Biodiversity Climate Change Conservation Gardening Pollinators, Molluscs and Other Invertebrates Sustainable Living

2023 February Conservation Update

In this post, a fascinating DNA sampling technique; conflicting news about human impact on animal populations; and a cute story about newt rescues in California. We also look at how rising temperatures due to climate change may damage animals; and a study that shows protected areas aren’t designed to protect invertebrates. It turns out we’ve been putting those anti-bird-strike decals on the wrong side of the window; and we look at where your plants come from.

Postcard-sized poo sample collection cards offer an affordable alternative to more cumbersome methods of collecting and storing the genetic information in dung. The cards do not need to be refrigerated and maintain viable DNA for months after collection. Credit: Fred Zwicky

Streamlined DNA for wildlife conservation

A team from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has come up with a new way of sampling DNA that allows scientists to capture genetic information from wildlife without disturbing the animals or putting their own safety in jeopardy. The protocol, tested on elephant dung, yielded enough DNA to sequence whole genomes not only of the elephants but also of the associated microbes, plants, parasites and other organisms—at a fraction of the cost of current approaches. The researchers report their findings in the journal Frontiers in Genetics.

A family of urban raccoons. Photo by Jon Last.

Can urban neighborhoods be both dense and green?

The British Ecological Society reports on a new study from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) that explores how we can make our cities work better for people and wildlife.  By analyzing existing approaches, as well as highlighting cities already creating the right balance of people and wildlife, the study pioneers an alternative method of city design that allows for the accommodation of both denser populations as well as wildlife. “This needn’t be a zero-sum game,” explains senior author and TNC lead scientist for nature-based solutions, Rob Mcdonald. “Having denser cities doesn’t automatically mean less space for nature.”

But, while animals may be able to co-exist happily with humans in urban areas, another study highlights how human incursions into natural areas can disturb wildlife.

Researchers placed camera traps along hiking trails in Glacier National Park during and after a COVID-19 closure. They found that 16 out of 22 mammal species changed the way they accessed areas when humans were present. Credit: Mammal Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab, Washington State University

Human recreation changes wildlife behavior

Even without hunting rifles, humans appear to have a strong negative influence on the movement of wildlife. A study of Glacier National Park hiking trails during and after a COVID-19 closure adds evidence to the theory that humans can create a “landscape of fear” like other apex predators, changing how species use an area simply with their presence. Researchers found that when human hikers were present, 16 out of 22 mammal species, including predators and prey alike, changed where and when they accessed areas. Some completely abandoned places they previously used, others used them less frequently, and some shifted to more nocturnal activities to avoid humans. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The researchers had also expected to find an effect known as “human shielding,” when human presence causes large predators to avoid an area, providing opportunity for smaller predators and perhaps some prey species to use an area more frequently. In this case, they found this potential effect for only one species, red fox. The foxes were more present on and near trails when the park was open–perhaps because their competitors, coyotes, avoided those areas when humans were around. While the influence of low-impact recreation is concerning, the researchers emphasized that more research is needed to determine if it has negative effects on the species’ survival.

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Animals at risk from heat waves

More than 40% of all land vertebrates may be subjected to extreme heat events by 2099 under current maximum estimates of future global temperatures, according to a study published in Nature. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures could be dangerous for the future of many species across the globe. Extreme thermal events, a period in which the temperature greatly exceeds a historical threshold, have increased in frequency compared to historical records, exacerbated by climate change caused by human activity. Recurring periods of extreme heat affect wildlife and are associated with increased psychological stress, reduced reproductive output and decreased population sizes, meaning that the continuation of these temperature spikes would pose a substantial threat to future biodiversity.

A ‘Big Night’ for Newts

The New York Times has a heart-warming story about the heroic work of the northern California Chileno Valley Newt Brigade in rescuing amphibians that might otherwise become roadkill as they cross a road from their breeding grounds and their burrows. But newt rescue is just a short-term solution. The group is also fundraising for road modifications that will allow the newts to pass safely underneath.

