What Does Northwest Ohio And The Toledo Zoo Have, That No Other Area Of The Country Has?
Tim Hyma, Lynn Lyons, Dixie Repp, Tina Hibbs, Roger Baker, and Joanne Vick, Toledo Zoo
Contributions by: Tim Hyma, Dave Sansing, Lynn Lyons, Barbara Streby, Frank Longeway, Tina Hibbs, Joann Jakeway, Judy Zinober, Roger Baker, Scott McGorty, Kay Peterson, Dixie Repp, Judy Hofmann, Joanne Vick, Brandon Ansted, Jill Hojnacki, and John Hojnacki
Our presentation will introduce you to the Oak Openings Region. This region has been described as “a natural community as rare and significant as the rainforest. This globally distinct ecosystem has been designated by the Nature Conservancy, a renowned conservation organization, as `One of the 200 Last Great Places on Earth.'” (www.oakopen.org)
The Oak Openings Region may have originally contained as many as 300 square miles. However, the area has dwindled over time and now the Oak Openings Region covers approximately 130 square miles and is predominately located in Northwest Ohio.
This all began 25,000 years ago as the Wisconsin Glacier slowly made its way southward over much of the North American continent. It is estimated that this area was covered in ice a mile thick. Lake Warren formed approximately 15,000 years ago when the climate warmed and the glacier began to recede and melt. “Lake Warren, much larger than its modern counterpart [Lake Erie], built up sand bars and beaches in what is now the Oak Openings.” (Grigore, 2)
The meltwater accumulated, rose and filled over the years creating the predecessor of the Great Lakes. This was Lake Warren. When the “plug” was pulled at Niagara Falls, allowing all the accumulated water to escape down the St. Lawrence, what remained in Northwest Ohio was the Great Black Swamp and large flat sand deposits.
The wind distributed the sand into a series of ridges, some fifty feet deep. This gradual arrangement of the topography resulted in the development of six distinct habitats, each with its own unique flora and fauna.
These habitats are:
Black Oak/Lupine Barren oak savanna
Mesic Sand Tallgrass Prairie tall grass/sand flats between dunes (Where the prairies of the west meet the forests of the east.)
Midwest Sand Barren sand barren
Oak/Blueberry Forest forest and sand
Great Lakes Pin Oak – Swamp White Oak Flatwoods wet forest
Twigrush Wet Prairie wet prairie.
Fire also played a distinct role in the development of these sub regions.
“Fire and the dry sandy soils of the ridges were two primary process(es) involved in maintaining the oak savannas. Savannas and woodlands experienced periodic fires that promoted a balance between the growth of trees and shrubs and herbaceous prairie/savanna vegetation. In general, the fire favored the growth of the herbaceous vegetation and
inhibited the success of the woody plants. Trees remained part of the vegetative structure in these uplands not only because of the better drainage, but also likely as a result of a variable fire frequency, weather conditions and soils. The wet prairies, although primarily influenced by groundwater, were likely affected by fire as well.” (www.oakopen.org/history)
The Green Ribbon Initiative describes many of the changes in the following manner:
“Logging removed the old growth trees and grazing impacted much of the herbaceous layer. Farming converted large areas of the land to agriculture. Ditches were installed to improve drainage and these lowered the groundwater (levels) in the wet prairies increasing the growth of woody vegetation. Fire suppression resulted in a rapid increase in woody growth within the savanna.” (www.oakopen.org/history)
Unique Flora And Fauna
The nurturing and protection of the Oak Openings’ inland sand dunes, wet meadows, and forest areas, have provided habitat for the largest collection of rare plant species in Ohio. As many as 100 species of plants are more abundant here than anywhere else in the state. One hundred forty-five species currently found here are listed as potentially threatened, threatened, or endangered. In 2004, the least grape fern Botrychium simplex and northern oppressed club moss, Lycopodium clavatum were among the 10 endangered plants discovered or rediscovered here. The sand prairies, sand barrens, oak opening, oak savanna, and tall grass prairie areas included in the Oak Openings Region are home to threatened or endangered plants such as the hairy puccoon Lithospermum caroliniense, western sunflower Helianthus occidentalis, sweet fern Comptonia peregrina, dotted horsemint Monarda Punctata, long-bracted green orchis Coeloglossum viride, and many species of sedges Cyperaceae.
