Arctic Science Summit Week 2014, Helsinki, Finland

As I wait for my flight at the Helsinki airport lounge, I reflect on the last three days of discussion with colleagues from around the world who are dedicated to a better understanding of the Arctic. There is endless opportunity for the Canadian Museum of Nature to contribute to the knowledge base and to the discussion. Actually, there is little involvement of natural-history museums in these Arctic-science discussions and I feel that needs to change. Natural-history museums have much to offer and I hope will get more engaged in these types of summits.

Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki and its Lutheran cathedral. Image: Mikko Paananen © Mikko Paananen (used under license CC 3.0)

The Arctic Science Summit is a gathering of many Arctic-science networks, organizations, alliances and consortia. The groups include government, universities, NGOs, indigenous groups, research institutes, museums (us) and industry. What is heartening is the level of consensus on the importance of the Arctic now and in the future. All agree that we must get it right. All agree that none of us can deal with the challenges and opportunities in the Arctic on our own.

There were many recommendations coming out of the summit; a few immediately relate to our museum. First, there is a need for better coordination and sharing of data about the Arctic environment. Here is where natural-history museums can and should get in the game. We already digitize and share our data online and through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Since GBIF was not mentioned once as a source of data, we clearly have some work to do to ensure it is known and accessed.

Collage: A man collects plants on the Arctic tundra, and a man presses plants inside a tent.

Natural-history museums can make and important contribution to our knowledge of the Arctic. Above, two members of a botanical field team from the Canadian Museum of Nature during an Arctic expedition in 2012. On left: Jeff Saarela collects plants. On right: Paul Sokoloff prepares specimens for preservation. Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Second, Arctic observing needs to include traditional knowledge. We know very well the value that indigenous people bring to our understanding of the natural environment of the North and its relation to the people who live, work and play there. Third, industry wants to be involved in the future of the Arctic from an environmental and economic point of view. Fourth, there are new funding opportunities being created to stimulate multi-disciplinary and multi-national research collaborations. Fifth, the next decade of Arctic research planning is being discussed through the Third International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP III). We have been invited to participate in ICARP as the Canadian Museum of Nature and as a member of the Arctic Natural History Museums Alliance.

While in Helsinki, I had the pleasure of meeting the Director of the Finnish Natural History Museum and his team of dedicated professionals. They too operate in an older building that was recently completely renovated. Their approach to experience design and profiling their research (and researchers) has inspired some ideas for the Canadian Museum of Nature. This museum is one of the new members of the Arctic Natural History Museum Alliance that will have its first official meeting early May in Oslo. Our first public presentation opportunity is at the Arctic Biodiversity Congress hosted by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) in December of this year.

Collage: The Natural History Museum of Finland, and a life-sized cut-out of a man inside the museum.

The Natural History Museum of Finland, and a photo of Arto Luttinen, Ph.D. and conservator in geology, in one of the exhibitions. Images: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

At that event, the Alliance has been invited to outline its purpose, introduce its members and summarize its objectives and linkages with CAFF. We also plan to present the Canadian Museum of Nature’s giant floor map of the plants, animals, fossils and minerals of the Canadian Arctic. This will be the first pilot for the animation elements proposed for the map when it travels to schools across Canada.

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A Rare, 19th-Century Manuscript Chronicles the Quest of an Amateur Naturalist

Treasures abide in many corners of a natural-history museum and there are many such treasures in the museum’s rare book collection. As the library’s acquisitions officer and a book lover, I’m privileged to handle these books as part of my job, and I often regret that more people aren’t able to see and appreciate them.

One of these treasures isn’t really a book at all, but an unpublished manuscript that is now recognized as the first attempt at classifying and illustrating the insect fauna of Newfoundland. It is called Entomologia Terrae Novae and it is the creation of the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

Colour illustrations of butterflies and small stems.

One of about 250 magnificent illustrations in the Entomologia Terrae Novae manuscript, which was written by naturalist Philip Henry Gosse in the 19th century. Gosse represented many species in the Lycaenidae family. He appears to have paid the same attention to detail for the plants as for the insects. Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

A studio portrait of a man seated at a table, looking through a microscope.

