Archive for May 4th, 2010

Why did the turtle cross the road? Probably for the same reason as the chicken: to get to the other side. I recently came across my first road-crossing turtle, early in the season. He was just a little guy, parked in the sun, halfway across the road. It wasn’t a busy road, but when you move at the speed of a turtle, any road crossing is hazardous. I stopped my car and got out to give him a hand. It was obvious that his mother had told him “Never talk to strangers!”, because as I approached, he withdrew tightly into his shell. I picked him up and, after a couple of commemorative photos, set him down in what seemed like as safe a spot as possible on the other side of the road. Even though he was not disposed to communicate with me, I could tell what he was thinking: what the heck is a road doing in the middle of my home???

Good question. Certainly, in a sane world, it wouldn’t be there, running as it does through a wetland. The road is a sign of Canada’s overpopulation problem. We tend to think of overpopulation as a problem in China or India, but the fact is, there are way too many people right here in Ontario. Canada may be a large country, but most of its 30 million or so citizens live in a narrow band along the southern border. This fringe is the same region that is home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and too many people have stressed many regions to the limit. A good example is Carolinian southwestern Ontario. Although Carolinian Canada makes up just 1% of Canada’s land area, it has a greater number of flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada. One third of the rare, threatened and endangered species of Canada are found there. Ninety to 98% of the natural habitats in this region have been destroyed or altered by human activities. All that is left of the once-rich natural diversity is huddled in a scattering of parks and conservation areas.

In the case of turtles, the arrival of so many humans invading their habitat has been nothing less than a disaster. Most Ontario turtles live south of the Canadian shield. After 250 million years of residency here, when they survived even the cataclysmic forces that killed the dinosaurs, 6 of Ontario’s 8 hard-shelled turtle species are now threatened with extinction. The cause? Us.

The wetland homes of turtles have been drained or filled in at an incredible rate in the last century. Pollution and pesticides take a toll, but among the greatest hazards facing turtles are roads. In overpopulated Ontario, roads run everywhere and cars don’t stop for lumbering turtles. Many turtles are run over and killed on roads. A perfect example of our inability to control our excesses, our horrific impact on the domain of turtles, is ongoing right now in Ottawa. A planned extension of the Terry Fox Drive is poised to destroy the wetland home of a population of the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are fighting to put the development on hold, but delays are likely to be temporary.

The environmental footprint of the average Canadian is a size XL…extra large! When the number of people living in a region can not be permanently maintained without depleting resources and without degrading the environment, you have a serious overpopulation problem. And in this case, the Blanding’s Turtles are the latest victims.

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On the damp edges of streams and wetlands, the marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are glowing brilliantly. Surely the brightest blooms of spring belong to these members of the buttercup family. Their eye-catching flowers ornament moist, shady corners with saturated soil. The common name is misleading, as marsh marigolds are not related to the marigolds you grow in your garden at all. A close look at the flowers reveals their similarity to those of the buttercup, a shared shiny yellow.

That is, unless you’re an insect. If that’s the case, you’ll see that they are actually purple! The sepal tips reflect ultraviolet light, while their bases absorb it. Insects therefore see a distinct pattern that directs them to the nectar at the centre of the flower. Marsh marigolds are especially attractive to flies such as syrphid flies (aka hoverflies or flower flies), likely their main pollinator. However, nearly 40 insects are known to visit marsh marigolds.

While they may be bug magnets, marsh marigolds are best left alone by people and herbivores as they contain toxic poisons. The leaves contain irritants that can cause skin to blister. As with stinging nettle, the toxins can be rendered harmless by cooking, if you really can’t resist sampling them. I’m content just to admire their good looks.

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