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Plants and animals at an ecological crossroads

Christmas fern<br />

The Lake Erie Allegheny Ecoregion—a territory stretching from Sandusky Bay to western New York—is at an ecological crossroads.

It’s at the intersection of three continental regions—the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau, Lake Plain, and North Central Till Plain. It’s at the point where the advance of mile-high glaciers stopped some 18,000 years ago. It’s on the shore of a Great Lake. Even its weather is on edge, alternating between the influence of cold air masses from Canada and warm air from the Gulf of Mexico.

As a result, this region has rich biological diversity. It has northern plant species at the southern limit of their range and southern species at the northern limit of their range. It has the most eastern occurring pockets of prairie habitat. And it’s at the southwestern edge of the northern hardwood forest. One can find northern trees like hemlock in cool ravines and southern trees like hickory and tuliptree on warmer exposures and on the floodplains of our major creeks and rivers. The region also is home to numerous rare and unusual plant and animal species. Since the last retreat of the glaciers, all these species have formed complex natural communities that give this regional landscape a unique character.

This following pages in this section describe these natural communities, the best places to find them, and the best places for seeking one particularly popular order of species—birds.

This incredible diversity of life is truly a living legacy, and the conservation of this diversity is a sacred trust. Everyone has a responsibility to protect this richness of nature so that future generations can enjoy its benefits.

What is biodiversity?

Biological diversity, or “biodiversity,” is the full variety of all living things on Earth—from bears to bacteria—included within ecosystems and shaped by ecological and adaptive processes. Biodiversity is organized at multiple levels, including genes, species, populations, communities, and ecosystems.

What is an ecoregion?

An ecoregion is a relatively large land area defined by common characteristics, such as geology, topography, climate and vegetation. An ecoregion is large enough to encompass natural processes (such as fire and flooding) and to capture representative plant and animal species, natural communities, and ecosystems; yet they are small enough to serve as platforms for conservation planning and action.

What is our ecoregion?

The Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity (LEAP), the consortium of conservation groups centered around Cleveland, has proposed the "Lake Erie Allegheny ecoregion" extending from Sandusky, OH, to Buffalo, NY.  Here is a description from a draft document about the habitats of the region prepared by Dylan Stover and Robert Curtis of the Metro Parks Serving Summit County.

[The LEAP] focal area is on the non‐calcareous drift of the glaciated Western Allegheny Plateau, often referred to as the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau or simply Allegheny Plateau. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies this area, including the Erie lake plain, as Erie/Ontario Drift and Lake Plain (Level III Ecoregion 61). The LEAP region utilizes this concept and includes the adjacent southern portion of Lake Erie to the United States boundary.

Our 1700 square mile region lies between 40° and 43° Latitude and has an elevation ranging from 600‐1500 ft above sea level. It is characterized by a temperate climate with weather systems typically approaching from the southwest or northwest, across Lake Erie. Lake Erie is the southernmost and shallowest of the great lakes, reaching just over 200 ft in depth, and often completely freezes over in the winter. The lake heavily influences precipitation and temperatures of the region, especially along its southern plain, where there is more precipitation, heavier snowfall and a much longer growing season. The average annual temperature for the region is about 49°F, with a typical year having several days below 0°F and about a week over 90°F. The growing season averages from 130 days in the northern inland areas, to just under 200 days near the lake. The average precipitation is about 40 inches, but includes 2‐9 ft of snow, depending on proximity to Lake Erie. Soils are built on a foundation of rolling, largely sandstone‐based, glacial and lacustrine deposits, which provide a relatively lose, infertile, acidic surface.

Historically, our inland terrestrial landscape was primarily deciduous and mixed forest, with the exception of some extensive wetland systems and small amounts of slumps, dunes and outcrops. However, a century ago nearly the entire area was cleared and drained for agriculture and industrialization, and larger wildlife species were eliminated. In the last fifty years, much of our farmland has been converted into sprawling urban complexes connected by an impressive transportation grid. A sparse matrix of leftover wetlands, forest fragments and various stages of fallow agriculture, partially connected by riparian corridors, are all that remains of our once unbroken natural expanses. Furthermore, these systems are very unlikely to regenerate back into what they once were, due to 1) the nature of past disturbance, 2) existing landscape conditions, 3) invasion of exotic species, 4) unbalanced native wildlife, and 5) climate change. Although we do have some relict historic habitats, novel systems often spearhead any natural recovery processes.

"East meets west meets north meets south.” That mouthful of a sentence describes why Northeast Ohio is such a treasure trove of natural diversity. Four uniquely different communities meet right here in the Cleveland/Akron/Canton region—the Alleghenies, prairies, northern hemlock hardwood forests and Appalachians. Throw in Lake Erie and you have the fixings for a naturalist’s paradise.

— David Kriska, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

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