Philip Henry Gosse, 1863. Image: Widger Photo © Public domain

Gosse arrived in Carbonear, Newfoundland, in 1827 at the age of 17 as an indentured clerk with an English firm that imported Newfoundland cod and sealskins. In 1832, he purchased a copy of a book titled Essays on the Microscope, and he commenced what he called his “serious and decisive devotion to scientific Natural History”. It was at this time also that Gosse became a devout Christian. These two aspects of his personality imbued him with a desire to replicate in his art the wonder he saw in nature.

A leather-covered book box and its book, covered in marbled paper.

Left: The box for the manuscript that was written and illustrated by John Gosse in the 19th century. Right: the manuscript. Images: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

The open box and a letter.

The box that holds Entomologia Terrae Nova and a letter written by Gosse. The work had been lost for many years. It was found by the Gosse family and offered to the museum in the 1950s. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

Entomologia Terrae Novae is a small sketchbook of some 60 pages, and unfinished at that, but it is a testament to one man’s passion for the natural world. Gosse painted in exquisite detail some 250 figures of Newfoundland insects, larvae and pupae, supplementing the art with the meticulous notes that he kept while collecting his specimens. With a condensed copy of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae in one hand, he “puzzled” his brain for hours trying to identify everything he had found.

An open notebook showing discoloured pages with handwriting.

Handwritten notes of naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

The glory of Entomologia Terrae Novae is, however, in the artwork. With the help of a home-made microscope, Gosse captured in minute and accurate detail the complex patterns of butterfly wings, the delicate hairs on a dragonfly’s body and the iridescence of a beetle’s shell.

Black swallowtails in different lifecycle stages.

Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) in different lifecycle stages. Gosse reared butterflies and moths so he could observe their metamorphosis. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

Many of the insects were painted in their original size, often five millimetres or less, and then painted again magnified many times. The original-sized paintings are hardly blobs of paint, as you might imagine. Gosse was already a skilled miniaturist painter by age 25 and his ability to reproduce patterns and colours on such a small scale is marvellous. The magnified versions reveal the details in greater clarity and the colours in all their magnificence, but the creatures painted in actual size are so life-like they appear to be skittering across the page.

One page in the open notebook.

A page of Coleoptera illustrations from Entomologia Terrae Novae showing weevils and a beetle (in black and orange). Note the illustrations in life size and the corresponding magnified illustration in the box. Gosse was committed to scientific accuracy. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Canadian Museum of Nature

A black and white illustration of Pissodes striatulus.

A pine weevil, Pissodes striatulus (Fabricius), from the Coleoptera sketches. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Canadian Museum of Nature

Gosse left Newfoundland for Quebec’s Eastern Townships in 1835, bringing his insect cabinets and precious manuscript with him. Although lured by the promise of inexpensive land, he was unable to make a success of farming and after three years moved to Alabama. Here he created another wonderful sketchbook of insects called Entomologia Alabamensis. Gosse finally returned to England in 1839.

Five insect illustrations on one page.

Illustration of wood wasps or horntails in the Siricidae family (order Hymenoptera). Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Canadian Museum of Nature

Six insect illustrations on one page.

A selection of flies. Most are crane flies in the Tipulidae family. Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

Entomologia Terrae Novae was for many years a lost manuscript. Gosse’s son, the poet and literary critic Edmund Gosse, searched for it without success. It was finally located after Edmund’s death by his son Philip and donated to the museum in the 1950s.

Four dragonfly illustrations.

Different species of dragonflies (order Odonata). Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

I’m sure the digital images accompanying this blog will convey some of the beauty of Gosse’s work, but I’m a traditionalist. When I open the marbled cover of Entomologia Terrae Novae and see its delicate pages and even more delicate drawings, I’m holding a bit of the soul of a man in my hands. It’s a wonderful little treasure with a colourful history.

