Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

MVFN’s recent lecture explored why turtles outlived the dinosaurs but are now in trouble in Ontario

David Seburn

Press Story
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
March 26, 2008
Submitted by Pauline Donaldson

MVFN’s recent lecture explored why turtles outlived the dinosaurs but are now in trouble in Ontario

Photo: David Seburn discusses local populations of Blanding’s turtles with a carapace after MVFN lecture. Photo by Howard Robinson

Ecological consultant David Seburn was guest speaker March 20th for the 6th lecture in Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) series “Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges.” The lecture focused on Ontario’s turtles which Seburn describes as ‘endlessly fascinating’. As a species they have been around for so long they saw the dinosaurs go extinct! This is especially remarkable when one considers the relatively few species of turtles worldwide and only eight in Ontario.

The turtle’s shell, perhaps their best known and most unique feature, represents a serious biological limitation, Seburn explained. “They are enclosed in a little box so when they breathe they must compress their organs.” And when they need to pull in their head and limbs for defense, they have to hold their breath! Egg-laying is also a challenge. Not surprisingly the females tend to be larger than males to make room for eggs.

Seburn took the audience through the characteristics and distribution of Ontario’s eight turtle species and the conservation challenges they face. Interestingly, though loss and fragmentation of Ontario’s wetlands was one challenge highlighted, habitat protection did not dominate the discussion. Neither was the threat of global warming a major concern as we are at the northern limit for these reptiles’ successful egg hatching, so warmer temperatures could be beneficial. Why then, are six of Ontario’s eight turtles on the Canada’s ‘species at risk list’? As Seburn explained, Painted turtles and Snapping turtles are doing well. However the large Map turtle is of ‘special concern’ and the Spiny softshell, the Stinkpot, the Blanding’s and the Wood turtle are all considered ‘threatened’. The spotted turtle is in more serious trouble listed as ‘endangered’. It is rarely seen now.

Clues to the answer are the increasing adult mortality rate and the survival of eggs. Once turtles reach adulthood they can live a long time, and have the potential for a surprisingly long reproductive life combined with low rates of adult mortality. However, the natural success rate for eggs is so low that adult mortality must be kept at only 1-2% to maintain population stability. Unfortunately increasing adult mortality from road hazards has become a major problem when turtles travel on land to lay eggs or move to different food sources. The Blanding’s and Wood turtles are quite terrestrial and can travel 1-2 km to nest. Secondly, exacerbating a naturally low egg success rate is increasing predation from overpopulations of ‘subsidized’ predators such as raccoons in parks. Reaching more than 4 times regular rural numbers they can eat 100% of any turtle eggs in an area. Sadly sometimes the only warning sign a population is in trouble is it’s disappearance as all the adults eventually die off leaving no young.

Seburn made some suggestions to help conserve Ontario’s turtles. Short of closing down roads, municipalities can use drift fences or culverts to channel turtles across roads, and perhaps turtle crossing signs. Individuals can help turtles cross roads in the direction they were going (do not handle snapping turtles -lift them with a shovel). Large ‘ecopassages’ have been used in some places with great success in reducing mortality of a wide range of wildlife species. Recovery strategies for Ontario’s turtles also include research and population monitoring.

Info. from Seburn on identification and reporting turtle sightings has been posted on MVFN’s website (see Turtle Watch 2008 filed under Conservation). Turtle sightings can be reported locally to Mississippi Valley Conservation or to the Toronto Zoo Turtle Tally project by calling 416-392-5999.

‘Focus on Mammals’ by Glenn Desy (MNR) will be the last lecture in MVFN’s Conservation Challenges series, Thursday April 17th at 7:30 pm at the Almonte United Church Social Hall in Almonte. For more information, please contact Joyce Clinton at 613-257-4879 or visit MVFN’s website at www.mvfn.ca.

