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Many people claim they are not interested in science, but this is not really true. Perhaps they never really studied nature, but there are few people who do not notice how interesting and beautiful the surrounding countryside is. Did you realize for example that magpies are common in the western half of North America, but not in central Canada? Some people say that these distinctive birds are so common in Edmonton that this is the “magpie capital of Western Canada” (a dubious distinction).

Moreover the jackrabbits that hop so happily around much of western North America, are not common in central Canada either. One visitor from southern Ontario, upon viewing a local jackrabbit, called it a bunny on steroids!! Do these observations (or other similar ones) strike you as interesting? This would be a great excuse to investigate local biodiversity. Perhaps you would like to find out why some animals or plants occur in your region and not someplace else. See? Maybe you are more interested than you thought!

One interesting topic is the range distributions of organisms (for example plants). When we drive from Edmonton to central Canada, we always notice when the first majestic white pine trees appear (near Kenora, and especially near Thunder Bay.) Also there is a beautiful pale blue wild flower called chicory that blooms in August in central Canada. As we drive along we notice the first plants blooming by the roadside. This is a woody herbaceous plant in the Aster family. Its roots when baked, can be ground into a coffee substitute. Apparently it was popular in Europe during the second World War, and in New Orleans during the American Civil War. This plant is native to Europe, and several American states have declared it invasive. It certainly is common in meadows in southern Ontario in August, along with Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot flowers). A lot of wild flowers that are so common, by the way, are invasive species from Europe.

The obvious question is why do certain species occur in some places but not in others. The basic answer is that a given species may not have had time to arrive in your area. It may be coming. Alternatively, the organism may not be able to survive in your area. For example, consider ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia). This unpopular weed is common in southern Ontario but not on the Canadian prairies. While the seeds can germinate over a wide range of temperatures ( 8 – 32 degrees C), the plants require relatively short days (maximum 14 hours) to initiate flowers. If there are no flowers, there is no next generation of plants. By the time the days are short enough on the prairies, the weather is too cold to germinate the seed.

In other cases it could be predators, or unsuitable local topography that could prevent an organism from becoming established in a new area. Raccoons for example do not live in northern Alberta, but people say that they are coming here from south east Alberta. These animals have cute faces and great skills in handling objects, but people say that their personalities are not appealing, especially when they scatter garbage all over the place.

Sometimes people have extended the range of an organism on purpose by introducing it to a new area. This is not usually considered a good idea today. For example, rabbits and cane toads were introduced to Australia with disastrous results. Rats keep managing to extend their territory, but in Alberta, strenuous efforts by government officials continue to keep the province rat-free.

One land owner near Quebec City planted 10,000 black walnuts on his property in 1882. This was north of the natural range of these trees. However a number of the seeds germinated and survived, and today on this estate, there are more than one hundred magnificent large black walnut trees. Thus Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere (1829-1908) extended the range of the black walnut tree in central Canada. Because of his efforts, he is considered the father of Canadian arboriculture.

These are just a few of the kinds of observations which can stimulate our interest and appreciation of the creation. Why not make a list of interesting questions which occur to you. Maybe the next step is to research some answers. In this context, CSAA has lots of good resources at various levels of difficulty which may throw light on your reflections.

July 2017

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