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The James Bond of Fishes

A while ago some colleagues at the Canadian Museum of Nature contemplated the production of a book on the fish that swim the oceans of the Arctic regions of Canada. That is a great topic for a museum that has one of the best collections of Arctic fishes anywhere. I have had many opportunities to plunk into the ocean to catch those creatures, so I added to the enthusiasm and commented that it was something that would be relatively easy, since there weren’t too many species. For a guy like me who sampled everything that was possible to catch while SCUBA diving, the list was certain to have fewer than 50 entries.

My eyes were opened wide when our fish experts Brian Coad, Claude Renaud and Noel Alfonso countered with their more-complete knowledge of what lives in those cold waters, based on their experience with collections that were taken in deeper waters and now preserved for study in museum collections all over the world. There are well over 200 fish species lurking below the surface.

Not a slim volume at all, this forthcoming Arctic Marine Fishes of Canada. It’s one that has never been done before and that will compile a great body of knowledge. The publication is being done with our partners, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the University Toronto Press.

Platytroctes apus.

A scientific illustration of the tube shoulder Platytroctes apus, by Albert C.L.G. Günther. The illustration was first published in 1887, in the Report on the Deep-Sea Fishes Collected by H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873–1876. The Biodiversity Heritage Library posted the report online. Image: Albert C.L.G. Günther © Public domain

A comprehensive summary of knowledge like this often comes from museums because they are close to the sources of information, and have the expertise to put it to good use. But there are always surprises, even for the experts. At the last minutes of finishing the text for this book, new species of fishes were still being discovered in the Arctic and sent to us… and no doubt will continue to arrive once the book is published. It is a humbling reminder that the ocean is a big place, and that we still have a lot to learn about it.

One of those last-minute additions to our fish book is worth talking about because it is a curious fellow. First of all, any animal that can operate year-round with its body parts chilled to near zero Centigrade is pretty remarkable. These new arrivals to the book are rarely detected in these far northern reaches. The tube shoulder (Platytroctes apus), is one of 13 species in this family that are found in Canada, five listed in the Arctic.

These small creatures grow to almost 30 centimetres and are well adapted to life in continuous darkness; never going near the surface or the bottom, it spends its entire life between the depths of 300 metres and 5000 metres. Its large eyes enhance the ability to detect any bits of light, including that produced by other animals (bioluminescence), a common feature in the deep sea.

The tube shoulder derives its common name from a unique feature that puts it into the James Bond of fishes category, a gland that produces a luminescent green-blue fluid that is excreted backward from a pore on each shoulder. It’s a strategy that is meant to confuse predators that are charging from behind. (Other equally special organisms will soon be on exhibition at the museum in Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence).

The scientific name of this new discovery is more descriptive: Platytroctes derives from Greek for “flat-nibbler”, referring to body shape and its mouth parts, and apus from Greek for “without a foot”, referring to the absence of pelvic fins.

A Boa Dragonfish.

An X-ray of a Boa Dragonfish (Stomias boa), on exhibition at the museum in Beneath the Surface: X-rays of Arctic Fish. Image: Noel Alfonso, Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Species discovery is a regular function of science experts who work at natural-history museums. Packaging their findings into books such as this one is a huge undertaking that stand as unique, valuable contributions for a long time. Sometimes the results of our research are used in playful, entertaining and artistic fashion, such as when the Museum of Nature turned Arctic fish X-rays into an art show in its Stone Wall Gallery. All part of our quest to connect people to nature.

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Edible Arctic Festival Ready for the Final Sprint!

We’re almost there! D-day is in a few days. Is it on your agenda? The Edible Arctic Festival opens on April 3 at the museum and just thinking about it gets me in a frenzy!

The festival team spent months preparing for this—meeting partners, planning activities, finding sponsors, following up with participants, reaching out to all targeted groups… Wow! The engine is running full steam ahead, thanks to the help of many people from the museum and elsewhere—and soon, it will be time to celebrate!

Four women standing before a geographic map of the Arctic hanging on the wall.

Museum educators in charge of the Edible Arctic Festival stand before a map of the Canadian Arctic. From left to right: Nathalie (in front), Laurel, Melinda and Olivia. Image: Tara Conroy © Canadian Museum of Nature

Wow! For an event that lasts only a few days, this looks like quite an operation. Indeed, organizing an event aimed at students, families and adults alike requires help from many people.