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Amazing Monarchs at MVFN

Jean Lauriault
Press Story
Amazing Monarchs at MVFN
January 24, 2008
by Sheila Edwards

A large crowd gathered January 17 for a Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) lecture on Monarchs presented by Jean Lauriault of the Canadian Museum of Nature. As one of Canada’s foremost Monarch experts and member of a tri-national committee for conservation of these animals, Lauriault knows Monarchs well. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) have a very interesting life cycle, as short as 20 days, or 9 months long. During a hot summer the cycle is quick and thus more generations are born. From June to August, adults lay eggs on milkweed. In 3 to 15 days they hatch and there are 5 instars or molts of the caterpillar (larvae) taking up to 14 days, before the pupa or chrysalis (not cocoon) stage is reached. The adults emerge within 7-15 days and will live as little as 14 days or as long as 8-9 months for the late-season adults emerging in August. These are the adults which go into sexual diapause and begin the amazing migration south, remaining sterile until starting their return trip.

Monarch migration has always fascinated scientists, children, and nature lovers alike, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the site of their winter home in Mexico was discovered. As they leave Canada, Monarchs in Ontario gather at ‘staging’ areas to cross Lake Erie and Ontario. Then, covering distances of up to 100 km per day at heights of up to 1 km, they head to locations in southern US and remote areas in Mexico. Little is known about the stopover locations used during their trip, but upon arrival as many as 50 million butterflies may congregate within trees in a single hectare. They do not eat all winter but survive on stored Lipids. In March as the area gets drier, they mate and head north, with many stopping in Texas to lay their eggs and die, leaving the next generation to complete the return journey. Those arriving in Canada are the children of those that left in August.

It is hard enough to conserve a species that stays put, but conserving Monarchs, Lauriault noted, poses a ‘super challenge”, requiring the efforts of three countries. Concerns in Mexico include protecting the remote wooded area favoured by the Monarch, from illegal logging. When return migration commences clouds of butterflies fly low over the land and thousands/millions may be killed by vehicles. Important also are the stopover areas in the US, many not yet identified, where a generation may be raised in the spring, and where non-migrating Monarchs may also live.

What can we do here in Canada to conserve Monarchs? The staging areas in southern Ontario need continued protection. Secondly, Milkweed, the sole food of the caterpillar, is classified as a weed since it is toxic to cattle; action needs to be taken to remove this classification. A very aggressive invasive species that has gotten a strong foothold in Ontario is dog-strangling vine (Pale Swallowwort), also in the milkweed family. Adults can mistakenly lay their eggs on it, but the hatched caterpillars cannot eat this plants leaves. Dog-strangling vine should be eradicated whenever possible. Finally as Lauriault pointed out, the adult butterflies feed on nectar of various wild flowers and thus roadside flora need to be protected from mowing and herbicide application. On an up note, provide habitat by planting a butterfly garden, and enjoy!

To wrap up our evening, we presented Jean Lauriault with a Monarch T-shirt. He then drew a name for a second Monarch shirt, won by Teresa Peluso. Both shirts were donated by Neil Carleton, a local educator who often uses Monarchs for teaching biology and conservation in his classroom.

The next lecture in our series “Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges” on Thursday, Feb 21st will be “Ontario’s Birds” presented by Cliff Bennett, an MVFN founding member and Ontario East Director for Ontario Nature. For more information please contact Program Chair Joyce Clinton at 613-257-4879 or email . MVFNs Annual Winter Walk will take place February 17th. Learn about Winter Adaptations of Plants and Animals. For more information call Cliff Bennett at 613-256-5013 or refer to www.mvfn.ca for information on either of these upcoming events.

NOTES:

1. Further information on butterflies can be found in The Butterflies of Canada by Layberry, Hall and Lafontaine, parts of which can be found on-line at http://www.cbif.gc.ca/spp_pages/butterflies/index_e.php.

2. More information on dog-strangling vine may be found at http://www.swallow-wort.com, and http://www.ofnc.ca/fletcher/research/swallowwort/index_e.php.

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MVFN’s Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges series

MVFN’s Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges  series

-notes on the first three presentations by Pauline Donaldson

The goal with the lecture series is to spread awareness and information about the natural world, offering a sense of kinship and fun as we hear about issues along with like-minded local folk! Each lecture is preceded by a nature ‘show-and-tell’ for anyone with something interesting to report. The featured guest speaker is introduced by a host for the evening and refreshments are always provided. There are always good insights from these lectures and it is hoped that this year’s series will help us learn what we can do for conservation of several groups or species which make up our natural world. The three lectures held so far have certainly done that.

