Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Polar bears and prothonotary warblers: species on the edge

Today’s post comes from our discovery specialist, Dave Sproule.

We are lucky to live in a province where nature has blessed us with many lakes, a variety of landscapes and an incredible diversity of wildlife.

However, some of the plants and animals that live in Ontario are at risk.

Our provincial parks and conservation reserves play a vital role in protecting these special species.

Stay tuned this summer as we learn all about the at-risk plants and animals found in Ontario parks, starting with this introduction…

Ontario is a big place

It is the second largest province in Canada and much of it lies north of the 49th parallel.

In our sparsely populated province, most of us live concentrated in the south, between Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake Huron/Georgian Bay.

Living in the south can make it difficult to think about the vastness of Ontario.

aerial photo of the park

From north to south, between Polar Bear Provincial Park, on the shores of Hudson Bay and James Bay, to Rondeau Provincial Park, near Ontario’s southern point on Lake Erie, it is 1,400 km in a straight line.

To put this in perspective, traveling that same distance south from Rondeau would take you to central Florida.

This large size makes us very diverse.

aerial view of the forest

Landscapes, bodies of water and climate combine to create a huge variety of habitats for plants and animals. That huge variety of habitats means there are lots of places for plants and animals to live, and lots of diversity of those species.

However, many species face challenges and some are now what we call “species at risk.”

What is a species at risk?

When scientists think a species is in trouble, they look at four possible categories.

The species can be:

  • excised: still lives somewhere in the world and once lived in Ontario, but no longer lives in the wild in Ontario
  • endangered: living in the wild in Ontario, but facing imminent extinction or extirpation
  • threatened: living in the wild in Ontario. It is not in danger, but it is likely to be if measures are not taken to address the factors that threaten it.
  • special concern: living in the wild in Ontario. It is not endangered or threatened, but may be threatened or endangered due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

Some species at risk are well known; others are not.

This summer we will show all kinds of species. To start, here’s a little about a few:

Polar Bear

Yes, Ontario parks protect polar bears, the southernmost population in the world!

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They live at the “southern edge” of their range, which presents challenges.

Polar Bear

For example, climate change has posed a major challenge to their diets. Polar bears depend on seals for food and must have sea ice to hunt. Sea ice is forming late in the year and melting early in the year, meaning the bears must go without food for 3 or 4 months.

Polar Bear

If the shortened sea ice season continues and bears must go without food for an even longer period of time, we may lose our polar bears.

Polar Bear Provincial Park, located on the southern shore of Hudson Bay, protects approximately 70% of Ontario’s maternal dens where these bears are born.

Prothonotary warbler

Along the shores of Lake Erie, the prothonotary warbler mirrors the polar bear in that thIt is a pretty yellow and gray songbird that is in the from North edge of its range where it breeds in Rondeau Provincial Park.

Yellow bird perched on a branch.

In the United States, it is often called a “swamp warbler” because it prefers swamps (wetlands with standing trees) to live. In winter, they live from Mexico to South America and migrate north in spring to breed, nesting in tree cavities near wetlands. Habitat loss is the main cause of the risk status of this warbler.

Lake Huron Grasshopper

Between the polar bears of the north and the warblers of the south lives the Lake Huron grasshopper. This grasshopper is silvery gray to brown with specks and bands on the front wings that help it blend into its sandy habitat.

This rare insect lives exclusively in open dune habitats along the shores of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. Its preferred habitat is the fore dune, the low ridge of open, bare sand covered with scattered grasses located closest to the lake.

sandy grasshopperThe Lake Huron grasshopper adapts perfectly to a sandy environment.

Sand dunes are actually a rare type of habitat in Ontario. If we combined all of Ontario’s coastal sand dunes, they would only represent less than 0.5% of the province’s land area.

This grasshopper is known to be found in only eight locations in Ontario. One location is Pancake Bay Provincial Park on the southeast shore of Lake Superior.

The species was found once again south in Ontario with historical records from Wasaga Beach Provincial Park as well as Giant’s Tomb Island, part of Awenda Provincial Park. The loss of dunes, generally due to development and pressure from trails that cross them to reach beaches, has impacted this insect and led to its endangered status (you can help dune species throughout the province if you follow the official trails and stay away from the dunes). !).

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Massasauga Rattlesnake

Did you know that the Massasauga rattlesnake is the only venomous snake in Ontario?

Its range has been greatly reduced since the pre-settlement days. Now the islands and rocky shores of eastern Georgian Bay are one of the last refuges of this shy animal.

Killbear Provincial Park is at the heart of this Georgian Bay refuge.


Habitat loss is one reason for their condition, but road mortality is a major factor. Killbear Park naturalists have been working hard for many years to monitor these reptiles. They have also installed snake fencing and ecological passages to protect them within the park. Help protect these rare creatures by driving slowly and watching for wildlife.

Staff have also worked to inform visitors that this small snake is not the danger many believe it to be. Fear caused people to kill rattlesnakes whenever they saw them in the past, which has contributed to their risk status.

spotted gar

The Spotted Gar is an ancient fish.

They’ve been around so long that their ancestors swam around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth! Sometimes called “primitive fish,” their design hasn’t changed much in 65 million years.

Unlike most Ontario fish, Spotted Gars have thick diamond-shaped scales covering their body and part of their scientific name means bony scales.

spotted gar in the lakeA spotted fish lurks in the shallow waters of Rondeau. Can you see it so well camouflaged?

They can breathe air with the help of their “gas bladder,” which acts like a primitive lung.

Gars are incredible hunters, with the rapid movement of such a streamlined body and the rows of very sharp teeth in their long jaws. They sit in ambush waiting for their prey and then dart forward very quickly. They are usually the main predator in their habitat.

Young people are hungry! The young eat mosquito larvae. Visitors love a mosquito killer!

What can you do to help?

Provincial parks are critical to the survival of many of these species, and we all have a role to play in protecting them, including you!


  • Be a good park visitor: follow the rules, respect park trails, and stay away from sensitive habitats.
  • Record your plant and animal sightings – submitting observations through the iNaturalist app helps Ontario Parks staff better protect them
  • Be a good steward: Private landowners can help protect habitat and species at risk, and support recovery through stewardship programs.
  • Volunteer to help with habitat restoration projects.
  • make a donation to help us fund more conservation and research efforts in the park
  • make a purchase from our online store (consider our Turtle Protection Project!) – all profits are reinvested in park projects

Introducing our blog series on species at risk

Join us as we share beautiful, sometimes emotional and uplifting stories about species at risk in Ontario parks.

Travel the province with our park naturalists to see how diverse the animal and plant life is in Ontario!