How We Humans Change Plant and Animal Communities in our Rivers and Lakes

Post by Art Goldsmith.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are taken by Art Goldsmith.

There is little in life more energizing than being amongst great young minds exploring, studying and testing some of the more pressing questions of today’s world.  Such was my opportunity when Queen’s University biology professors Stephen Lougheed and Yuxiang Wang invited me to be with them as they led the Canadian version of the following course at the Queen’s University Biological Station.

Effects of Human Development on Aquatic Environments and Biodiversity in Canada and China Field Course 2015

Aided by research associate Mark Szenteczki, Queen’s grad students Mingzhi Qu and Wenxi Feng,  Lougheed and Wang provide Chinese and Canadian undergraduate biology and environmental science students with an opportunity for intensive learning in the field.  This learning is mixed with a joyful and exhausting itinerary through some of our country’s large and heavily populated aquatic systems.  Learning continues into the evenings with seminars and lectures by course leaders, other biologists and ecologists, and by the students themselves, working in teams.

Partnering with China’s Tongji University, Queen’s University has developed the Sino–Canada Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development, with the Biological Station being the Canadian portion of the Centre.

Commemorative plaque recognizing the Sino-Canadian Centre, and the QUBS Yangtze Environmental Specimen Bank sister station relationship.
Commemorative plaque recognizing the Sino-Canadian Centre, and the QUBS Yangtze Environmental Specimen Bank sister station relationship.

Although it predates establishment of the Centre, the course, which began in 2005, reflects the Centre’s spirit and its goals.  The course is given in summers alternating yearly between China and Canada.

While I experienced only several days of the two-week course at the Biological Station, thanks to material provided by professors Lougheed and Wang, Teaching Assistant Szenteczki and the students, the following includes personal observations, as well as events outside those days when I was present.  I have divided my observations into several chapters.  In no way is this information comprehensive.  Rather, my intent is to provide you, dear reader, with an overview that skims the surface of the wealth of detailed knowledge packed into this very richly composed course.

Course Day 1

The field course provides a rich diversity of experience.  On Day 1 at QUBS, the students enjoyed learning about Eastern Ontario natural history and avian diversity.  They ended the day with a nocturnal field trip around the Station where they experienced owls, frogs and the numerous insect species which emerge after dark.  This blog isn’t intended to give a full annotated itinerary of the course, but rather provide some flavours and snippets of course experiences and content.

First up, a hike at the Station on the Cow Island Marsh Trail.

Cow Island Trail sign at the Opinicon Campus of the Queen's University Biological Station.
Cow Island Trail sign at the Opinicon Campus of the Queen’s University Biological Station.

Any aquatic ecology course has to consider the most productive biological systems—wetlands.

Classification of wetlands is, itself, an interesting and diverse field of study.  For the purpose of this blog, we will focus on four classes: marshes (fresh and saltwater, and those in between); fens; bogs; and swamps.  Wetland definitions are tenuous and these common names differ from place to place.  Much like common bird or plant names, the terms change.

If you wish a more studied and rigorous wetland classification system, I suggest a good textbook, Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation, Second Edition, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2010), by Dr. Paul Keddy, who also happens to live in Eastern Ontario.

Another helpful reference is the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Summary on Wetland Resources.

Marshes

Marshes occur in and along ponds, lakes and rivers; in fact, they occur in and along many aquatic environments.  Defined by rich natural nutrient sources, herbaceous emergent vegetation and a neutral pH, marshes are highly ecologically productive places with a diversity of plant and animal life.  Of course, they are usually wet!  That is, the soils of marshes are usually saturated and overlain by water.  There are tidal and non-tidal marshes.  Marine marshes are a particular favourite of mine.  More about that later.

The Cow Island Marsh is an excellent example.  Like so many local marshes in Eastern Ontario, this one is dominated by Common Cattails, Typha latifolia, seen below.

Common Cattails, Typha latifolia
Common Cattails, Typha latifolia

Look closely, though.  Increasingly, I have noticed another similar species, Narrow-leaved Cattails, Typha angustifolia, becoming more common and even dominant in some marshes.

On July 29, 2015, Instructor Dale Kristensen of Queen’s University led a walk at Cow Island Marsh that focused on his theme: Plant diversity, identification & importance.

Thanks to the members of team “Scrambled-egg slime mold,” Fei Jin (Fudan University), Zixiang Li (Beijing Normal University), Sarah Minnes (Memorial University) and Natalie Wong (University of Toronto), for their write-up on this event.  Thanks go out to Mark Szenteczki as well for the two photos showing Dale leading the students at Cow Island Marsh.

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Some of the plants and scenes observed at this marsh.

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is not as familiar as its field growing cousin, Common Milkweed.  It is, though, a favourite also of many butterflies.

