Searching for rare species is not your typical day job, but over the past two years ecologists Ryan Durand and Tyson Ehlers have had the opportunity to do just that in the Bonanza Biodiversity Corridor (BBC) in the north Slocan Valley, where they have recorded over 1,000 species, some of which have never before been identified in B.C. or Canada.
“When we’re out in the field and we find a rare species that we have found in other areas but can now confirm it’s in Bonanza, that’s always exciting,” said Durand. “But then with more obscure species, sometimes you can’t identify them, sometimes they’ve never been found here.”
Durand and Ehlers took on this work as consultants for the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society, which has been leading a Biodiversity and Species-at-Risk Project for Kootenay Connect.
Kootenay Connect is the Kootenay Conservation Program project funded through the Canada Nature Fund that focuses on species at risk in four areas in the Kootenays: the BBC being one along with the Columbia Wetlands Wildlife Management Area, the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor in the East Kootenay, and the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area.
Encompassing an area of 12,865 hectares, the BBC includes the 15-kilometre-long valley along Bonanza Creek between Slocan and Summit lakes. The region’s lakes and steep terrain make it a key river corridor in the Slocan Lake Watershed, characterized by relatively untouched ecosystems, old growth forests and wetlands.
“These tight, steep sided valleys like the BBC have a wide range of habitat types due to elevation, geology and topography, resulting in a very diverge assemblage of species” said Durand. “Our work is to try and find and document as many species as possible.”
A typical 10 to 12 hour field day searching for species can involve walking down a logging road with a bug net looking for insects, followed by a foray into the forest to flip over logs to see what’s growing underneath, while scanning the ground looking for plants and animals, and spending hours crawling around with magnifiers, cameras and collecting containers.
“We’re photographing in the field, and more often than not we can’t identify some things to the species level, so then it’s collecting samples to look at back in the office using microscopes and consulting a variety of literature trying to figure out what it is,” Durand said.
“Everything is fair game in our surveys. We keep a running list of every living thing we see from each area,” said Ehlers. “Our goal is to characterize the ecosystems of the BBC and to build a biodiversity database. Having documented most of the common and well-known organisms, we are focusing more on the cryptic and obscure groups, things like invertebrates, fungi, and myxomycetes (slime moulds) that are challenging to find and identify, and often go overlooked.”
Pulling a log apart and finding dozens of species in it isn’t uncommon. Durand and Ehlers honed in on specific habitats during certain times of the year, such as older moist forests, knowing these would be where many more obscure species would be found.
“We used a helicopter to get into the alpine above Summit Lake last year and spent 10 hours hiking downhill,” Durand explained. “Other times we were in hip waders or rubber boots looking around the wetlands, or the foreshore of the lake, but most of the time it’s just hiking boots walking all the forests, rock slopes and everything else we could find.”
A few of the more obscure species they have found include the Herrington fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale), a species of special concern not previously known to occur in the West Kootenays (this species was first found in British Columbia in 1890 in what is now Yoho National Park and was not found again until 2012, when it was discovered in the Flathead River Valley); Bug-on-a-stick (Buxbaumia aphylla) which is a tiny moss that has been found several times growing on well-decayed conifer logs; Pale jumping-slug (Hemphillia camelus), which is a species of special concern that primarily occurs in the Kootenay and Columbia watersheds of B.C. and was found in three locations in the BBC; and Lepidoderma tigrinum, a tiny (<2mm tall) species of slime mould, or myxomycete, that was discovered in the subalpine west of Summit Lake — the first location in B.C. that this species was documented, with a subsequent observation on Vancouver Island in 2020.
“It may surprise some people, however slime moulds are probably the most fascinating thing out there,” said Durand. “They’re microscopic amoeba that are invisible to the naked eye, that spend most of their life eating bacteria. But when they want to reproduce, all these single cell organisms get together to combine and make what is known as a ‘plasmodial slime’, which is an often brightly coloured slime that moves and can actually think and remember. Then when the conditions are right, all of a sudden decide to reproduce and combine to make these amazing microscopic little structures that produce spores, often over just a few hours or days. The slime part is only one intermediary stage and that’s what they’re named for.”
“This species-at-risk project in the BBC is a great example of how small and understudied species contribute to the overall diversity of a landscape and play an important role in keeping ecosystems healthy and functioning,” said Marcy Mahr, KCP’s Kootenay Connect Project Manager. “Everyone’s aware of our region’s big flora and fauna, like grizzly bears, wolverine and mountain caribou, yet the foundation of the habitats these large species depend upon relies upon the hard-to-see yet important world that remains poorly understood.”
This rare species documentation is part of the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society’s conservation plan for the region to look for biodiversity hotspots and sensitive ecosystems in order to guide resource development and other interests on the landscape.
To find out more about this project, visit https://kootenayconservation.ca/bonanza-biodiversity-corridor/.