Melinda is editing a text for a scavenger hunt, a museum activity designed to guide you through your Arctic explorations. Laurel is with a partner discussing the igloo construction activity, while Nathalie sees to the food-fair preparations with Chef William. You’ll have a chance to actually taste Arctic flavours by sampling muskox, caribou and bannock, while taking in cultural fare such as Inuit tattoos and throat singing.

Outside the museum, a man wearing a chef's hat and holding a plate in one hand tastes food with a woman.

Because the festival is showcasing Arctic flavours, Chef William Carter from Gourmet Cuisine has prepared a special menu for visitors to taste at the food fair and the museum’s Nature Café from April 3 to 6. Here, the chef gives educator Nathalie Rodrigue a taste of smoked Atlantic Salmon with cloudberry sauce. Image: Richard Lussier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Busy bees look after the tiniest details, from checking the grammar in the festival programme to working out the logistics for the outdoor activities. Let’s hope Mother Nature cooperates! If not, we need to implement plan B right away!

Preparations are progressing smoothly, thanks to the help and enthusiasm of everyone concerned. Olivia is taking care of setting up the craft fair, while Nathalie is networking for partner ITK’s media launch. ITK will be closing the festival on April 7 with its Taste of the Arctic event at the National Arts Centre.

An Arctic Festival at the museum would not be complete without our Arctic experts. Our scientists are taking this opportunity to show off their fascinating discoveries, from zooplankton that live in the Arctic Ocean to dinosaur fossils. Young scientists be advised! This is your opportunity to exchange with them!

A man sits at a table preparing a herbarium specimen.

Our scientists are taking this opportunity to share discoveries that they made in the Arctic. Here, we see botanist Jeff Saarela preparing plant specimens for a herbarium. Jeff took part in several expeditions in Canada’s Arctic region to study local plants in greater detail. Image: Jeff Betz © Canadian Museum of Nature

Organizing workshops and demonstrations with partners from Ottawa’s Inuit community was a real pleasure and a good learning opportunity for me. I’m hoping that by chatting with Arctic explorers, a storyteller from Nunavut, a bush pilot and Inuit youth and craftspeople, you will get as much out of these activities as I did.

After weeks of emotional rollercoaster rides, feelings of frustration and uncertainty, and the occasional surprise and unexpected joy, the festival team is now ready to launch this second edition. Excitement is now replacing the initial frenzy.

Come celebrate the arrival of spring with us and get a taste for the Arctic!

Translated from French.

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My Thoughts on Thinking Plants

Let’s say you’re thinking about painting your living room a new colour. Do you ask your cactus its opinion on the hue? Or perhaps your petunias have been acting out and need to be sent out to the yard to think about what they’ve done.

I’m exaggerating, of course; as far as we know, plants aren’t self-aware. But are plants intelligent? This was the question I discussed during the Canadian Museum of Nature’s third NatureTalks evening on March 18 (don’t worry if you missed the event; you can watch the interview).

A far cry from the 1970′s The Secret Life of Plants (which delves into plant sentience, auras and experimenting with plants hooked up to lie detectors), modern plant-intelligence research sticks to observable and quantifiable phenomena like any other hard-science discipline. That doesn’t keep it from being highly controversial, though.

An animated GIF of a sensitive plant closing its leaves after being touched.

The sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) is one of the few plants that react quickly to touch—it closes its leaves to scare away herbivores. But as recent research shows, this plant may have the ability to learn and remember certain stimuli that it doesn’t have to close its leaves to. Image: Hrushikesh © Public domain (licence CC0 1.0 Universal)

To begin, how you define intelligence is crucial to the process of looking for it in our green and leafy friends. When we look at our own intelligence, we think of our ability to discern, be introspective, choose and reflect—we think, therefore we are. Intelligence in animals (us included) is sometimes thought of as a tool that evolved to increase our evolutionary fitness—if we can reason and think, then our chances of survival to reproduction are greater.

