The Saint Louis Zoo is scientifically studying the native animals and plants living on and migrating through the undeveloped Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park located in unincorporated Spanish Lake in North St. Louis County, Missouri.
Zoo scientists are measuring the biological and environmental health of the 425-acre property and using this as a baseline to guide future development, which will include a public attraction, animal science center, and educational programming.
The data being collected will help the Zoo understand what species are living on or migrating through this property, what habitats they prefer and where they move, and will allow the future WildCare Park operations to exist in harmony with the native animals and plants using this land.
What's Being Studied
Specifically, researchers are recording the presence or absence of native wildlife and native and invasive plants, identifying diseases and competition that could pose threats to endangered species in human care in the future at this site, and understanding of the types and quality of the habitats present.
Hundreds of invertebrate, reptile, amphibian, bird, mammal and plant species have already been documented in 2020, the first year of the multi-year study. Scientists even discovered some animals and plants which are endangered in the wild.
Current areas of study include bats, birds, coyotes and foxes, invertebrates/pollinators, plants, reptiles, amphibians, and water quality of lakes and streams.
Land and Biosurvey Zones
The WildCare Park is located on a rise above the wetlands, bottomland hardwood forests and cropland that make up the floodplain at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which make up the largest river system in North America. The site has soil types and remnant woodland characteristics of hills bordering the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as they make the northeastern corner of the Ozarks.
This campus currently includes forest, wetlands, open grasslands and meadows, ponds, and an extensive area of sinkholes, which is typical of this part of north St. Louis County. Due to the various past uses of the land, some of the forest is degraded and shows extensive invasive species.
The site is home to a wide variety of native plants and animals that have adapted to and are thriving in the current conditions found on the property.
Animals and Plants
Through in-person surveying and observations, trail cameras, audio recordings, black light sampling, mist-netting, and other scientific tools of the trade, Zoo researchers are creating a comprehensive list of animals that are living on the property and those traveling through the area to and from other locations, such as seasonal migratory birds and monarch butterflies. In some cases, the scientists are studying the health of these animals, as well.
Experienced horticulturists are looking at the botanical species, which serve as the habitat for the native animals.
The spring 2020 surveying was off to a slower start than originally planned, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the seven teams of researchers were able to delay some surveying until later in the year and create new COVID-19 protocols to safely continue their work. Even with these extra hurdles, researchers were able to proceed in a limited capacity and by early fall 2020 have already collected a good amount of data.
Five bat species identified:
- Big brown bat
- Gray bat (federally endangered species)
- Hoary bat
- Red bat
- Tri-colored bat
Over 100 bird species identified:
- Baltimore oriole
- Indigo bunting
- Summer tanager
- Red fox
Over 100 species identified:
- Prairie grass
- Pumpkin ash tree (critically endangered)
- Virginia wild rye
24 species identified:
- Black rat snake
- Painted turtle
- Red-eared slider turtle
- Snapping turtle
- Southern leopard frog
- Three-toed box turtle
Health studies on certain species are being conducted to look for diseases and environmental toxins that may be present in their environments.
Community Engagement and Education
Another exciting aspect to the WildCare Park is the ability and space to offer the hands-on, educational experiences that only nature can provide. The Zoo conducted an extensive study within the surrounding north St. Louis community to ensure the kinds of experiences that are offered will be developed to serve the neighboring areas.
Potential projects for community participation:
- FrogWatch & City Nature Challenge trainings
- Invasive plant removal
- Litter cleanups
- Bird walks
- Nature experiences
- Citizen science projects
As an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited conservation organization, the Saint Louis Zoo values scientific exploration and is concerned with protecting and preserving wild species, not only within the Zoo but also in the wild.
Intentional wildlife corridors, or passageways for wildlife to walk and fly, are being thoughtfully placed around and through the property to allow native species to continue using and moving through the property even after the WildCare Park is open.