The potentially threatened wild blue lupine Lupinus perennis, the symbol of the Oak Openings Region, is one of the most recognizable species found here. By working to reduce the invasive non-native plants and planting seeds gathered from existing plants, the lupine is thriving here again.
The diversity of plants and insects in the Oak Openings Region attracts many species of birds that are not normally seen in this area of the country. The number of bird species that has been observed in or flying over the Oak Openings Region exceeds 300. Of these, 161 species appear on a regular basis.
A Western Prairie bird, the Lark Sparrow, has nested in the Oak Openings Region for at least 75 years. There are no other established populations of this bird in Ohio.
The Summer Tanagers and the Blue Grosbeak are normally found in the southeastern part of the country, but have been known to summer here. Some Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Warblers, and Blue-headed Vireos have nested in the pines here almost every year. The closest other established breeding populations of these birds are at least 100 miles from the Oak Openings Region.
Although common in many states, Red-headed Woodpeckers are rarely seen in this area of country, but have been seen in the Oak Openings Region. Eastern Bluebirds are common in the Oak Openings Region in spring, summer, and fall.
The Blue-spotted Salamander, which is abundant in other states, has been listed as endangered in Ohio. These salamanders usually live in forest habitat, but must return to a pond that retains water into midsummer for breeding. The habitat of the Oak Openings Region has ideal conditions for the Blue-spotted Salamanders.
The Blanding’s and Spotted turtles require both aquatic and terrestrial environments. They are listed as threatened in Ohio due to fragmented habitats. The Oak Openings Region provides the perfect environment for these species to flourish.
Threats To The Oak Openings Region
There are numerous threats to the Oak Openings Region. The most serious of these threats is urban sprawl. Listed below are other serious perils that threaten the region:
- Introduction of non-native plants.
- Approximately 700 800 species of plants in Ohio are not native to the state. Plants such as Garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata, Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria, and Queen Anne’s Lace Daucus Carota are examples of non-native invasive plants.
- Lowering of ground water tables Caused by ditching, pumping, private wells, and ponds and increased paving of surfaces.
- Encroachment of woodlands In the Oak Openings Region, woody plants encroach and take over the sunlit prairies and savannas. Some of the plants in this category are: Russian-olive Elaeagnus angustifolia, Autumn Olive Elaeagnus umbellata, and Glossy buckhorn Frangula alnus.
- Fragmentation of natural areas Isolation of natural areas surrounded by development.
- Elimination of native species Collecting of native species such as turtles, the intentional killing of snakes; fragmentation of large home ranges for animals such as the badger; safe paths to water for frogs, toads, salamanders, and turtles. Native plant areas are paved over for development.
- Toxic pollution Use of pesticides and fertilizers for agriculture as well as lawns and gardens threaten both wild life and native plant species.
Increase Community Awareness Homeowners in the region can help by planting native species and using fewer pesticides and fertilizers. Educate and encourage landowners to protect the habitats on their own land through the use of natural alternatives.
Land Acquisition Acquire land from public and private sources through purchase or conservation easements.
Habitat Restoration Private and public planting of native species, limiting water and sewer expansion, and limiting the destruction of farmland and natural areas.
Development of land use plans Working with local governments to establish green space, land use plans and zoning changes.
Promoting Wetlands Creation of floodplains. With the help of numerous organizations these strategies are beginning to become reality.
The Toledo Zoo’s Efforts To Conserve This One Of A Kind Resource
Even though you can see lots of green throughout the Oak Openings Region that does not mean that these are all native to those specific areas. Historically, the region was open oak savannas and wet prairies but it has now turned into oak woods and pin oak/aspen thickets. Through many efforts of the Toledo Zoo volunteers/staff and other organizations these invasive plants are being removed.
Toledo Zoo volunteers have worked at the side of the Nature Conservancy for years to help with the successful removal of invasive species. One of the main reasons that the zoo started the partnership was for conservation of the Karner Blue Butterfly. The species was extirpated from the Oak Openings Region due to habitat loss.
Research and surveys were done by Toledo Zoo staff to find out the habitat requirements this little butterfly needed in order to repatriate the species back into the Oak Openings Region.
