one thing we can all sink our teeth into.
By Brian Millard
As somewhat of a science-nerd I find it fascinating to be living during a global science experiment. Quite often we are looking to see if there is a cause-and-effect situation going on and not just random events. Well, the scientific community has come to a resounding consensus that human activities (burning fossil fuels, over-fishing, pollution, etc.) are causing global biodiversity loss.
If you are able to read this article right now, I would like to formally welcome you to the Holocene Extinction. Also known as the Sixth Mass Extinction. Now there is no need to raise an alarm and start stocking up on bottled water and cans of tuna, because this extinction event has been going on for the last 9,000 – 13,000 years!
Hold on! If this mass extinction has been going on for 13,000 years, how is it possible that humans have had that big of an effect? True. Unfortunately there was no CNN or Buzzfeed back then to say for sure what caused the extinction so long ago. Some think that following the last Ice Age, certain species couldn’t adapt fast enough as the environment changed. Others believe that these early extinctions were caused by the proliferation of modern humans.
Regardless of the distant past, it is glaringly obvious that modern humans have been the cause of modern extinction. It is hard for me to think of one activity I do in a day that isn’t directly, or indirectly, linked to biodiversity loss. The Holocene Extinction event has affected every major group of plants and animals on land and in water. The trickiest part is estimating the current rate of extinction. Especially when you consider that we share Earth with an estimated 8.7 million different species of plants and animals, and have yet to name 88.5% of them.
There are a couple of estimates for our current extinction rate. Stuart Pimm, a theoretical ecologist, stated that the current extinction rate of plants is 100 times higher than pre-human rates. A study published in 2014 in Conservation Biology claims that our current extinction rate is 1,000 times more than the natural background rates.
Long story short, we are losing more species of plants and animals than we are gaining new species. Mass extinction isn’t a new phenomena to our planet. The fact remains that this extinction is occurring because of a certain species of animal and within such a short ecological time frame. Itis something that is both terrifying and fascinating.
This blog is also posted on Earth Unfiltered.
By Jenna Siu
When I tell people I did my master’s working with butterflies I get a lot of different reactions. Among fellow biologists, there is a certain appreciation for a study species even if it may not be their species of choice. However, among the general public it is a different story. "Butterflies, are they even animals?"
Butterflies are indeed animals and there are tons of reasons why butterflies make great study organisms. They are relatively easy to catch and handle, and mostly easy to observe. Plus, butterflies are relatively short lived, which makes it easy to study them over many generations. Because of this, a number of butterfly populations around the world have been monitored for decades, resulting in work that has made major contributions to our understanding of population dynamics and conservation.
Part of my project was to assess the Eastern Tiger and the Spicebush Swallowtails’ movement relative to forest edges in the fragmented landscape of southern Ontario. Did they move towards it, avoid it, or a bit of both? To learn about this we caught butterflies and released them at different distances from the edge and followed them using a GPS unit to record their movement.
Working on butterflies had a few benefits. They come out when it’s sunny and are active during the day. Swallowtails are some of the largest butterflies in Ontario, so they take longer to warm up. I didn’t expect to see many out before 10 am or after 5 pm. On a typical day, I rolled out of bed around 8:30 am, ate breakfast and prepared my lunch. Eventually my field assistant would follow, we would pack the car and be on the road at 9:30 am. We would pack butterfly nets, a cooler with ice packs and a towel, many glassine envelopes, a permanent marker, GPS unit, field guides, lots of sunscreen and water.
After arriving at a site, we would walk around with our nets, sometimes up and down a road, through fields or along the forest edge looking for swallowtails. People often say to me, “I picture you frolicking in the fields catching butterflies.” Clearly, they have never gone butterfly catching before.
Catching butterflies is anything but graceful. In fact, some advice I was given before heading to the field was, “if you don’t look silly doing it, you’re not doing it right.” Truer words have never been spoken. Swallowtails are very strong fliers; they can fly high and fast. I couldn’t count the number of times a swallowtail has out flown me or made me run in circles. I have chased after falling leaves, fallen on my face, gotten scrapes and bruises, gone through poison ivy and swarms of deer flies and mosquitoes all to get one more sample.
Through many failed attempts, I quickly learned the tricks of the trade. It is much easier to sneak up on swallowtails while they are on a flower feeding on nectar. However if you miss, you have about a 30 second window to redeem yourself; otherwise it will likely out fly you. You can also catch them mid-flight or chase after them, but trust me, it is much harder. By mid-field season, my field assistant and I were pro butterfly catchers, catching well over 600 throughout the summer!