Black swallowtail on thistle at New Life Retreat. Photo by Carol English.

Protected areas fail insect species

Insects play crucial roles in almost every ecosystem—they pollinate more than 80% of plants and are a major source of food for thousands of vertebrate species—but insect populations are collapsing around the globe, and they continue to be overlooked by conservation efforts. Protected areas can safeguard threatened species but only if these threatened species actually live within the areas we protect. A new study in the journal One Earth found that 76% of insect species are not adequately covered by protected areas.

Northern cardinal. Photo by Jon Last.

What we know about bird window strikes is inside-out

New research from William & Mary published in PeerJ reveals that decals intended to reduce incidents of bird window strikes—one of the largest human-made causes of bird mortality—are only effective if decals are placed on the outside of the window. Researchers found that the patterns on the films and decals placed on the internal surface of windows do not reduce collision because they may not be sufficiently visible to birds.

A fynbos bouquet from South Africa. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora

Where do your plants come from?

Tim Knight of Fauna and Flora International asks if we ever ask ourselves where all our garden plants come from? The local garden center or superstore isn’t the answer. Take bulbs, for instance. There’s a common understanding that most bulbs come from The Netherlands. In fact, most wild tulips hail from the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—countries not widely recognized as havens of biodiversity—harbor the lion’s share of species. Turkey is also one of the richest areas in the world for bulbs, including familiar garden favorites such as snowdrops, crocuses, cyclamens and, yes, tulips too. It’s easy to forget that these wild relatives are the original source of the endless varieties and hybrid forms that grace our gardens and fill our flower vases. And that they face a variety of threats, from overharvesting and habitat loss to climate change.

Houseplants come from all over, including the popular Monstera, which is an epiphyte, growing on trees in its native South America. With one notable exception, bromeliads are found only in Central and South America. A single species—endangered and known only from Guinea—occurs in West Africa. Most bromeliads are also epiphytes, but the one that we’re most familiar with—though you may not think of it as a bromeliad—grows on the ground and produces one of our most popular tropical fruits, the pineapple.

White Christmas cactus. Photo by R. Last.

Cacti may be famous for their tolerance of extreme heat and drought—and plummeting temperatures at night—but they’re not confined to hotspots like the American Midwest and Mexico. Of the roughly 2,500 species of cactus in the world, quite a few thrive in rainforests or cooler climes. The Christmas cactus is native to damp forest in the coastal mountains of Brazil.

The article goes on to detail the origins of orchids (pretty much from every continent, except Antarctica); where cut flowers come from; and what makes the fynbos in South Africa so special. Mr. Knight concludes by urging gardeners to pay attention to the origins of plants they purchase and avoid those that come from unsustainable sources.

Gardening Miscellany

These are a few of my favorite things

The following article is one that I wrote for the members’ newsletter of the Ottawa Horticultural Society. May it inspire your gift-giving for the gardener on your list this festive season!

We gardeners can be a prickly, self-sufficient lot, so non-gardeners may be challenged to know what gifts will be welcomed. Here, just in time for your Christmas shopping, are some suggestions from among my favorite things.

A trio of colourful trugs or a terrific trowel might please the gardener in your life. Photo by R. Last.


Every gardener has their favorite tools, usually tried and true items that see years of wear. Gift givers are advised to avoid trendy gadgets and select well-made classics instead. For example, I’m always in need of new snippers and secateurs and it’s hard to find quality light-weight by-pass pruners. This relatively inexpensive stocking-stuffer is sure to please.

In my small garden, I use a lot of hand tools. A well-balanced trowel with a comfortable handle is indispensable. The hand-held, three-pronged cultivator (AKA “the Claw”) is another classic. If the gardener on your gifting list already has both these items, consider the hori knife – a nifty Asian invention that combines the qualities of both a trowel and a cultivator.

