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Wetland Biodiversity: A Message to Take Home

Volume 1 Number 17 - December 1998

Dr. John D. Ambrose



Résumé en Français

Resumen en Español

Wetlands are one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the earth.  In southern Ontario alone 80-90% of the pre-settlement wetland base has been lost due to drainage, filling or habitat alteration.  This enormous loss of habitat is of major concern since 24% of the world's wetlands are found in Canada.  Wetlands provide many important environmental functions.  In addition to providing habitat for a diversity of plant and animal species, wetlands also recharge ground water supply acting as a reservoir for fresh water.  Wetlands also act as a buffer to moderate flooding, reduce erosion and purify water.

We now recognize that the loss of wetlands in our human modified landscape has a serious impact on the land and its ecosystem health.  How can we best turn this situation around?  Firstly, it is important that people understand and appreciate wetlands for what they are,  intriguing biological systems that are home to a diversity of life as well as important for their ecological functioning.  Thus our conservation goal is to engender a new wetland appreciation in our visitors by giving them a positive experience.  It is also important that we offer options that individuals can take home and use to improve the condition of wetlands in their community and in the regional landscape.

Exhibits at the Toronto Zoo

The Toronto Zoo has developed two outdoor exhibits that feature created native wetland systems; the Wetland Habitats, a series of ponds and adjacent meadows, and the Waterway Wetlands, a large marsh fed by a meandering stream of typical pool and riffle morphology.  Both systems take advantage of surface run-off from the surrounding land and are also connected to the zoo's waterway.  Both systems were planted with different combinations of species native to regional wetlands and typical of the hydrology and form of the individual pond or marsh.  The animals inhabiting the wetlands have colonized the areas on their own, from various aquatic invertebrates, terrestrial and aquatic insects, to an array of frogs, toads, and birds.  When the sites were under planning in 1993, all curators were asked what features they would like to see in the new habitats.  This resulted in a plan with high habitat diversity, including ponds of different depths, substrates and plant communities, adjacent meadows, a developing forest, and even a snake hibernaculum.

The Wetland Habitats exhibit, excavated and first planted in 1994, is maturing with a diversity of wetland plants and aquatic invertebrates, as well as numerous frogs, toads and their tadpoles.  These all make for interesting observations at a 'Close Encounters' table staffed by Zoo volunteers, where magnifiers bring the diverse pond life into view for inquisitive Zoo visitors.  Signs and leaflets aid in the interpretation of the various plants and animals in the ponds as well as the important ecological services that wetlands provide, from water processing in individual ponds, to water and nutrient cycling at the watershed level.  Being surrounded by created habitats provides an interactive experience where plants, animals, water, and soil can be seen as a complex ecological web, allowing visitors to directly experience the role individual organisms play in a natural system.  This provides many people, particularly urban dwellers, with their first experience in a natural area.  Information is provided on constructed wetlands, with the opportunity to use the zoo's wetlands as a model for a community, from local parks, schoolyards, to private backyards, extending the experience and allowing for individual action.

The Waterway Wetlands were excavated in the summer of 1997 and initial plantings are in place.  Additional plantings and interpretive signs on ecosystem health are scheduled for 1998-99.  The issues of ecosystem health, focusing on what services the ecosystem provides and individual action to increase wetland health and biodiversity, will be addressed.

Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Programme

The exhibits complement an educational programme that addresses local wetland conservation.  The Adopt-A-Pond Programme was developed at the Toronto Zoo in 1991 and now over 1200 schools are involved.  Staff responsible for Adopt-A-Pond collaborate with and provide educational material and resources for national and international partners in the effort to raise concern for the protection and restoration of wetlands globally. Also to  provide action opportunities in our own schoolyards and backyards.