Marsh Bellflower
Marsh Bellflower

I had not noticed the Marsh Bellflower, Campanula aparinoides, before.  Dr. Kristensen identified it immediately as a common local marsh inhabitant.  It is sometimes overlooked because of its diminutive size and vine growth habit that often causes the majority of the long narrow leaves to be hidden by other plants

Marsh Bellflower stretched on boardwalk.
Marsh Bellflower stretched on boardwalk.

To the right are the stem and leaves of the same plant stretched across the boardwalk to enable photography.

Note that the plant was not harmed during this process!

Many odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) inhabit the marsh in midsummer.

One common dragonfly is the Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella (photo below).

photo9LpulchellaAt the entrance to the boardwalk, in July, you may see a most symmetrical flower, the Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, a wetland-loving member of the Madder family.

Buttonbush
Buttonbush
European Frog-bit
European Frog-bit

Invasive species, a subject of a talk given by James Sinclair at QUBS during the China–Canada course, are apparent in the marsh.  Look for another posting featuring Sinclair’s presentation.  Though the Purple Loose-strife (Lythrum salicaria) is now controlled, the plant below, the European Frog-bit, Hydrocharis morsus-ranae, is invading most of our marshes.

About 23 years ago, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF), in partnership with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), established an Invading Species Awareness Program, where you can learn more about this species and how to control it, as well as the growing number of species invading Ontario.

Flowering Rush
Flowering Rush

The lovely, and invasive, Flowering Rush, Butomus umbellatus, Westmeath Provincial Park, Ontario.

Human effects on all wetlands have reduced these important ecosystems both qualitatively and quantitatively.  This photo permits us a more sanguine view, perhaps echoing a previous time when the marsh and its human inhabitants lived more harmoniously.  The marsh is in the foreground, Cow Island on the upper left and Lake Opinicon beyond.

Marsh - Lake Opinicon and Cow Island
Marsh – Lake Opinicon and Cow Island

Fens

The course focuses on freshwater systems.  The Queen’s University Biological Station includes properties in the Frontenac Axis, a band of the Canadian Shield that extends from the Algonquin Highlands across the St. Lawrence River into New York State, where the band widens to form the Adirondacks.  Swamps, bogs, marshes and fens are a feature of the rocky forested landscape.  Locally, swamps and marshes are well represented.  One of the best fens in the area is the White Lake Fen, near Arnprior, Ontario.

Fens receive groundwater, and, therefore, are more nutrient rich and biodiverse than bogs which receive only rainwater.  Both are characterized by both herbaceous and woody water-loving plants, including many orchid and carnivorous plant species.

White Lake Fen
White Lake Fen

Swamps

Cedar grove - Stittsville
Cedar grove – Stittsville

Swamps are characterized by woody vegetation.  Cedar swamps abound in Eastern Ontario.  Eastern White Cedars, Thuja occidentalis, tend to be some of the oldest trees in our country.  Drainage has left a great deal of our cedar swamps with a lowered water table, which has caused a drop in diversity and no cedar regeneration.  Cedars are very adaptable, though, and upland populations are increasing as they invade abandoned farmlands.  This points out a problem with the way we organize our conservation efforts around endangered species instead of endangered ecosystems.  The cedar is definitely not endangered.  Perhaps the cedar swamp is threatened?

Pictured on the right is a cedar grove in Stittsville, Ontario.  Previously, this grove, now a protected area, had standing water most of the year.

Bogs

Bogs and fens are indeed a northern phenomenon.  In Eastern Ontario, well known large bogs exist and even have moose populations (Alfred Bog and Mer Bleue).  Just for fun, and because your blogger recently completed a lifelong dream trip to a very southern bog, here is a photo from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (southern Georgia, USA).  Bogs’ waters are only replenished by rain.  This makes them nutrient poor, acidic, wet environments characterized by peat moss.  The southern climate produces some bigger trees, and some more diversity than one would get in our local bogs.  Still, Okefenokee is NOT a swamp.

Okefenokee bog
Okefenokee bog

Course Day 2

Each team wrote their own blog about each day of the course.  For the Day 2 content, thanks go out to team ‘Dryad’s saddle’ members, Derek James Newton (Queen’s), Qin Lanxue (Tongji), Xing Kangnan (BNU) and Lyu Wenyang (d’Overbroecks).

Gray Ratsnake encountered at QUBS.
Gray Ratsnake encountered at QUBS.

Before breakfast, the group hiked, working up an excellent appetite, looking for some of the many species of birds resident in the marshes, forests, lakes and shores surrounding QUBS.  Along the way, they learned a little about the Grey Rat Snake, Pantherophis spiloides, our largest snake in Ontario and endemic to the Frontenac Axis.  This threatened reptile is often seen moving through the property.

Indeed, this blogger encountered the snake below on the same road the students hiked (right).

