Scientists have discovered rare and notable species in the Site C dam flood zone that were missed in BC Hydro’s environmental assessment of the $8.8 billion project, including spider and true bug species new to Canada and bumblebee and snail species vulnerable to extinction.
The findings underscore the rich biodiversity of the Peace River Valley, a northern low-elevation valley that remains “poorly known biologically in British Columbia,” said David Langor, president of the Biological Survey of Canada, a non-profit organization that coordinates scientific research.
“If we were to have a more intensive sampling I’m quite sure that we would come up with quite a pile of other things that are interesting, unique and outside of normal ranges, and perhaps even species that are new to science,” Langor, an Edmonton-based biologist, told DeSmog Canada.
Most of the findings stem from a June 2015 “BioBlitz” organized by the Biological Survey and co-sponsored by the Royal BC Museum and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. In just five days of fieldwork, scientists from across Western Canada collected so many butterfly, spider, plant, other insect and mollusk specimens that they and other scientists across the country are still working to identify them all.
The BioBlitz focused largely on the Site C flood zone, a 107-kilometre long stretch of the Peace River Valley and its tributary valleys that Langor described as “home to a lot of interesting things that we don’t commonly find at those latitudes.”
In an information bulletin circulated to scientists to advertise the BioBlitz, the Biological Survey described previous scientific surveys in the Site C project area as incomplete and pointed out that most surveys by environmental consultants did not include the deposition of specimens into museums for future study, so they have been lost to science.
Fully one-third of the 93 spider species collected during the Peace BioBlitz were notable records identified by Royal BC Museum biologists Robb Bennett and Darren Copley, who spent hundreds of hours peering through microscopes at almost 500 spider specimens ranging from a few centimetres in length to less than three millimetres.
The notable records included an unusual spider collected along the Peace River in the Site C flood zone, a brand new species for Canada. Prior to its find in the Peace River Valley, the teeny dark spider, Ceratinops obscurus, had only been recorded in the states of New York and Florida. To date, only the male of the species has been found anywhere. The elusive female remains undescribed.
Five spider species had never before been found so far south, and nine species had never been documented so far north, highlighting the Peace River Valley’s value as a mixing zone for species from four different eco-regions — alpine, boreal, eastern plains, and montane — and the important role the region may play in helping some species adjust to climate change.
“It’s often populations at the extremes of their distribution that are best able to adapt to the impacts of changing conditions,” said Claudia Copley, senior collections manager for entomology at the Royal BC Museum.
The BioBlitz was only the second time that twelve of the spider species had been collected anywhere in British Columbia. And four spider species had never been reported in B.C. prior to the BioBlitz. One tiny sheetweb spider, Poeciloneta bihamata, had never before been recorded west of Quebec.
Flipping over stones near the Hudson’s Hope boat launch in the Site C flood zone, Copley spotted an unfamiliar-looking insect. She knew it was a true bug from the Hemiptera Order of insects, comprising an estimated 80,000 species including cicadas and stinkbugs. But this one struck her as “weird.” She scooped it up and later sent it to a Hemipteran expert, Dr. Geoff Scudder, for identification.
It turned out to be Boreostolus americanus, a true bug family member that is brand new to Canada. Only one other species in the genus, from the Ussuri region of Russia, has been named.
“It’s the only place we’ve ever found it in Canada and its habitat along the river’s edge is going to be lost due to the flooding,” said Copley.
One of the findings that most intrigued Copley was the discovery in the Site C flood zone of an at-risk bumblebee species, Bombus terricola, also known as the Yellow-banded Bumblebee, a pollinator of wildflowers, potatoes, alfalfa, raspberry and cranberry.
“For British Columbia these are rare specimens. We don’t have a lot of records of this species in British Columbia in the Royal BC Museum collection.”
Bombus terricola, which is uncommon in B.C. and usually found in more southerly locations elsewhere in Canada, has suffered from declining numbers since the mid-1990s and is listed in B.C. as a species vulnerable to extinction.
Notably, bees were not included in BC Hydro’s environmental impact assessment of the Site C dam, which B.C. Premier Christy Clark has vowed to push past “the point of no return” despite on-going court cases brought against the project by Treaty 8 First Nations. Spiders and gastropods, a class of mollusks that includes snails and slugs, were also not included in the Crown corporation’s environmental assessment of the dam.
In the Site C flood zone, BioBlitz scientists discovered an at-risk snail species that was only previously known in southern B.C., Galba parva, a small freshwater snail that breathes air.*
“That’s quite a significant range extension,” said Langor. “There are a few species in there that are surprises to us. Undoubtedly, there are more. Perhaps this is just the tip of the iceberg. From a biological perspective that stretch of the Peace is of interest.”
On one of the Peace River islands that would be inundated by Site C’s reservoir, RBCM botany collections manager Erica Wheeler found a population of flowering chives she had never seen in the wild, even after ten years studying the genus Allium, commonly known as flowering onions, which is her specialty.
The wild chive looks much like the chives you might grow in your garden, with tiny purple flowers packed tightly into a sphere. This chive, or Allium schoenoprasm, is unique because it is the only Allium that is both a New World and an Old World species. “What a find!” Wheeler wrote to fellow scientists.
Wheeler also collected a prickly pear cactus specimen in full bloom from the banks of Cache Creek in an area that would be lost to the Site C reservoir, next to Ken and Arlene Boon’s farm that BC Hydro says it must purchase by the end of this year for a Site C highway relocation.
Although the prickly pear cactus is widespread across central North America, its populations along the slopes of the Peace River and its tributaries represent the most northerly occurrence of this species anywhere on the planet, and the most northerly extension of the range of any of the world’s 1,800 cactus species.
In Wheeler’s words, prickly pear populations in the Peace River Valley harbour “a unique slice of global Cactaceae biodiversity.”
“This is a good reminder that it’s not only the rare and the beautiful that deserve our attention but also the tenacious outliers that have a story to tell about life on the edge,” she wrote in a Biological Survey of Canada newsletter.
In 2008, botanist Curtis Bjork discovered a new species of daisy in the Site C flood zone that was named the Peace daisy. That daisy species, along with a yellow-flowering plant called persistent sepal yellowcress, faces potential local extinction as a result of Site C, according to testimony the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) gave to the Joint Review Panel that examined Site C for the federal and provincial governments.
BC Hydro said neither plant was included in its list of at-risk plants in the Site C project area because they were not considered to be at-risk species when the project’s environmental impact statement was written.
BC Hydro’s Site C environmental impact statement names 119 rare plant species that potentially occur in the dam’s assessment area, almost all of them listed in B.C. as in danger or vulnerable to extinction. They include the endangered Nuttall’s sunflower and fennel-leafed desert-parsley, and the at-risk orange touch-me-not and birdsfoot buttercup. Almost four dozen rare moss species and more than three dozen rare lichen species, including the endangered electrified millipede and galactic speckleback lichens, are also listed in the impact statement.
Copley said only some of the plants from the Site C surveys were deposited at the University of BC Herbarium, while the RBCM received only dragonfly collections.
“An actual specimen allows scientists to look at morphological variation, genetic variation and even potentially discover cryptic species — in perpetuity. We cannot know what sort of questions we will even be asking in the future and how we may be using the specimens to answer them.”
Vouchers of many BioBlitz specimens will be housed at the Royal BC Museum, where in 2015 the Peace region represented less than one per cent of the natural history collection.
Image: Royal BC Museum spider expert Darren Copley collects insects and arachnids using an aspirator, which allows scientists to retrieve fragile organisms without damaging them. Photo: Tristan Brand via Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative