Native Species and Biodiversity

The Great Lakes provide a home for many different species of plants and animals. Biodiversity, or biological diversity, refers to the number of species found within a certain area. It can often be used to measure the health of an ecosystem. Biodiversity contributes to healthy ecosystems, allowing them to function well and providing many benefits to humans, plants, and animals.

Unfortunately, the diverse habitats of the Great Lakes are under threat from a variety of factors, including:

  • Invasive species
  • Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation
  • Residential and industrial growth
  • Certain agricultural practices
  • Pollution of tributaries and open waters
  • Changes to river and stream flows
  • Mining, logging, and overfishing
  • Climate change

Greater biodiversity can help ecosystems stay resilient in the face of natural and human-driven threats. It’s more important than ever for us to learn about the native species that help keep Great Lakes habitats healthy and strong. You can find information about Michigan’s many native species through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Learn specifically about the state’s rare, threatened, and endangered plant and animal species through the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Discover Great Lakes aquatic species through the Great Lakes Water Life Explorer, developed by the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Birds

More than 140 species of birds depend on Michigan’s coastal habitat during their life cycle. Coastal wetlands, beaches, sand dunes, and remote islands provide food and shelter for both resident and migratory species. Shorebirds, including the endangered piping plover, fly thousands of miles to nest on undisturbed beaches and remote Great Lakes islands.

Explore the All About Birds website from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to learn more about bird species in Michigan and the unique coastal ecosystems that support them.

Birding trails are walking or driving routes chosen to help birders access prime bird-watching spots. Visit the Michigan Audubon website for birding trails around the state. Find additional bird-watching hotspots, including sanctuaries, in this article on Pure Michigan. Southwest Michigan offers some spectacular opportunities to watch bird migrations; check out the Byways to Flyways project for birding locations in the Windsor-Detroit area.

Plants

From wildflowers to cattails to dune grasses, plants provide more than pleasing backgrounds and picturesque panoramas. For example, in Great Lakes coastal habitats, native shoreline plants help hold surface sands in place and provide food and shelter for wildlife. Many coastal plants are well adjusted to hard living, managing to survive the threat of invasive species, harsh beach climates, and fluctuating water levels.

Check out the Guide to Great Lakes Coastal Plants in the Michigan Sea Grant bookstore. Find plant species profiles on the Michigan Natural Features Inventory website or the University of Michigan Herbarium database. See the Michigan State University Plant Selection tool to find native Michigan plants for your yard or rain garden.

Fish

More than 160 species of freshwater fish live in the waters of the Great Lakes. Ancient native fish, such as lake sturgeon and longnose gar, have unique attributes that have allowed the species to survive for millions of years. Great Lakes residents and visitors may be more familiar with fish in the sunfish and bass family, cold-water species in the salmon and trout family, or some of the 62 species that make up the minnow family.

Learn about the fish that inhabit the Great Lakes through the iNaturalist Great Lakes Fishes Field Guide, developed with the Shedd Aquarium, and the Great Lakes Water Life Explorer database.

Featured species

Reptiles and amphibians

From salamanders to rattlesnakes to box turtles, the Great Lakes are home to a variety of reptiles and amphibians. Learn more about Michigan’s diverse “herp” species through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources or the Herpetological Resource and Management species database and its companion mapping and citizen science tool, the MI Herp Atlas.

Featured species