Plants, on the other hand, aren’t able to ponder their own plight. However, if you separate out consciousness, and define intelligence (as plant intelligence researchers often do) as the ability to process information and stimuli from the environment, adapt and change according to that stimulus, and even remember a decision for future reference, then yes, it seems that some plants behave in startlingly intelligent ways.

Some of the first plant-communication studies confirmed that a Californian sagebrush species (Artemisia douglasiana) communicates with other plants using airborne chemicals—notably one plant telling another that herbivores were munching on its leaves, thereby giving the second plant time to muster chemical defenses. Here, a Canadian Arctic sagebrush (Artemisia hyperborea) seems to sit silently on the Canadian tundra. Perhaps, unknown to us, it’s having a chemical conversation with its neighbours? Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

For example, they can communicate with other plants (and even insects) using airborne chemicals, or relay messages along root systems thorough shoots or fungal associates in the soil. Plants can perceive and react to moisture, light, temperature, touch and even gravity. There is even evidence that plants can learn, form memories, and make decisions.

But does behaviour imply an intelligent driving-force in an organism? Or does it just mean that plants have evolved pre-programmed intelligent-seeming behaviours as a survival mechanism (analogous to adaptive programming in computers, for example). And at what point do neurons matter? We use our brain to think, concentrating our complex neurological connections in one place, but plants possess analogous, distributed electrical, chemical and physiological systems, minus the grey matter.

I could go on, but likely you get the idea that plant intelligence research is as philosophical as it is scientific. What does it mean to be intelligent and can we stretch the definition to include plants are semantic issues that I can’t readily answer. I do know, however, that in this contentious and rapidly developing field the answers that plant-intelligence researchers propose will be debated and analyzed for some time to come. And there can be no doubt that the more we continue to research plants, the more they will continue to amaze us in their complexity.

Upcoming NatureTalks:
Parasites: Rethinking Healthy—April 16, 2014

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Our Collections Online: Digitizing Is the Key

Although digitization efforts of natural-history collections have increased over the last decade, most of the world’s natural-history data are not yet digitized and remain “locked away” on specimen labels, in field books and in project-driven databases, none of which is readily available to the scientific community and the general public.

The Canadian Museum of Nature houses some 10 million natural history specimens in 24 major science collections, representing the life sciences (botany, vertebrates and invertebrates) and the Earth Sciences (palaeontology and gems, rocks and minerals).

Current estimates place the number of individual specimens that the museum manages in excess of 10 million, with an estimated total of approximately 3.2 million catalogable units in the museum—each record may include multiple specimens: eggs in a clutch, fish in a jar lot, insects in a collecting event.

Mounted mammal skeletons lined up in a row.

Data from some of our collections are already widely digitized. This is the case for our collection of vertebrate skeletons, including some of the specimens seen here. Image: Roger Baird © Roger Baird

Museum staff have been digitizing specimen data here for well over two decades. It’s a slow process because most records are entered one at a time. Despite the magnitude of the job, progress has been made: the museum’s corporate database contains nearly 710 000 specimen records—about 22% of the museum’s total catalogable units. It’s clear that the job ahead to get the entire collection digitized is a big one, but it’s also an important one, because collection data that cannot be easily discovered and shared cannot be easily used in research and education.

Scarab specimens mounted in small trays.

Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

We are pursuing this task every year, digitizing about 16 000 new records annually. Some of our collections are nearly completely digitized, such as the amphibian and reptile (99% complete), skeleton (88%) and bird (80%) collections. In others, just a small portion has been digitized, such as the vascular plant (20%), bryophyte (10%), mollusc (20%), and general invertebrate and annelid (16%) collections.

Screen shot of Search Our Collections.

Search results from the Canadian Museum of Nature’s new collections-online database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although our collections online tool is brand new, some of the museum’s collection data have been available online previously. Collection data for more than 84 000 samples or lots (an estimated 350 000 specimens) in the museum’s National Phycology Collection (algae and diatom) have been available online for a few years (http://www.nature-cana.ca/english).

Data from the phycology collection are stored in a separate database designed specifically for aquatic biological collections and the unique environmental data that are closely associated with the specimens, such as water chemistry.