The first step in the restoration of this habitat is the removal of invasive plant species. This crucial step can happen anytime during the year so long as you can see the plant species you want to remove. Kitty Todd Nature Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property, utilizes Toledo Zoo volunteers for habitat restoration.
Volunteers use loppers and saws to cut down the thickets and the trees.
Another step in the restoration of the Oak Openings Region is seed collecting. Seeds are collected from native plants that grow throughout the Oak Openings Region. Seed collecting is species dependent and is usually performed between the spring and early fall. Plant identification is important because some invasive species closely resemble native plants species. The staff in the Oak Openings Region helps the volunteers determine from which plant seeds should be collected. This is a great opportunity for everyone to work together.
The third thing that volunteers help with is brush pile burns. These are controlled fires of the thickets that were removed throughout the year. Brush pile burns only occur in the winter. Volunteers enjoy helping with the brush pile burns because they help to restore the habitat.
The last step is planting the seeds. Planting occurs in the springtime and the volunteers work alongside the staff in this process. After planting the seeds, they have to be maintained throughout the year so that, hopefully, the habitat will be ready to release the butterflies.
These steps have worked as evidenced by the reintroduction of the Karner Blue Butterfly. In addition to the Karner Blue, two other species of endangered butterflies also inhabit this region. They include the Persius Dusky Wing and the Frosted Elfin. All three species depend on wild lupine Lupinus perennis for survival, as it is their host plant. Wild lupine, Lupinus perennis normally occurs in oak savanna and sand barren habitats. The Karner Blue was once extirpated from Ohio, but was brought back by the combined efforts of the Toledo Zoo, The Nature Conservancy, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Ohio and Michigan Departments of Natural Resources.
The larvae of the Silver-bordered Fritillary, listed as threatened in Ohio, feeds on the potentially threatened lance-leaved Violet, Viola lanceolata. Although both this butterfly and plant have declined in numbers due to chemical sprays and development, they can be seen on occasion in the Oak Openings Region.
The Toledo Zoo has also worked with the following organizations to help conserve the Oak Openings Region as well as other projects that correspond with our mission and growth for a better future.
- Nature Conservancy (1200 hours)
- Toledo Metro Parks (800 hours)
- Olander Park System (400 hours)
- Duck and Otter Creek (Wetland Restoration) (100 hours)
- The Green Ribbon Initiative
- Keep Toledo/Lucas County Beautiful (250 hours)
- Black Swamp Conservancy
- Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (30 hours)
- Oak Openings Region Conservancy (OORC)
Toledo Zoo Education
Integral to the curriculum of all the educational topics presented either in a classroom setting or through van programs by the Toledo Zoo docents is a strong emphasis on conservation. This includes the consequences of not conserving areas involved and suggestions as to what each individual can do. Frequently the Oak Openings Region is used as an example to enlarge the participants’ concept of “his or her own backyard.”
In addition to the above classes, the Toledo Zoo conducts a number of ongoing “interpretive experiences” including: animal feeds, enrichment, elephant training, polar bear cubs and, new this summer, a North American butterfly house that utilize teaching within each presentation. All of these contacts, representing thousands of hours of commitment by the adult Zoo Eds and ZOOTeens, contain elements of conservation. In 2007 the docents will contribute approximately 1700 hours interacting with visitors who view the Polar Bear exhibit and approximately 700 additional hours in the Butterfly exhibit. These hours exceed those hours currently provided in classroom education and animal demonstration given in various areas of the zoo.
We are raising the awareness of our constituents to the urgency and need for immediate action to preserve the fragile habitats on this blue planet.
We are planting the seeds of conservancy in the minds of the children who will someday assume the role of stewards of the environment.
The Toledo Zoo Mission Statement
“Our mission is to promote wildlife and its conservation through excellence in animal management, educational programs and scientific activities while providing our visitors with an enjoyable, recreational, and family-oriented experience.”
“The Green Ribbon Initiative.” OakOpen.Com. WGTE Public Broadcasting. 11 May 2007
Grigore, Michelle T., ed. Living in the Oak Openings a Homeowner’s Guide to One of the World’s Last Great
Places. Toledo, Ohio: Homewood P, 2004. 1-62.
“The Toledo Zoo.” Org. Toledo.com. 4 June 2007 <http://toledozoo.org/discover/disc_visionmission.html>.