I always bring a bucket or trug when I go into the garden for the weeds that I know I will inevitably pull out. A colourful trug is so much more appealing than the 5-gallon food buckets I used to use. And because I do so much gardening on my hands and knees, a kneeling pad is another essential in my arsenal of garden tools.

Great gardening gloves and nifty nippers are potential stocking-stuffers for the gardener on your gift list. Photo by R. Last.


To me, gardening is a “full contact sport” so having the right clothing is important. A long-sleeved cotton shirt protects my skin from the sun, and from scratches. A sun hat with a wide brim and a chin strap to keep it in place on windy days is another necessity for my fair skin. However, I’m still looking for a hat that is crushable and washable. My current hat is neither and is now beyond disreputable from years of sweat and hard wear.

I used to love plunging my hands into warm soil, but a bad case of hand eczema means I now need to wear gloves. Even without this nasty skin condition, some garden jobs require going gloved. Tough, elbow-length leather gloves are pricey but will be a welcome gift for the rose-grower on your list. Also elbow-length but softer, more flexible and much less costly, Foxglove brand gardening gloves have a deservedly good reputation. For my money, I like the grip I get from a glove with a woven back and latex or Nitrile palms.


Great gifts from a good friend include a table-top tarp and a perforated trug that doubles as a colander. Photo by R. Last.

My friend Josie has a knack for giving me things that I didn’t know I needed or wanted but then wonder how I ever lived without. Two of these are a table-top tarp which is incredibly useful for my late winter seed starting, or any time I’m potting up something indoors; and a trug that doubles as a colander, allowing me to wash produce I’ve just pulled out of the ground.

Garden Art

For some reason, my family has always had a fascination with garden gnomes. In the early years, we received many of them, some appearing anonymously out of nowhere. We were at risk of being overrun by garden gnomes and had to declare a moratorium!

A visitor surrounded by too many garden gnomes. Photo by R. Last.

Art is so personal that a gift of garden art is a potential minefield. However, a tasteful, well-made durable piece may well be welcomed. Stay away from brightly coloured and tacky plastic items. A nice compromise is a something both practical and decorative, such as a garden stake that has an ornamental element or a solar-power garden light.


Finding the right plant for “plant-aholic” gardeners can be challenging, especially in winter. However, cut flowers and a nice vase to put them in will always be welcomed. Bulbs such as Amaryllis, which can be counted on to bloom in mid-winter, are another good choice, as are seeds of the latest annual cultivars. One of the nicest stocking-stuffers I got last Christmas also came from my good friend Josie. It was several packages of sprouting seeds that I was able to grow in a glass jar. Thanks to this thoughtful gift, I was able to satisfy my growing impulses in mid-winter and add freshly grown sprouts to salads and omelettes. While gift certificates may seem like the last resort of the unimaginative, a gift coupon from one of the local speciality nurseries is a great idea. It keeps money in the local community and could include an offer to accompany the recipient or drive them for a special outing to one of the farther-flung local nurseries.

Cut flowers and a nice vase to put them in will always be welcomed. Photo by R. Last.

Reading and Reference Materials

It seems almost every month there is a new gardening book in the top ten most popular reads and chances are the gardener in your life already has all the gardening books they will ever need. However, a digital subscription to a gardening magazine might be welcomed. Another option is a specialized gardening calendar such as the locally produced Earth Haven Celestial Planting Calendar, or the phenology calendar from McGill Univerity’s Morgan Arboretum. This being Canada’s Year of the Garden, you also have the opportunity to buy Gardens Canada: Living the Garden Life, a gorgeously illustrated 18-month calendar, sales of which support horticultural societies across Canada.

Gifting a gardening journal might evoke guilt, but I’ve sometimes used these as to document family gatherings, many of which took place in the garden. More serious gardeners might appreciate one of those multi-year gardening journals, which are great tools for the gardener cum citizen-scientist.

These are a few of my favourite things. I hope they help inspire your gift-giving for the gardener in your life.