Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would like to get rid of the zoo because he thinks the city should not be in the "zoo business". Once again, he is displaying an exquisite lack of knowledge. Zoos such as the one in Toronto are tremendously important because a visit to the zoo is -for most of us- our first contact with the diversity of life on this planet.
While children growing up in the country side often have a chance to see the local wildlife, children growing up in a big city aren't quite that lucky. Their contact with wildlife is usually limited to the family pet, a visit to the pet store, and possibly a few sparrows and squirrels in gardens or parks passed on the way to school if they are lucky enough to be allowed to go on foot. For these children, zoos play a tremendously important role, and Toronto Zoo
plays it better than just about any other.
A day at the zoo, is a day of walking in the beautiful Rouge Valley, while having the opportunity of seeing hundreds of animal and plant species from here and abroad, a glimpse into the biodiversity of our planet. But the role of the zoo doesn't stop here. Toronto Zoo is also one of the main hubs for knowledge, research and initiatives with respect to the protection of nature, and it runs a plethora of projects to that effect.
Several conservancy projects are brought together under the Adopt-A-Pond
umbrella that aims to protect wetlands. Two of the most endearing projects are Turtle Tally and FrogWatch. Given that Ontario has a cold climate, there aren't all that many reptiles and amphibians in Ontario and this makes it quite possible for most of us to learn to know them all. We have 13 types of frogs and toads and 9 or 10 species of turtles in Ontario.
Both Turtle Tally and FrogWatch aim to create awareness about turtles and frogs by involving people in the making of distribution maps of the different species. Since we don't actually know how many of these critters there are, and where they are, this is a very useful activity.
Once a year, the people responsible for Adopt-A-Pond show their appreciation for the participants by organising "Turtle Tally and FrogWatch Participant Appreciation Day". This year, the event was at its fifth edition, and when the invitation came in, I happened to be working at the computer, and I replied right away to register.
The event took place on Saturday, 19 November, and just as the previous ones, it was packed with information and fun as well. After a short introduction by Bob Johnson, the zoo's curator for reptiles and amphibians, the presentations began.
Presentations were limited to 15 minutes. As a result, 11 different presentations could be squeezed in, starting with organiser and Adopt-A-Pond coordinator Julia Phillips' presentation of a summary of FrogWatch and Turtle Tally activities and results in 2011, and the plans for the future.
This was followed by a co-presentation by Erin Nadeau and Crystal Robertson, outgoing and incoming Stewardship and Social Marketing Coordinators for Adopt-A-Pond, of which I mainly remembered Erin's statement that preaching to the choir (i.e. all participants) is one thing, but that going out to the community is very important as well.
Then came a presentation by Adopt-A-Pond biologist Brennan Caverhill, who has spend hundreds of hours in the field, studying whether or not turtles can use culverts as their own highways to move about in wetlands that have been fragmented by roadways. This is a big problem, since roadway-crossing turtles are often killed in the process. Turtles live very long lives, up to a century in some cases, and it can take many years to reach sexual maturity. As a consequence, the death of even a single turtle can be a major setback that the local population may never recover from.
I love what Brennan does, because it is real science. Instead of simply assuming that what seems logical and common sense is actually true, he investigates it, and gains solid knowledge as a result.
Brennan concentrates on what is arguably our most spectacular turtle, the yellow-throated Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii
), and he knows dozens of these turtles personally and by name. He also created a soon-to-be-published poster with the plastrons (the bottom part of the shell) of about 50 turtles. The plastron of these turtles is very different for each individual, a lot like humans have all different fingerprints.
Next were environmental technologist Violetta Tkaczuk and crew lead Sara Ross of the TRCA (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority) who talked about the TRCA's efforts with respect to the restoration of wetlands and habitats for our native amphibians and reptiles in the Rouge River watershed. It so happens that Toronto Zoo is located in the Rouge Valley and that the valley is scheduled to become Canada's first urban national park.
Trent University PhD candidate Amanda Bennett talked about her research into the effects of the risk of predation (i.e. being eaten) on the behaviour and physiology of tadpoles, and the implications this may have for conservation projects. She showed us how she was able to determine that the simple presence of dragonfly nymphs -who like to eat tadpoles- encourages these tadpoles to grow up faster, among other things. It was a good example of how lab research may have important implications for conservation activities in the field.
After a short break, veterinarian Sue Carstairs of the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre talked about the work of the centre, repairing and rehabilitating turtles, and about her dreams of growing the centre into a larger facility as they are rapidly outgrowing their current building because of the massive numbers of turtles that are being brought in.
We then got Alex Chaban, a pint-sized frog enthusiast and FrogWatch participant who for the past three years has requested that people do not give him gifts for his birthday, but money instead, so that he could donate it to Adopt-A-Pond for its frog conservation activities.
He was followed by Jack Noble, a young turtle enthusiast and Turtle Tally participant who talked about his turtle stewardship activities in Erieau whose efforts in saving numberless turtles from an early death cannot be overestimated.
Julia Riley, an MSc. candidate at Laurentian University talked about overwintering strategies of hatchling painted turtles and showed that they have two tactics to survive Ontario's winters. One strategy is called "freeze tolerance" in which the turtles effectively freeze, and come back to life after thawing. This method can help them survive temperatures of around -4C. The other method is called "supercooling", a state in which no ice crystals are formed, in spite of the below-freezing temperatures. With this method, the little turtles can survive temperatures of down to -12C.
Julia also talked about the effects of "nest-caging" on the survival of turtle eggs. Nest cages are used to protect turtle nests against predators (raccoons, foxes, skunks...), but it is not impossible that this caging could have negative effects on the eggs. As it turns out, there is no such negative effect, and nest caging is indeed a good method of protecting turtle eggs.
The last invited speaker of the day was Marc Ouellette, the founder of Little Res Q, an organisation that rescues and rehabilitates turtles that have been abused or are no longer wanted by their owners.
After the presentations, Julia Phillips handed out a few gifts to the speakers and she and Bob Johnson also presented the brand new Turtles of Ontario stewardship guide. Each of the participants received a copy, and it must be said that it is a very informative publication.
The event ended with lots of pizza, just what the doctor ordered to prevent me from losing weight, and I indulged accordingly. Needless to say that my scale was crying the next morning that the three of us should not hop on together, but rather one at a time...
Since it is getting colder now, most of the turtles and frogs have retired into their hibernation quarters even though one or two are still popping up their heads every now and then. The participants have now time to read up, study up, and prepare for next season's Turtle Tally and FrogWatch activities.