In September we were truly inspired by nature-lover and local resident Jamie Fortune, Director of Eastern Canada for Ducks Unlimited, as he presented an introduction to our series. Jamie Fortune has traveled a great deal in his work with Ducks Unlimited, but told us “Lanark County is the nicest place to live in the world.” He said that we have a bounty of natural treasures and quality of life to enjoy here because of the beauty and pristineness of our natural world which is always so apparent to him when he returns home here after travel. Last year during Paul Hamilton’s talk on Water, we learned that right now the Mississippi River’s water quality rivals pristine rivers in Northern Europe. However, things must be done to keep it this way. Using words directed at our naturalist club Mr. Fortune said he believes “. . . the great challenge of this century is for volunteers to step up to bat.” This, he explained, is because governments are finding it more and more difficult to drive forward the people’s agenda and therefore they seem to be getting more receptive to positive feedback in the form of suggestions of what can be done.

Two of the most important things we can do, Fortune suggested, are to get out and enjoy what nature has to offer. Use it or lose it. Teach your children and grandchildren to know their trees and animals. Take them out hiking and fishing and eat the healthy fish from our rivers. Also continue what we are doing as a club.

In October we were treated to a presentation by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, the lively woman who speaks for trees, author of Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest. Through her, our native trees were revealed as complex beings with an ‘eco-function’ and biochemistry fine-tuned over millennia. Trees evolved over 320 million years ago on this continent and without them, she says we would not be here today. Trees are the lungs of the world and along with the largely unseen underwater ocean forests, use carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water and can also help remove particulate pollution. Not only that, as she illustrated during the lecture, “Trees bank carbon dioxide into some of the most exciting medicines of our times.” A key conservation issue which emerged was not simply the loss of individual trees but the loss of a diversity of native trees many of which have such great potential. The take home message is to get out and plant trees, but choose a native tree species which will do well in a particular site. “It is time to plant trees to rebuild the forests of the future, so that we can live again in the true cathedrals of our natural world” says Beresford-Kroeger.

November’s Focus on Snakes with Tobi Kiesewalter of Murphy’s Point Provincial Park was another wonderful presentation as we enjoyed a video featuring black ratsnakes and became experts at the identification of Eastern Ontario’s often misunderstood, and thus sometimes persecuted, nine snake species after viewing Tobi’s excellent slides. We learned that forest edge habitat is critical for conserving snakes since they need both cooling forest shade and open areas for basking in the sun. In winter black ratsnakes congregate in communal hibernacula, returning to the same ones year after year. Therefore they should not be relocated far from home or they will likely die. Finally, it is critical not to disturb rock piles, rotting stumps or standing dead trees as these are important sites for ‘incubating’ eggs. We also learned that many of our snakes are live-bearers. Road hazards are a serious threat to our snakes and are especially serious when a ‘gravid’ female is involved.

 

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Successful field naturalist meeting with Kiesewalter on snakes was informative and fun

Press Release
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
Submitted by Pauline Donaldson
November 19, 2007

Last Thursday an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Almonte United Church to learn about our nine Eastern Ontario snakes from Tobi Kiesewalter at the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) lecture. ADHS teacher Mike Keffer introduced Tobi who had just returned from New Zealand where there are no native snakes!

Kiesewalter lecture (1280x960)

 

Kiesewalter has been studying and educating people about snakes for more than 10 years as
naturalist at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, and his enthusiasm on the topic was infectious. He
works hard to get out the Park’s message “live and let slither” on behalf of the 9 species that call
Eastern Ontario home. Key conservation issues which emerged included maintaining habitat and
increasing awareness of risks snakes face from road hazards and human persecution. Although
none of Eastern Ontario’s snakes pose a danger to humans, as Tobi explained, they are often
misunderstood or feared because they are rarely seen or when seen they may be mistaken for a less
benign species. Our Northern Water snake for example may be mistaken for the venomous water
moccasin. The Eastern milk snake may be encountered acting aggressively while shaking its tail
against dry leaves, and be incorrectly identified as a rattlesnake.

