Biodiversity hot spots
Ontario is a great, big province. It covers an area larger than France and Spain combined. Rich in biological diversity, Ontario contains a stunning range of habitats and wildlife. In the International Year of Biodiversity, Ontario Nature is highlighting 10 places that are especially remarkable for the ecosystems and species they support.
Some of these places, despite being located far from busy urban centres, are nevertheless vulnerable to industrial interests that threaten a fragile ecology. Other areas are safe, protected, for now, from development pressures and reminders of this province’s magnificent landscapes.
Along these coastlines are some of the world’s most extensive northern salt marshes, which, along with fens, bogs and mud flats, support species such as Arctic fox, snow goose, threatened woodland caribou and wolverine. No less than 17 globally significant Important Bird Areas are along these coastlines. Here, the polar bear is king. Walrus, ringed seal and bearded seal feed and rest along the shore or on offshore shoals. Belugas frequent the waters. Although the Hudson and James Bay lowlands are largely undisturbed to date, mining and hydro development threatens to harm coastal vegetation and wildlife in this region.
The Lake of the Woods/Rainy River area lies in a transition zone of northern forest, southern forest and prairie, characterized by a high diversity of plants and animals, including endangered species such as western silvery aster, red-headed woodpecker, short-eared owl, lake sturgeon, American badger and gray fox. The region includes two internationally recognized Important Bird Areas, one that is continentally significant for endangered piping plover and the other globally significant for American white pelican.
The Carden Plain, which is both an Important Bird Area and an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest, contains a remarkable array of flora and fauna: 450 plant species, 238 bird species, 75 butterfly species and 67 dragonfly species. The plain includes globally rare alvar habitats – open areas of flat stone covered by a thin layer of soil that give rise to unique plant communities. They produce a stunning display of wildflowers that carpet the landscape in spring and early summer. Many rare species inhabit the area, including Olympia marble (a butterfly), Cooper’s milkvetch and the loggerhead shrike, as well as numerous grassland birds.
The Frontenac Axis, also called the Frontenac Arch, encompasses 50 kilometres of exposed Precambrian rock that provides habitat for a high diversity of reptiles and amphibians, as well as many rare and endangered species, including eastern musk turtle, fivelined skink, least bittern, cerulean warbler, blunt-lobed woodsia, deerberry and gray ratsnake (previously called black ratsnake). It is also the only place in Ontario where pitch pine grows, on the granite rocks of the St. Lawrence River shoreline and islands.
With its large expanses of forest, fens, alvars, beaches, small lakes and wetlands, the Bruce Peninsula supports a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Some of the rarest ferns and flowers in Ontario can be found here, including the threatened dwarf lake iris and lakeside daisy. The diversity of orchids on the Bruce Peninsula is among the highest in North America: 44 species. Seven at-risk reptile and 17 at-risk bird species live here, and astounding concentrations of dozens of bird species can be found at the globally significant Cabot Head Important Bird Area during their migration. Part of the Bruce Peninsula has been classified as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Walpole Island First Nation, located in the delta where the St. Clair River meets Lake St. Clair, consists of six islands: Walpole, St. Anne, Potawatomi, Squirrel, Bassett and Seaway. The region is called Bkejwanong, or “where the waters divide,” and has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 6,000 years. The islands contain diverse natural areas, including remnants of rare tallgrass prairie and oak savannah that support a range of endangered plants and animals.
More than 7,000 square kilometres in size, Algonquin Provincial Park is located in an area of transition between Ontario’s northern coniferous forest and the deciduous forest more typical of the south. This mixture of forest types, combined with Algonquin’s large size and wide variety of environments, including wetlands, rocky ridges, rivers and lakes, all contribute to the immense diversity of plant and animal life that can be found within the park’s borders. Logging has been ongoing in the park since its creation in 1893 and is currently allowed in 55 percent of the park area.
Wainfleet Bog is a rare ecological treasure. It is one of the few acidic bogs left in southern Ontario and lies within one of the largest remaining tracts of peatland in southern Ontario. Much of the bog was once owned by a peat extraction company, which harvested and sold peat for fuel. As a result, the bog, once thought to have covered 20,000 hectares, has been significantly reduced and now covers only about 1,200 hectares – about six percent of its original size. Many rare plants and animals inhabit the bog and depend on it for survival, including the endangered massasauga rattlesnake.
Leitrim Wetland is a 400-hectare provincially significant wetland that is home to more than 500 species of plants, roughly half of which are regionally significant. The rich web of life the bog supports includes at least 90 species of birds, a variety of fish and amphibians, numerous insect species and a provincially rare snail. As well, the wetland contains many rare and threatened species and is bordered by a remnant old-growth forest where great blue herons nest. Despite its ecological significance, this wetland is currently threatened by a proposed housing development that could destroy more than one-quarter of it.
These three sand spits contain a wide variety of ecosystems: beaches, dunes, forests, grasslands, wet meadows, marshes and ponds. Because of the southern locale, unique, individual climates and diversity of habitats, a variety of unusual plant communities and rare species live here. Tulip-tree, pawpaw, Kentucky coffeetree, red mulberry, sassafras and chinquapin oak grow at Rondeau and Pelee. White cedar, tamarack, twinflower and green pyrola grow at Long Point. The spits are the first landfall for birds crossing the lakes to the south, and rare birds abound. Diverse reptiles and amphibians, such as eastern fox snake, spiny softshell, Blanding’s turtle, spotted turtle, Fowler’s toad and eastern hognose snake, also inhabit these spits.