Exploring Park Ecosystems

Living things are everywhere at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). Tall trees shade you as the travel the towpath. Fish dart under the river’s glassy surface. Birds sing and fly overhead. Beavers glide around water lilies in the marsh. You might even see a deer hiding in some shrubs. Or spy a coyote trotting through a field of wildflowers.

Cuyahoga River in summer
The Cuyahoga River is an important park ecosystem.

©D.J. Reiser

Each of these plants and animals is an individual, living its own separate life. But all are also part of something bigger—an ecosystem. An ecosystem is made up of all the living and non-living things that exist together in one place. It’s the collection of plants, animals, microbes, rocks, water, air, sunlight, and everything else needed to create livable habitats. CVNP is home to many different ecosystems. There are forest and grassland, as well as river and wetland ecosystems. The lay of the land, kinds of soil, and amount of water in a location determine which ecosystems are where. A marsh ecosystem needs standing water, for example, while an oak forest requires the dry soil of hilltops.

If you would like to explore a certain type of park ecosystem, click the link below:

Red-bellied woodpecker photo by Jim Schmidt
Red-bellied woodpecker

©Jim Schmidt

Connections Within an Ecosystem

Relationships are what make an ecosystem work. Species continually interact with each other—and also affect the non-living parts of an ecosystem. A forest ecosystem, for example, is more than trees, soil, and animals. It’s also what happens between and among them. If a drought kills an oak tree, it doesn’t make acorns, so squirrels go hungry, as do the hawks that prey on them. But that same dead oak tree is food for more insects, which means more meals for woodpeckers. Each living and non-living part affects others in an ecosystem. Energy flows through the web of food chains within an ecosystem, keeping the system going.

The sun is the starting source of energy for CVNP’s ecosystems. Each ecosystem depends on sunlight-gathering plants. Plants are producers. They make their food from sunlight, air, soil, and water. Animals are called consumers. Whether they are herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores, animals get energy by eating. All plants and animals eventually die. That’s where decomposers come in. Fungi and bacteria breakdown dead animals and plants, recycling nutrients into the soil that plants need to grow.

A large group of visitors hiking in a meadow
A large group of visitors hiking in a meadow

©d.j. Reiser

Change Through Seasons and Centuries

The forest, grassland, river, and wetland ecosystems of CVNP constantly change. Who’s active depends on the time of day and season of the year. Spring mornings are filled with the songs of birds migrating back from their tropical winter homes. On sweltering summer nights, bats chirp to each other as they exit an old barn to hunt mosquitoes. A midday autumn walk though meadows is a showplace of field flowers. A winter evening hike might feature deer standing in a foot of snow nibbling on tree buds.

Girl Scouts pulling garlic mustard along Salt Run Trail
Girl Scouts pulling garlic mustard along Salt Run Trail

NPS/ted toth

The ecosystems of CVNP change from year to year, too. A grassy field that sprouts bushes and tree saplings will slowly change from grassland ecosystem into forest. Humans change the land, too. Centuries of settlers and residents have cut trees, dammed streams, dug quarries, planted crops, polluted the river, and hunted wildlife. Some animals are now long gone, like bears and wolves. People also brought new plants and animals on purpose or by accident. Nearly one-fourth of all the plants in CVNP are non-native—they don’t naturally occur in Northeast Ohio. Many non-native plants, like garlic mustard and purple loosestrife, have become harmful invasive plants. They spread quickly and replace native plants that wildlife depends on for food and shelter, changing ecosystems.

Park rangers, scientists, partner organizations, and local citizens have done a lot to make CVNP’s ecosystems healthier in recent decades. They’ve removed toxic waste, cleaned up the river, battled invasive plants, and restored many habitats. Animals that were gone have recently returned to the park, like beaver and bald eagles. CVNP is growing greener and more natural with their help. Thanks to their work you can get to know who lives and what grows in the grassland, forest, wetland, and river ecosystems of the park. Explore them during different times of the day and year. The more you visit, the more you’ll see!

Last updated: May 26, 2023

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