Geek Family Trip: Long Point World Biosphere Reserve

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With my wife studying for exams, it was up to the kids and I to undertake what was likely our final camping trip of the season.  Most of the Provincial Parks will be shutting down until the spring during the next few weeks, so unless a birthday party or two falls off the calendar this month, that’s it for 2008.

This round, we chose Long Point Provincial Park, an extremely interesting location.  Long Point is located on a sand spit that extends into Lake Erie, and it’s considered a very important wildlife habitat; as a matter of fact, it was designated the Long Point World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1986. 

Conservation and wildlife habitat preservation are clearly emphasized and, for the most part, respected by people camping in the area.  Hiking through the park, we did come across more squished turtles, snakes and frogs on the roads than live ones, but hopefully those represented the very few unlucky ones.  Being part of a sand spit, the beaches, of course, were nice and sandy.   Unfortunately, the sand was covered with what seemed to be an endless supply of large-ish (up to a foot in length) dead fish. 

I started poking around for info about what was going on and the generally accepted theory is that zebra mussels have become established offshore and are the root of the problem.  The mussels clear the water causing it to warm more than normal, in turn encouraging growth of algae.  The algae die and release botulism toxin, which the zebra mussels and other shellfish then ingest as part of their water filtering process.  Fish eat the infected shellfish and are killed by the botulism toxins, ending up washed up on the beach.  Yuck.  Apparently the next stage in the cycle is pretty nasty- birds eat the dead fish and become infected themselves.  The effect of botulism on the birds is muscle paralysis, leading to loss of flight capability and eventually drowning.  The bird carcasses become another source of the toxin.  All in all, a pretty grim situation, but it did give the opportunity to explain to the kids what happens when humans disrupt an ecosystem (the zebra mussels are suspected to have made their way into the Great Lakes via the hulls or bilge tanks of ocean-going freighters).

On a more positive note we did assist one frog in successfully crossing the road and had the opportunity to witness the ongoing Monarch butterfly migration and to be in the midst of the largest swarm of dragonflies I’ve ever seen- thousands upon thousands of them circling around and attacking clouds of gnats and mosquitoes at dusk.  For once, it didn’t rain and the temperatures were warmer than usual for this time of year in Ontario, so all in all it was a great trip to end the season with.

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