Once a butterfly was caught, we would carefully take it out of the net, put it in a glassine envelope and in the cooler. Butterflies are ectothermic, meaning their surroundings determine their body temperature. So, putting them in a cooler does minimal harm – as long as it’s not too cold!
There are a lot of myths about touching a butterfly’s wings and people always ask how safe it is for the insect. Their wings are covered in a powder like substance that is actually tiny scales. This is what gives them their bright colours and patterns. Lepidoptera, the scientific order they belong to, means ‘scaly wings’. As butterflies age, they lose their scales naturally. Although, you don’t want to handle them too much causing them to lose scales faster, it is very safe to hold them by pinching the wings together just behind the head – the strongest part of their wing.
After a few butterflies were caught, we would bring them to the release site. For each butterfly release, we would take a butterfly from the cooler, sex it and give it a unique ID in case we caught it again. To mark butterflies we simply used a permanent marker to write on their wings. For Eastern Tigers, which are mainly yellow, it was easy to write a number on their underwing. For the Spicebush however, they are mainly black. They have six orange spots on their underwings that we marked in unique patterns.
After recording this information, we would put the butterfly on the ground, wait for it to take off and follow it using flags and a GPS unit, doing our best not to influence its flight. We did this repeatedly throughout the day. When 5 pm rolled around and few butterflies were to be found, we headed back to the field station to make dinner ending the day with a few beers around the campfire.
I have now completed my master’s and as it turns out, forest edges are an important landscape feature for these swallowtails. It can be stressful to manage your own research project, but when it’s all said and done, I only have fond memories of spending the hot summer days catching butterflies.
This blog is also posted on Dispatches from the Field and Jenna's website
By Patrick Schaefer
As a child, my parents took me and my sister to a Conservation Authority park almost every weekend. My favourites were Mountsberg, Hilton Falls and Crawford Lake. These parks are in the vicinity of the Niagara Escarpment. They support high levels of biodiversity and contain a range of natural features like streams, lakes, wetlands and forest habitats. These are still my favourite parks to this day.
Parks Canada is celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday by giving free admission to national parks in 2017. But let’s take a minute to learn about Conservation Authorities (CA). They are another type of organization that protects natural spaces and engages people with nature. You may have missed it, but 2016 marked 70 years of CAs protecting Ontario’s Biodiversity. A total of 36 CAs operate in Ontario. They provide programs and services to 90% of Ontario’s population.
Conservation Authorities are non-profit organizations. They operate with a board of directors appointed by municipalities within their jurisdictions. The 1946 Conservation Authorities Act mandates that CAs manage water, land and natural resources. They do this through restoration, management and conservation actions. The 1920s and 30s was a peak time of extensive deforestation, soil loss and widespread degradation of natural resources. CAs were created in response to this poor land and resource management. In 1954 Hurricane Hazel dropped ~280mm of rain on southern Ontario. Combined with winds of >100km/hr, this event resulted in 81 deaths and $25 million dollars in damages. Today that would be equal to over $250 million. After review, the Conservation Authority Act was amended in 1959 to include protecting people and property from flooding.
Most people may be familiar with CAs for their local parks. They serve to protect natural areas and act as a resource for education and recreation for the public. Ontario’s CAs own and protect nearly 150,000 hectares of our natural and cultural heritage areas. In addition, CAs play a major role in restoration efforts. In 2012 they collectively planted more than 3 million trees, provided $8.4 million for water quality improvement projects. These projects were related to erosion control and agricultural best management practices. They also carry out restoration and rehabilitation of aquatic and terrestrial habitats. But CAs are about much more than land protection. CAs manage $2.7 billion dollars in flood control and prevention infrastructure. Prevention infrastructure can include dams, dykes, channels and erosion control structures. These structures and activities save roughly $100 million dollars annually in preventing flood damage and loss of life!
Conservation Authorities also play an important role in monitoring healthy ecosystems. In partnership with provincial agencies, CAs track surface and groundwater across Ontario. They monitor aquatic ecosystems by assessing fish and aquatic insect communities. Biological monitoring occurs at more than 1000 sites across the province.
Since graduating with a M.Sc in 2014 I have worked at two Conservation Authorities conducting biological monitoring. Contributing to the preservation of natural spaces and conservation of biodiversity has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
With the money you are saving from free admission to Parks Canada this year, consider visiting some parks at your local CA. It will support the many great programs and services they offer. There are also many opportunities to get involved. Most CAs offer volunteer opportunities in restoration and monitoring projects. To learn more, check out the Conservation Ontario website and your local CA.
Blogs are written by ELB members who want to share their stories about Ontario's biodiversity.