The evening began with an excellent video, Black Ratsnake Conservation in Ontario, filmed in St.
Lawrence Parks and Murphys Point Provincial Park and featuring university researchers and
Ontario Parks staff conducting research on this species considered ‘threatened’ in Ontario. The
snakes were seen climbing trees, being measured or implanted with tracking devices and having
their over-wintering hibernaculums monitored. Tobi donated a copy of the 20-minute video to
MVFN, who is pleased to loan it out. Sightings of rare black ratsnakes can be reported to the
Natural Heritage Information Centre at http://nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca.

Tobi followed the video with fantastic slides of other snakes. The audience learned the difference
between black ratsnakes and the northern water or eastern milk snake, and the northern brown
versus the northern redbelly. There were also wonderful photos of white half moon markings in
front of the tiny northern ribbon snakes’ eyes and of the elusive but beautiful smooth green snake.

Tobi showed us that our snakes are a tough bunch. They survive in spite of challenges of being
‘ectotherms’ in our cold climate, thanks to adaptations and to the proper habitat still being found
here. Forest edge habitat is critical since to regulate body temperature they need both cooling
forest shade and open areas for basking in the sun. In winter black ratsnakes congregate in
communal burrows or hibernacula and they return to the same ones year after year. Therefore they
should never be relocated more than 100-200 metres away because they will die when winter
comes. Temperature regulation is also important in the summer. Eggs layed in carefully chosen
nests will require 10 weeks of 30 degrees C to develop. Therefore it is critical to not disturb rock
piles, rotting stumps or standing dead trees.

Surprisingly, although it is generally rare for snakes, five Eastern Ontario species do not lay eggs
at all but give birth to live young. The live-bearing or ‘gravid’ females can control the temperature
of developing young by regulating their own temperature. As a consequence, however, hazards of
the road are even more serious for these species if a gravid female is involved.
Following the slides, Tobi brought out the 20-year-old, bred-in-captivity black ratsnake which had
accompanied him to Almonte and challenged those uncomfortable around snakes to hold the
animal. The snake was seen moving from person to person, checking its route with a constant flick
of its forked black tongue drawing in traces of a chemical trail to determine if it was going right or
left.
The public is invited to the next lecture of MVFN’s “Conservation Challenges” series January 17,
2008 with Jean Lauriault of the Canadian Museum of Nature who will focus on Butterflies. For
further information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Joyce Clinton at 613-257-4879 or see
MVFN’s website at http://mvfn.ca.

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Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists lecture series for 2007-08

Linda Touzin from the MNR

MVFN’s lecture series “Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges” begins September 20, 20007. MVFN proudly presents a keynote lecture by Jamie Fortune of Ducks Unlimited Canada. Subsequent lectures  will zero in on an individual species or group and provide a back-to-basics approach to looking at the conservation challenges each may face. The program runs on the dates listed below and further updates and details will be posted when available.

Please contact MVFN Program coordinator Joyce Clinton at 613-257-4879 for further details.

  • Thursday, Sept 20
    Jamie Fortune (Ducks Unlimited Canada)
    Our Natural World: Conseravtion Challenges
  • Thursday, Oct 18
    Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author Arboretum American: A Philosophy of the Forest )
    Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges Focus on Trees
  • Thursday, Nov 15
    Tobi Kiesewalter (Murphy’s Point Provincial Park)
    Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges Focus on Snakes
  • Thursday, Jan 17, 2008
    Jean Lauriault (Canadian Museum of Nature)
    Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges Focus on Butterflies
  • Thursday, Feb 21
    Cliff Bennett
    Birds – Changes and Challenges Around Us
  • Thursday, March 20
    David Seburn (Seburn Ecological Services)
    Our Natural World: Conservation Challengs: Focus on Turtles
  • Thursday, April 17
    Glenn Desy, MNR
    Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges. Focus on Mammals
  • Thursday, May 15
    Annual General Meeting at Union Hall
    details to follow

Venue for all lectures:

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Location: Almonte United Church Social Hall, 106 Elgin St. Almonte, Ontario.

All welcome. There is a $5 fee for non-members. No charge for those 16 yrs or under.

Almonte Locator Map

Almonte Locator Map

Outdoor Events:

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