The wetland exhibits provide school groups with an opportunity to get their feet and hands wet as they discover the diversity of life below the surface of the water.  Zoo volunteers are trained as Pond Guardians providing wetland talks and outreach programming for Ontario school groups.  A wetland study module will soon be available which will further complement the wetland exhibits.  The module will provide a guide and video for educators to utilize wetlands as an extension of the classroom.  The zoo wetlands serve as a field centre for wetland studies, especially for schools that cannot create their own wetland.

Working with schools is an effective tool for wetland conservation.  There is also a need for education to empower communities to actively participate in local restoration and creation projects.  The zoo's exhibits and school programming, and the Adopt-A-Pond Programme, are resources for community action.  The Frogwatch-Ontario Programme is a community based amphibian monitoring programme designed to increase awareness of the importance of local wetlands.  Community members of all ages have fun while collecting frog call data that will provide long term trends in amphibian distribution.  Frogwatch-Ontario targets schools but also appeals to urban, rural and isolated communities.

The involvement and enthusiasm of individuals within communities make the restoration of urban wetland systems possible.  Increasing awareness about the ecosystem and environmental issues creates a connection with the habitat and a greater sense of concern for ecosystem health.  The development of environmental appreciation is an important outcome for school group experiences.  The combination of enthusiasm and energy within community members will overcome any perceived hurdles in conservation projects.  Together communities can make a difference in the conservation of wetland habitat.

The Adopt-A-Pond webpage (accessible through ) provides program information and material, such as the Urban Outback-Wetlands for Wildlife Guide, the quarterly newsletter Amphibian Voice, the Adopt-A-Pond's Wetland Curriculum Resource, and links to the amphibian monitoring programme, Frogwatch-Ontario, and other conservation groups.


La présentation de l'écosystème reconstitué permet au public visiteur de se familiariser avec des systèmes interactif (c'est parfois le premier contact avec un système naturel), ils sont interpellés par la diversité des espèces peuplant le milieu et gagnent en compréhension et en appréciation de tels systèmes et les potentialités fournies par le paysage régional au sens large. Le programme zoologique " Adopte une Marre " avec plus de 1200 écoles vient à l'appui de ces expositions et avec les programmes scolaires aide les populations à s'investir dans la création et la conservation de zones humides, spécialement dans les zones urbaines. Ces expositions expérimentales servent aussi de modèle pour nos visiteurs afin qu'ils perçoivent les opportunités qu'ils ont d'effectuer des changements dans leur propre communauté ou dans leur vie personnelle : elles sont particulièrement adaptées aux jardins publics et aux zoos.


Los elementos de los ecosistemas autóctonos reconstruidos permiten a los visitantes experimentar con sistemas interactivos (a veces se les ofrece su primera experiencia de un sistema natural) y sentir curiosidad por la variedad de habitantes.  Así mismo se logra un entendimiento y una apreciación de sistemas como éstos y de los servicios que ofrecen en un paisaje regional más amplio.  El programa 'Adopte un estanque" llevado a cabo por el Zoo de Toronto cuenta con la participación de más de 1.200 colegios y complementa los elementos expuestos en el lugar y la programación del colegio.  Del mismo modo ayudan a implicar a las comunidades en la creación y conservación de los pantanos, especialmente en zonas urbanas.  Los objetos con los que se experimenta sirven también para que nuestros visitantes vean opciones y oportunidades para ponerse en marcha de manera positiva en su comunidad y en su vida personal: están perfectamente adecuados para jardines públicos y zoológicos.

Para más información sobre los programas del Zoo de Toronto, mire en nuestras páginas web:

About the Author

Dr. John D. Ambrose co-ordinated the planning and development of these exhibits; he is Curator of Botany, Toronto Zoo, 361A Old Finch Ave, Scarborough, ON M1B 5K7 Canada.  Tel: (416) 392-5973, FAX:  (416) 392-4979,e-mail:

 Heather Passmore, an educator, co-ordinates the Adopt-A-Pond Programme at the Toronto Zoo.  Tel: (1) 416 392 5968,  FAX: (1) 416 392 4979, e-mail: