Fieldnotes: Creepy creatures! Invasive plants! Spooky scientist!
Fieldnotes is WWF-Canada’s newsletter about our science-based work finding solutions in the face of an unprecedented crisis in climate change and wildlife loss.
Canada’s (not actually) creepiest at-risk creatures
For Halloween we’re exhuming some scientific facts about Canada’s spookiest species. But don’t judge a bat by its blood-sucking — these creatures are fundamental to our ecosystems. What’s really spine-chilling is that all of these are considered at risk in Canada.
Little brown bat
Bats have been incorrectly portrayed as scary, blood-sucking rodents that attack humans. Thing is, they’re adorable, aren’t related to rodents, and only three bat species drink blood (none in Canada). As the only mammal to have evolved the ability for constant flight, bats actually do their best to avoid people by using echolocation to prevent flying into any obstacles. (Yes, including your hair!)
Bats are also extremely beneficial to the environment. Insectivorous bats found in Canada, such as the little brown bat, are major predators of night-flying insects like moths, beetles and midges. The little brown bat has suffered massive declines in population in recent years due to an infection called white-nose syndrome. This bat was emergency listed as Endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2014, one of only three species to ever receive such immediate protection.
Their sharp teeth and strong claws may make them seem like an animal you wouldn’t want to encounter in the woods. But Wolverines are shy and fearful of humans, so you probably won’t ever see one out and about.
In Canada, wolverines can be found across the Arctic region living in dens made of rocks and snow. They are considered Special Concern under SARA, as declines have been reported in the southern parts of their range. They are threatened by increasing habitat fragmentation and climate change, and they are sensitive to human disturbance. To a wolverine, we’re the scary ones.
Sturgeon are some of the most bizarre looking fish in the world! Covered in scutes (kind of like horns) instead of scales, they’re one of the largest freshwater fish in Canada — over three metres in length — and can live up to 100 years. They’re part of a family of fish that has existed, and has changed very little, since the time of the dinosaurs. Many lake sturgeon populations are considered endangered in Canada due to past commercial fishing and more recently habitat loss and fragmentation, and degraded water quality.
Nothing screams Halloween more than the thought of toads, a key ingredient in many fictional witches’ brews. But as with the rest of this list, the actual toil and trouble comes from us. Frighteningly, Fowler’s toads are found in Canada in only three locations along the shoreline of Lake Erie. They’re threatened by habitat loss, sensitive to pesticides both as tadpoles and adults, and are considered endangered in Canada.
Restoring habitats for our spooky species
WWF-Canada is working hard to protect these at risk ‘spooky’ species by restoring their natural habitats. Our lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands hold 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater. These watersheds are important for wildlife and people who rely on them. A healthy watershed means supporting species like the little brown bat that eats insects that depend on freshwater habitats.
Restoring freshwater habitat and protecting Canada’s wild rivers are some of the ways we’re working towards ensuring Canada’s water is in good condition by 2025. Transport Canada recently announced the safeguarding of 25 wild and free-flowing rivers under the Canadian Navigable Waters Act (CNWA), based on WWF-Canada’s recommendations. These rivers are of significant ecological and cultural value. They support a rich diversity of wildlife like the lake sturgeon. Protecting these rivers provides species with unobstructed migration routes, cleans pollution out of habitats, and helps ecosystems adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
Q&A: Little Lawn of Horrors
This time of year, front yards and balconies fill up with Halloween monsters, cobwebs and tombstones. But Pete Ewins, our lead species specialist, tells us there’s something even scarier lurking in our gardens!
What’s the scariest plant in southwestern Ontario?
Right now, I’d have to say the Norway maple. They’re not native to our region — they were imported from overseas in the last century — and while they grow well and provide shade, their numerous seedlings can take over, which is scary because they support very little wildlife. They’re quite bad news for people’s gardens in cities like Toronto. But there are other plants that are just as bad and occur around Canada: giant hogweed and wild parsnip are the vampires of the plant world. They can cause nasty blisters when you accidentally touch them and are exposed to sunlight.
What’s something that would be a lot better if it were planted in someone’s yard?
Any native tree that’s suited to the local soil conditions. It could be a sugar or red maple, a white or red oak, or even an elm, redbud, sassafras or tulip tree. Municipalities are really powerful here — the City of Toronto is now planting native, locally sourced trees. If we eventually replace Norway maples with native tree species, our gardens will become havens for numerous local insects and birds, which is huge for protecting and recovering biodiversity.
And what if someone only has a small front or back yard, or even just a balcony? How can they plant something that helps wildlife?
The introduction of even one native plant in a pot, if you have a balcony or small patch in your garden, is massively impactful. Native plants have deep roots and don’t need much added water, fertilizer or pesticide because they’re adapted to local conditions. And when they flower — they’re all perennials pretty much — local pollinators are quick to find them. People get amazed by how their tiny little plant ends up being a patch of habitat. When each patch is connected to other neighbourhood habitats, this all becomes like a working jigsaw puzzle that will ultimately grow into Canada’s biggest wildlife garden.
To find more about how to plant a native wildlife garden, check out our In the Zone program.
Meet a…(Spooky) Scientist!
Emily Giles — Senior Specialist, Species
Emily is fascinated by all types of wildlife around the world, so much so that she lived in the jungles of Borneo for three months during her MSc thesis. She researched bats in Malaysian jungles to see if they were sensitive to habitat disturbance from expanding palm oil agriculture. On this trip she met the only animal on the planet that gives her nightmares — land leeches!
“These small yet numerous leeches live on the ground and in the trees in tropical rainforests and were one of the most difficult challenges when living in the forest. Like the leeches we have here in Canada, they will feed on virtually any species’ blood – including humans!”