The students heard a Pine Warbler, Setophaga pinus; many black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus; and they heard the sharp “chick-chick” calls from a Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens.  As they left the forest on their way to the marsh, they observed Common Yellowthroat warblers, Setophaga dominica; and Blue Jays, Cyanocitta cristata.  Walking along the marsh boardwalk, the students heard the “prehistoric caw” (note:  the blogger thinks of this loud abrupt call as a “groink”) of the Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias.  They saw a Caspian tern, Hydroprogne caspia, fly over as it fished Lake Opinicon.  The first true wetland resident species encountered was the Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, which popped up in the bullrushes and cattails.  Other species usually heard or seen around the lake are the Common Loon, Gavia immer; and the Osprey, Pandion haliaetus.

Loon_family
Family of Common Loons.
Osprey flying overhead.
Osprey flying overhead.

During the afternoon, the group learned about Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and applications to environmental science research.  Over the last 20 years, GPS and Geographic Information Systems, in combination with remote sensing, have become fundamental tools for learning about, conducting research on and presenting clear visualizations of environmental topics.

Mingzhi giving GPS lecture
Mingzhi giving GPS lecture

Qu Mingzhi provided comprehensive knowledge on GPS methods and applications.

Following a walk to an upland marsh, dotted with willow and goldenrod, the students were treated to another presentation by a Queen’s grad student Wenxi Feng, who is working on the applications of monitoring for eDNA.  Wenxi also presented his research at the QUBS Open House in June, which your blogger attended.  The idea is simple; the application is much more complex. Wetland organisms, such as fish, turtles and frogs, for example, through normal life processes, exude mitochondrial DNA.  Water samples may be analyzed for this DNA indicating presence or absence, density, and much more information about organisms in the ecosystem, without the need to capture or harvest the organisms.

Wenxi demonstrating eDNA methods.
Wenxi demonstrating peristaltic pump for sampling water for eDNA.

Wenxi Feng showed course participants eDNA methods and applications for environmental research. This is a developing and exciting field, which has great potential for streamlining and improving environmental monitoring.

The day ended with participants watching one of my favourite motion pictures, The Big Year.  Three American “birders” compete to see the most bird species in a single year.  Of course they are all men, who go to great lengths to find that rare bird.

With that, this first chapter of the 2015 China–Canada Field Course ends.  In the next chapter, we will follow the participants as they develop their own seminars and I will give details about several of the student seminars.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Janice Tripp for her expert editing assistance.

The Opinicon Natural History Blog has a new contributor

Professor Stephen Lougheed started this blog in 2009.

It is intended to be a vibrant and factual resource for learning and documenting the science and natural history of the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) and surroundings.  As you can see from recent postings, the content also ranges geographically since people who have frequented QUBS now span the Earth. People working at QUBS carry on research in many other lands and ecosystems.

My plan is to add a further dimension to an already successful venture: the people, facilities and the various happenings at the Station. There is a dynamic to the natural history and science that  becomes more real, informative and lasting if we also know more about the people generating all that good science and knowledge. So, look for more postings about the growing buffet of field courses and ongoing research projects.

Submissions are welcome, subject to editorial assessment – send to Stephen Lougheed.

Stephen is always around and involved. His busy schedule as a Full Professor at Queen’s University and Director at the Station doesn’t leave sufficient time for him to always capture all of what is going on at QUBS.  Therefore, I volunteered to take a lead role in producing the blog content.

Allow me to introduce myself. Most of my spare time is dedicated to natural history and environmental knowledge development and communication.

I hold an executive position with the Macnamara Field Naturalists’ Club of Arnprior, Ontario, which is where I live. We have the tallest tree in Ontario there, in Gillies Grove. It is a White Pine (Pinus strobus) with a height of  about 47 metres. The National Research Council of Canada has placed me on their Animal Care Committee, which oversees the treatment and care of laboratory animals in human health research.

I have my own blog, which captures natural history knowledge and more as I make my way through various eco-districts.

It is best to READ the blog rather than describing it, as it will also give you the flavour of future Opinicon Natural History postings.

I worked at Environment Canada from 1980 to 1997, as Chief and then Director of Conservation Service Policy and Knowledge Integration, where some of my achievements included the development of a large portion of Canada’s Green Plan and  Environment Canada’s entry onto the World Wide Web.

Between 1980 and 1988, I developed and advised on water policy and legislation, managed Lower Fort Garry National Historic Park and led social development policy for the Government of Manitoba.

All said and done, I have returned to my first passion—natural history and environmental science. Expect diversity and variety with an emphasis on “interesting.”  Comments are welcome. Please point out errors and omissions. Most of all, keep returning and let me know what you think.

Your blogger communing with a tree in northern Florida.
Your blogger communing with a tree in northern Florida.

In the next few weeks, look for editions about:

1.    Cow Marsh Nature Trail
2.    What’s Up with the Tree Swallow Boxes at QUBS?
3.    Sino-Canada Eco-dreams OR Effects Of Human Development On Aquatic Environments and Biodiversity In Canada And China
4.    The Bug Man Cometh (Field Entomology & Ecology)
5.    Fungi with a Fun Guy (Fabulous Fall Fungi)
6.    And your comments, recommendations and contributions!

Keep in touch!

Art

Arthur E. Goldsmith, B.Sc., B.Ed, MPA