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Posts Tagged ‘Biodiversity’

A clever way for thieves to steal from a store is to switch price tags on items, putting low prices on items of higher value.  The thieves then purchase the  items.   This technique works best in stores where cashiers are oblivious to the true value of the merchandise and too busy to take notice of obvious discrepancies. 

Like the pre-occupied cashiers, we don’t know the value of our natural resources and are too busy to notice that they are grossly undervalued.  We might be tired and overworked, or so distracted that we don’t clue in.   Developers keen to turn a quick profit are the ones who stand to gain.

This happens in third-world countries where rainforests brimming with biodiversity are razed to make way for single crops that strip the soil of its nutrients and contribute to erosion.  It also happens in wealthier nations where scrub lands with shorter trees are filled with concrete by residential and business park developers focused on turning a quick profit. 

In resource-rich Canada, we take for granted the cleanliness of our seemingly endless supply of clean air and water, not fully realizing the role trees play in their presence.  In one year, a large tree can supply enough clean air for a family of four to breathe and a single medium-sized tree can filter over 2000 gallons of water.  We cut down old growth forests and pat ourselves on the back when we fill the bare spaces with tiny seedlings that will take several lifetimes to mature.  We fail to appreciate how much trees buffer noise, create windbreaks, intercept rainfall, hold and create soil, absorb carbon dioxide and provide a habitat for wildlife.  Even their beauty is uplifting.  But because we have so many trees here in Canada, we take them for granted. 

The law of supply and demand dictates that our trees will increase in value as they become less abundant.  But why do we have to wait until then to appreciate them?  The United Nations has declared 2011 to be the International Year of Forests in an effort to heighten awareness of their value to mankind.

If a 24K bar of gold weighing 28 lbs is worth approximately half a million dollars, what is the value of a single tree? 

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.

~  Martin Luther

Gold bar photo credit:  Sybil Nunn

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Over the weekend, I discovered a number of previously unseen life forms with my grandson.  The biodiversity present in our boggy woods never fails to impress, but this is especially so when you have a child along to point out the weird and wonderful.  

After weeks of heavy precipitation, the woods were full of unusual fungi. 

Once considered plants, it’s now believed that fungi share more characteristics with life forms in the animal kingdom.  While the cell walls of plants consist of cellulose, theirs contain chitin, which is also found in the shells of crustaceans, insects and some molluscs.  Unlike plants, which can make their own food through the process of photosynthesis, fungi survive by consuming dead matter.

Despite having a good field guide, I still find it difficult to identify the types of fungi I find in the woods.  There seems to be such a variation in color and shape as they age, which complicates the identification process even more.

However, from my grandson’s perspective,  it wasn’t necessary to know the names of these fungi in order to marvel at their remarkable appearance.  Perhaps Nature is most awesome to those who carry child-like wonder in their pockets instead of field guides.

To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, remove things every day.

~ Lao Tsu

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Red-backed salamanders are always a joy to find lying under rocks and beneath the dead leaves in the woods.  They are most frequently seen on moist days in spring and fall.

These woodland salamanders are amphibians but do not lay their eggs or have a larval stage in water.  Adults are lungless and breathe through their skin.  Consequently, moist surroundings are crucial to their survival and they are very sensitive to slight changes in their environment.  As the weather warms or cools, salamanders bury themselves deeper in the ground or under logs.

Years ago, salamanders became associated with fire, probably because they’d seemingly come to life when logs, to which they were clinging, were flung into the fire.  Considered by some to be magical creatures, they’ve been known to exist since the Jurassic period.

These small creatures eat tiny arthropods found in leaf litter.  Their numbers can be quite numerous in eastern American woodlands.  Although they keep a very low profile, salamanders contribute to the biodiversity of their habitat and play an important role in the natural recycling process of the forest. 

Their gentle nature endears salamanders to many.  Scientists see them as bioindicators,  and employ their numbers to indicate the health of woodlands.  Threatened by clear-cutting and extremely vulnerable to fungi and disease, their absence from an ecosystem is cause for concern.  Perhaps because of their fragility and silent presence in the woods, these red-backed salamanders are my favorite amphibians.

Humans are amphibians – half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.
~ C.S. Lewis

For more information about the mythology surrounding salamanders, see Dragonorama.

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After numerous days of torrential rains and relentless wind gusts, it’s refreshing to get a glimpse of blue in the sky.  Could winter’s fury finally be giving way to a calm resignation that its days are numbered?

Strong winds caused many tired and weakened trees to snap.  There seem to be even more diagonal lines in the forest. 

