Golden-crowned kinglet. Jack-in-the-pulpit. Eastern harvestman.
Those bird, plant and spider species – plus more than 1,200 other forms of wildlife, some of them rare or at-risk – were found on Western’s campus over the last year during a biodiversity inventory project that engaged hundreds of people.
From rare turtle species that breed and nest on campus, to signs of a threatened nocturnal bird making its home on top of Western buildings, the results of the biodiversity inventory exceeded expectations.
“It creates a mindfulness that we are not alone. There are a lot of living things in this city, and we overlap. I’m really excited, not just about the data we’ve collected, but what we can do with that information,” said Brendon Samuels, a PhD candidate in biology and environmental activist who helped organize the effort.
The inventory captured the wide range of species on campus using photographs, with thousands of those “observations” uploaded to a website and application called iNaturalist, which identifies species in the snapshot and tracks where they are found.
“You suddenly have access to a database, with many people’s eyes and cameras and attention looking for living things in the environment, and understanding how they’re doing and how they move,” Samuels said.
Observers across campus found 1,225 species, of which 22 are considered at-risk in Ontario or across the country, adding to the plants, animals and fungi that were already documented on Western’s iNaturalist inventory. The year-long crowdsourcing project also included engagement and outreach, with more than a dozen guided hikes and surveys, and involvement from Western classes and clubs.
The most spotted animals will be no surprise to Western students, staff or faculty: Canada geese and the Eastern gray squirrel topped the list of observed species. Everything from moth species to fungi and wildflowers to mussels were reported.
Samuels is hopeful the biodiversity inventory can be used to support the natural environment and protect the species that call Western home, by removing invasive plants and alerting the campus community about sensitive animals or habitats, like the turtle that decided to nest in a pile of dirt waiting to be used by a landscaping team.
Samuels pointed to the signage used to alert Western’s community to the nesting sites of Canada geese, including information to avoid an attack and keep the animals safe, as a great example of proactive communication.
“Where we know there are sensitive species and habitats, we need to make sure we have infrastructure to let people know about that,” he said.
Sustainability is a key part of Western’s roadmap for the future. The biodiversity inventory is one of six projects underway as part of the Campus as a Living Lab program, launched nearly a year ago on Earth Day 2022.
“I was personally quite shocked by the number of species and the level of engagement,” Western’s director of sustainability Heather Hyde said of the hundreds who participated by snapping and submitting photographs of species on campus.
The campus is unique, rich in natural beauty and green spaces, with the Thames River even flowing through the property. Western also owns part of the Medway Valley Heritage Forest, one of London’s most spectacular environmentally significant areas (ESA).
Understanding the university campus as a “living lab” is all about recognizing the natural treasures on which Western sits and opening those spaces to all kinds of research to connect both academic and sustainability goals.
Hyde offered up a few recent examples, like the migration of hoverflies studied in a naturalized area behind the Springett parking lot, where mowing is minimal and most wildlife is left to flourish, or efforts to mitigate flooding near Westminster Hall, using tree trimmings on the bank of the river.
Those projects, as well as the biodiversity inventory, connect the campus in a different way, Hyde said.
“Western is open to more of these. We want to expand the program, that is an important message,” Hyde said.
“Western has made bold commitments to address climate change and is doing a lot of great work – on the research and teaching side, as well as operationally – this is just another element of that really strong program,” she added.
Samuels wants to see the momentum from the biodiversity inventory continue.
He’s still looking to track down the whereabouts of a nocturnal bird believed to be nesting on top of a Western building somewhere on the campus. The common nighthawk isn’t yet endangered, but is considered of “special concern” since it could become threatened based on its characteristics and risks.
The wider London community is also gearing up for a four-day competition at the end of the month. The City Nature Challenge pits cities across the globe against one another to see whose residents can submit the most observations of plants, animal and fungi.
City hall even uses iNaturalist and other online platforms as part of the ecological checks and balances required during the review of new development projects, making the information Londoners enter a crucial and direct form of citizen engagement, Samuels said.
It also helps protect the species living on campus and in the city.
“This is not a new concept; people have been monitoring birds and other species in the environment for a long time, keeping detailed records,” Samuels said.
“It used to be that if you wanted to be a naturalist, you had to have books and have read them all and be really smart and go to school for it, but now it is so accessible anybody can do it with just an app on their phone.”
BY THE NUMBERS
1,225 species observed during year-long biodiversity inventory project
3,675 observations uploaded to Western’s iNaturalist page
294 users shared data as part of the project
WESTERN’S SUSTAINABILITY WORK
- Ranked first in Canada and third in the world for sustainability and global impact in the Times Higher Education 2022 Impact Rankings.
- Ranked 17th out of 700 universities across the globe in first QS World University Rankings for sustainability in 2022.
- Earned gold STARS since 2014 from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, which evaluates more than 550 institutions around the world, for work improving sustainability on campus, in community and globally.
- First university in Canada to be designated a Bee Campus, recognizing efforts to support pollinators across campus, in 2018.
- Designated as an arboretum since 1981 when the Sherwood Fox Arboretum was established, encompassing all trees and shrubs on Western’s campus.