Monday, March 18, 2013

On Disappearing Turtles

This article came across our desks today.

The long and the short of the article is that about 71 million years ago the turtles that were living in the area that would become Drumheller and the surrounding region, disappeared. Until recently this local disappearance was thought to have been caused by climate change. However, new evidence suggests that the real culprit is the loss of habitat; the wetlands disappeared.

Wetlands are critical natural habitats. This is just as true today as it was at the time of the dinosaurs. In prehistoric times, wetlands were vital hunting and breeding grounds for turtles, small dinosaurs, crocodiles - imagine finding a crocodile in your local Central Alberta wetland today - and small mammals. Today, take out the crocodiles as climate cooling drove them south millions of years ago, but add in dozens of species of waterfowl, three species of frogs, and Tiger Salamanders. Wetlands today are home to an extremely diverse array of plants and animals. The north-south network of wetlands provides migrating waterfowl with the critical rest and feeding stops, that allows the birds to fly for thousands of kilometres each year.

When the wetlands dried up 71 million years ago, they did over a long period of time, perhaps more than a thousand years. These were entirely natural processes, evolving without any external intervention. Today's wetlands are facing a challenge that is an order of magnitude more critical than the one faced prehistorically. Not only are the plants and animals living in wetlands forced to change with rising temperatures due to climate change, they now must contend with human interventions.

As we eat up vast tracts of land for housing and commercial development, wetlands often pay a heavy price. They are divided for road access, outright drained and filled to make more room for buildings, and subject to untreated surface run off. This run off adds sediments, and chemical and organic pollutants to the water, altering the water chemistry.

We have seen the effects of these habitat stresses manifest themselves in the animals that live there; Most often in the frogs and salamanders that are born with deformities caused by such close contact with polluted water. This is not a local-to-Red Deer only phenomenon, rather it's a pattern of behaviour that has been repeated across North America.

However, if there is one habitat that will benefit from our ability to learn from our mistakes, it may will be wetlands. Today, because of their critical role in the migration of waterfowl, many wetlands enjoy regional, Provincial, and/or Federal protection. The East and West Lakes in the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary, here at the Nature Centre, have those protections.  Today wetlands are seen as being assets to a community, increasing property values, rather than as places that are in the way of "progress". Modern urban planners often work to protect local wetlands in their neighbourhood plans, or to create built environments that mimic the natural wetlands' processes.

Here in Red Deer, we are about to protect a vast wetland surrounding Hazlet Lake, just to the north of Highway 11a. Seen in this map, Hazlet Lake as an intact wetland will become an integral part of Waskasoo Park, as we expand over the next decade and beyond. It has been identified as a key location in the River Valley and Tributaries Plan; a plan that calls for significant buffer zones around all waterways and bodies of water.

We may not see the arrival of the the descendants of those turtles that disappeared 71 million years ago, but we are taking steps to ensure that the offspring of the plants and animals that depend on local wetlands today, will have them in future. A future that will remain, probably, crocodile-free.

1 comment:

Red said...

Well said. Everything is habitat. In the 50's where I lived about 50% of the land had been broken to farmland. Native species were abundant even than although things had been fragmented.