Rain water has gathered in the recesses beneath uprooted trees and in lower lying areas in the woods.  Known as vernal pools, these temporary wet areas not only provide animals with access to fresh drinking water, but also contribute to the biodiversity of the forest.  Amphibians thrive around these pools as do numerous varieties of mosses and grasses.  They will slowly dry up, but be filled again during subsequent rainstorms.

The rain melted all the snow, which is not at all good for snowshoe hares still wearing their winter white coats.  By contrasting more with the landscape, they become easier prey for foxes, coyotes and bobcats.  Hares will begin acquiring their brown coats later this month.  Until then, they’ll just have to keep a low profile and run a little bit faster if they want to survive until spring.

After every storm, the sun will smile;  for every problem there is a solution, and the soul’s indefeasible duty is to be of good cheer.
~ William Alger

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Just a few centuries ago, tall white pines dominated Nova Scotia’s landscape.  Most were ten stories high but several even reached fifteen stories in height.  Looking at the much shorter firs and spruce that make up the majority of our woods now, it’s hard to believe that the landscape here was once so different. 

Nova Scotia 1817 by J.E. Woolford in the Nova Scotia Museum collection

Sketch of Forests near Halifax circa 1817

The first settlers from Europe must have been awestruck by the majesty of the forests they encountered.  But they soon logged them and cleared the way for agriculture.  Today, old growth forests are found on less than 1% of the province’s land. 

In Cow Bay and nearby Eastern Passage, tracts of forest continue to be cleared to make way for residential development.  Most of the time, the trees are removed to facilitate construction.  Isolated trees that are left standing die within a few years as they are shallow rooted and top heavy, due to spending most of their life stabilized by other trees in a stand.

Clearing near Flandrum Hill offers a view of Osborne Head

Trees that are fifteen stories high don’t reach that height overnight.  White pine have a lifespan of up to 450 years.  Eastern hemlock can live up to 800 years.  By cutting down an old growth forest, it’s almost ridiculous to say that you’ve done the planet some good by planting a thousand new seedlings.  Yet, incentives created to fight climate change often give points for new plantings while ignoring the destruction of old trees.

Biodiversity thrives in old growth forests.  Many species of plants (mosses and orchids) and animals (barred owls, wood ducks, fishers and American martens) depend on old large trees for their survival.  Some creatures nest in the cavities of standing trees, while others make dens beneath large trees that have fallen to the ground.   

As I write this, I can hear wind gusts of up to 75 km/hr (47 mi/hr)  thrashing the firs and spruce back and forth outside my window.  They’re shallow rooted and susceptible to coming down in strong winds.  The only white pine in the yard was planted by me almost 20 years ago and is protected in a stand.  If it’s allowed to reach its life expectancy, it will likely provide a home for wildlife in 2440.

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods.  But he cannot save them from fools. 
 ~John Muir

For more information about Old Growth Forests, see Nova Scotia Nature Trust’s pdf on the subject.

Details of the 1817 J.E. Woolford image of Nova Scotia woods can be found at the Nova Scotia Museum Collection.

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City or suburb dwellers frequently decide to build their dream home in the country.  They find a nice spot brimming with wildlife and trees.  They look forward to waking up to the sound of birds in the morning and seeing hares and pheasants in the yard. 

But before you can say ‘Where’s my chainsaw?’  they’ve cleared out most of the trees and levelled the land.  Within a few years, their driveway’s paved and their lawn looks almost as neat and tidy as the one they left behind in the city.  (For my role in this, see Confessions of a Woods Cleaner).  They may plant some non-native ornamental trees and bushes and regularly weed their new flower beds.  Unfortunately, the hares and frogs have hopped out of the neighborhood as has much of the other wildlife.   

Does it have to be this way?  No, it doesn’t.

Wildlife and woods go together.  It’s almost impossible to have one without the other.  But woods are messy in their natural state, and most humans like to keep their environment looking neat.  However, the diversity of native plant and animal life shrinks astoundingly when land is cleared to make way for clean-cut lawns and pristine flower beds.

For example, many wild birds, such as woodpeckers, thrive in old growth forests.  When old trees are cut down, it’s no surprise that the woodpeckers leave the neighborhood.  They depend on these old trees for nests and the insect life within them for food.

Vernal pools created by toppled trees and an uneven forest floor collect rainwater and provide a habitat for amphibians and a greater variety of plants.  (For more information on attracting amphibians back to your yard, see my post on Why Every Princess Needs a Toad in her Garden).

The United Nations has designated 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity.  You can read more about why biodiversity matters here.  If you own land, you might consider leaving some of it in its natural state.  One simple solution is to allow wild spaces to thrive on the edge of your property.  Allowing the growth of wild hedgerows between properties provides privacy and a wind barrier between neighbors while sustaining native species of both plants and animals.  

By allowing a wild space to thrive in your yard, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the diversity of life that it will begin to attract.

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