We may think we know everything that’s out there, but we don’t.
During a dark early-morning hour last June, a light catches a creature crossing a road in Scarborough. It wasn’t a raccoon or skunk or opossum we might catch rooting through our garbage, or one of the coyotes many residents lately have feared are menacing their cats and dogs.
Nor was it one of the white-tailed deer people might see nibbling at their gardens, or a wild turkey like those which stopped traffic last month near the Scarborough Bluffs.
The creature on the road was a black purse-web spider, Ontario’s only relative of the tarantula.
It’s extremely rare, and never seen in Toronto. Barely 100 have been found anywhere, and those only in old-growth areas.
This primitive spider species (it has parallel fangs) isn’t protected by Canadian or U.S. authorities “because they haven’t been able to find out much about it,” said Tom Mason, Toronto Zoo curator of invertebrates and birds.
Finding it within the city limits about 50 feet from the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre is “dumbfounding to say the least.”
Toronto’s suburbs are growing, but species - including, perhaps some new ones - are using the valley and other green corridors as a road to Lake Ontario.
Mason has seen bald eagles and porcupines moving south this way. Beaver, he said, have become fairly common in the city again.
Eastern Scarborough also contains three provincially significant wetlands - the Highland Creek Wetland Complex, Rouge River Marshes and part of the Townline Swamp - that are biodiversity “hot spots” out of proportion to their size and “highly important as reservoirs for provincially, regionally and locally significant species,” a 2009 study said.
Perhaps we haven’t looked closely enough at what lives just beyond our back yards.
The first Rouge BioBlitz, 24 hours of all-out searching by 225 professionals and volunteers on June 15 to 16, found a phenomenal 1,430 species of animals and plants - more life than people would think exists in an urban park, said Mason.
Results for spiders alone were spectacular.
“In one day we collected 96 species, in which a good dozen were new for Toronto and one I believe new to Canada,” Mason said.
This is coyote mating season, and the city told Torontonians last January it is “normal” to see coyotes in winter, when the carnivores are easier to spot and more comfortable roaming residential areas with fewer people outside.
Coyotes use Scarborough’s landscape to their advantage. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority says they can quickly switch their natural diet of rodents to birdfeeder seed, garbage, garden crops and pet food, but adds humans and coyotes can co-exist. “Fear for personal safety is ill-founded as attacks are rare and usually the result of an animal being fed,” the authority says.
A 2009 presentation by the TRCA’s Ralph Toninger, who tracked several of the animals, suggested coyotes can “show up anywhere” in Toronto because they are not just using ravines and natural areas but rail corridors and fenced industrial lands to get into the city and out again.
There were coyote attacks on dogs along the Bluffs in 2010, and the West Rouge Community Association told residents, after sightings across its neighbourhood near Rouge Park, to always walk their pets on a leash and that “it may be wise to carry a walking stick or umbrella.”
City and provincial authorities say it’s important not to feed pets outside or make household garbage accessible to wildlife. They tell people encountering a coyote to wave their arms aggressively, shout, and throw things in its direction.
People should call Toronto Animal Services through 311 to report coyotes who aren’t scared by such tactics, they say.
The wolf’s urban cousins, however, aren’t the only ones who may snatch an unattended cat or small dog.
On a February night two years ago, a homeowner near the zoo let her dogs into the back yard around 9 p.m. and heard them barking. She saw something, she told The Scarborough Mirror, she never expected in a built up area: “A Great Horned Owl with a wing span of five to six feet was swooping down attempting to take my Yorkie.”
The woman’s rottweiler jumped at the owl and “stood over the Yorkie to protect him,” defeating two attacks by the bird, but she said pet owners should be warned about the danger.
More often, it seems, close encounters with wildlife can turn animals into road kill, which is why experts from the zoo have studied remains on roads around Rouge Park. Squashed frogs and turtles won’t just tell us what is there; they may tell us how we can manage animal migration with fewer losses.
The Bioblitz (www.ontariobioblitz.ca contains species lists as well as videos showing, for instance, how researchers recorded bat calls or covered foil sheets with baby oil and powder to capture the paw prints of small mammals.) will be tried again this September, yielding a different array of species, before shifting between five Greater Toronto parks. Checking on the Rouge four or five times over a 20 or 30-year period can show whether strategies for preserving the park’s diversity are working, Mason said.
Part of the day-long survey’s value is raising awareness of the varied nature of life in our area, said Dave Ireland, managing director of biodiversity programs at the Royal Ontario Museum.
People learning about the long list of species found, including the black purse-web spider, will realize their neighbourhoods are home to more than just coyotes, he said. “We’re sitting on a pretty decent tract of habitat.”