You might not see too many of them downtown, but these species are native to Toronto. Get to know your wild animal neighbours.
In the concrete jungle of downtown Toronto, it’s often easy to forget the wide variety of wild animals that call the city home.
They might not be in view, but they matter: Torontonians’ excellent quality of life is based as much on the quality of the air we breathe and the lake water we drink as it is on the animals living alongside the forested trails we ride our bikes through. These ecosystems are a diversity of biological life, supplying both water and pollination for food production.
Their continued existence is important enough that the City’s planning department, in partnership with the Royal Ontario Museum and a host of volunteer experts, set about writing and publishing a series of booklets identifying the thousands of birds, fishes, insects, reptiles, and mammals we share the city with.
The growing book series—available at libraries around the city and soon to be online—outlines the history of each taxonomic group in Toronto before identifying where each species may be found in the city and what you can do to avoid adding further stress to its habitat and food supply.
Each book also identifies an animal with a unique connection to the city. Dubbed Toronto’s (un)Official species, these animals have opened up their natural habitats to 2.5 million visitors. Here’s what you need to know about them.
Toronto’s (un)Official Reptile: Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Habitat loss: Despite once being common across Toronto, the snapping turtle (pictured above) population has declined in recent years from a combination of human initiatives—filling in streams and wetlands, in addition to road mortality and illegal harvesting—and natural characteristics, like late sexual maturity and low reproductive success. Look for snapping turtles in and alongside the city’s rivers, streams, ponds and wetlands, and the warm, concrete roads near those green spaces, which are great for soaking up warmth.
Interaction with humans: Snapping turtles live in Toronto year-round, though you’d be forgiven for never having seen one. During Toronto’s colder months, these turtles head south—to the bottom of rivers, ponds, and marshes, where they can survive for up to seven months below water that’s frozen at the surface. The low-profile may be a good thing: humans pose a serious risk to slow-moving snapping turtles in our cars. And while they have a reputation for chomping toes, as with most wild animals, they’d rather you just go back to not noticing them.
Little-known fact: Snapping turtles are unable to pull their entire body inside their shells like other turtles. Lacking the defensive manoeuvre most turtles are known for, snappers have to rely on their powerful jaws for self-defence when on land.
Toronto’s (un)Official Spider: Yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia)
Photo: courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum
Food: It might sound impossible, but spiders eat an estimated 12 million kilograms of insects every year in Toronto. The yellow gardener will sit patiently in the stabilimentum—the sturdy centre of a web—waiting for food to become entangled. Provided what gets caught is edible, a quick, venomous bite will knock the insect out before a female yellow gardener regurgitates a digestive enzyme onto the prey, liquefying its body. All the easier to ingest the nutrients, right?
Reproduction: Nature made female yellow gardeners (19-28 mm in length) significantly larger and more formidable than their male counterparts (5-9 mm in length). The females’ iridescent black and yellow bodies and large size make them intimidating to humans as well as potential male partners. But while people shouldn’t be worried to spot this species in their backyard, male yellow gardeners have cause for concern. Once their mating mission is accomplished, they will die, and they’re sometimes eaten by the females.
Population Stresses: Toronto’s spiders can thrive in a variety of habitats: from High Park’s wetlands and Rouge Valley’s forests and streams to the 25th storey of a towering glass and concrete condo building. While yellow gardeners are fans of open fields and tall flowers, their populations are challenged not only by habitat loss, but also overuse of pesticides on lawns and gardens that also kills off their food supply.
Toronto’s (un)Official Fish: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)
Photo: courtesy of the Montreal Biodome
Habitat loss: Once a primary food source for Aboriginals and early settlers along the lakeshore, the last native Atlantic salmon was caught in Lake Ontario in 1898. The pollution of streams and the lake played a large part in their local extinction, as did the damming of rivers for small-scale hydro projects that blocked access to traditional cold-water spawning grounds.
Little-known fact: This fish was once so prevalent in the near waters of Lake Ontario that it increased property values of farms located near spawning grounds.
Species at risk (?): It’s unlikely that anyone has had much interaction with Atlantic salmon off the Toronto waterfront in the past century, but significant improvements to Lake Ontario’s water quality have made the reintroduction of the species posible. It began in 2006 through a provincial government-led initiative. By 2011, more than 3.5 million Atlantic salmon were raised in children’s classrooms and institutions across the province and released near 110 restored habitats, including Toronto’s Humber River.
Toronto’s (un)Official Butterfly: Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
Photo: courtesy of Bob Yukich
Habitat loss: Some of Toronto’s butterfly species were able to adapt to significant habitat destruction in the past century, though many did not. More than 110 butterfly species live in Toronto today, making the most of wetlands, meadows and ravines that criss-cross the city. But some unexpected places have become inadvertent butterfly observatories, including the Eglinton Flats at Eglinton Ave. and Jane St., the Toronto Islands, the Leslie Street Spit and the re-naturalized meadows surrounding the Toronto Zoo.
Food: Toronto is situated at the meeting point of the Carolinian Zone and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Zone, ensuring a diverse plant ecosystem which encourages a wide-range of butterflies to call the city home. The eastern tiger swallowtail is especially fond of nectar found in lilacs and common milkweed, but backyard gardens with abundant flowers of most types will entice this species and others to stop for a quick meal.
Interaction with humans: While butterflies can be found throughout the city for most of the year, interactions between residents and butterflies has likely increased since the Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat was completed at the mouth of the Humber River more than a decade ago. The one-hectare park juts into Lake Ontario, sporting a wide assortment of shrubs, plants and flowers intended to attract a plethora of migrating and overwintering species.
Toronto’s (un)Official Mammal: Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Photo: courtesy of Gord Sawyer
Interaction with humans: It’s been a century since red foxes were commonly found in Toronto, and the animal’s cautious nature and uncanny sense of sound means that, like the deer that live in the city, red foxes are unlikely to stick around when they hear humans coming. The network of ravines, golf courses, hydro corridors and green spaces that snake across the city ensures that the remaining foxes can get around relatively safely. And quickly, too: the spritely animal can cover up to 20 kilometres each night in search of food.
Food: Given a choice, Toronto’s red foxes would prefer to eat the voles and mice that live in the city, but the limitations of urban habitats have led foxes to widen their palette to include birds and squirrels, in addition to berries and fruits. Thankfully, unlike raccoons, red foxes have not become so acclimatized to city living that human garbage has become a staple of their diet.
Species at risk (?): Rabies was a significant problem among Ontario’s wildlife in the 1980s, hitting red foxes particularly hard: before control efforts began in earnest, 50 per cent of all reported cases of rabid animals province-wide involved a red fox. But in 1989, an orally-ingested vaccine bait was distributed across the Toronto area that had considerable success in dropping rabid fox numbers, as the last reported case in Toronto occurred in 1996.