Screen shot of the National Phycology Collection Database.

The National Phycology Collection (diatoms and algae) database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

About 40% of the museum’s digitized collections data, excluding data from the National Phycology Collection, has previously been available through partner organizations. The largest of these is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF; http://data.gbif.org/welcome.htm)—an international organization that is working to mobilize the world’s biodiversity data and make it openly and freely accessible.

Other partner organizations include Artefacts Canada – Natural Sciences (of the Canadian Heritage Information Network), through which our palynological data (primarily fossil pollen) are available, and a subset of the museum’s vascular-plant data for British Columbia are available through E-Flora BC (http://www.geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/eflora).

Most of our data had not previously been available directly through our own website—the obvious first place to look to access information from our collection!

Now, Canadian Museum of Nature collection data are available directly through the museum’s website. Our new web application provides free and open access to over 709 000 of our biological and geological collection records!

Check it out: nature.ca/collections-online.

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Our Collections Online: Opening Up Canadian Museum of Nature Collection data to the World

As the museum launches a new tool for searching our collection data, researcher Jeff Saarela, who participated in this project, shares his thoughts on the impact of global data sharing.

Much of the world’s knowledge of biodiversity (the variety of life, from genes to ecosystems) and geodiversity (the variety of Earth materials and the processes that form and shape them) originates from the study of physical specimens and their associated collection data stored in natural history collections throughout the world. Natural-history collections are a critical and irreplaceable component of the world’s permanent scientific record.

Data and specimens stored in natural history collections are used in many different kinds of research. All of my plant taxonomy research is collections-based. Plant specimens are the basis of all my species descriptions and distribution maps. They serve as references to aid in the identification of newly collected specimens and species new to science. Plant specimens are also sources of genetic materials for my molecular studies reconstructing the evolutionary history of grasses, providing a physical link between machine-generated DNA sequence data and the species and individual from which genetic information is obtained.

Shelves stacked with herbarium sheets.

A cart of herbarium specimens I was working on, as part of a project to develop DNA barcodes for grasses. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

I regularly consult the specimens housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s National Herbarium of Canada, and this where the first set of all of my new collections are deposited. In most taxonomic research, however, it is usually not sufficient to only consult material in one’s home institution. The collections housed at different institutions are often unique, and I regularly consult specimens from other herbaria in Canada and internationally.

In the past, the only way to access collection data from a museum was to either request a loan of material, visit the museum in person, or contact somebody working at a museum and hope they might be able to help with your information request. These methods work, but they take time and can slow research progress.

The search page of the Canadian Museum of Nature's new online collections database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

The search page of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s new online collections database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Like so many things in the world today, the internet has changed this. Collection data—the basic “who, what, where and when” information attached to every museum specimen—can be easily shared with the world over the Internet once they are recorded in a digital format.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has joined the global movement this week, launching its own online tool for searching our collection data that provides open online access to the museum’s digitized information about its collections. Put another way, we are opening up our vast library of biological and geological collection data to all Canadians and the world.

Global Science

A herbarium sheet.

An isotype of the Mexican grass species Bromus attenuatus Swallen, housed at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri. This image is available online. Image: © Missouri Botanical Garden, used under license (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Online access to collection data greatly facilitates taxonomic research. In my work I must consult type specimens, the original specimen(s) from which a description of a new species is made. These are often distributed around the world. Many institutions now provide high-resolution images of their type specimens online, and I regularly consult these. In botany, the images are often so good that it is not necessary to request a loan of the material, or visit the collection in person. (More on our high-resolution botanical images). This kind of access was impossible just 10 years ago, and really helps to speed up taxonomic work.

Online accessibility of collection data all over the world is allowing researchers to ask new questions. Relevant collection data from multiple institutions are increasingly combined and used in climate-change studies and modeling exercises, such as tracking the expanding ranges of newly introduced species. Collections are the foundation of our understanding of biodiversity, and this understanding will increase as more collection data becomes available online in an organized and accessible format.

Collection data from the Canadian Museum of Nature are an important part of the global record of biodiversity and geodiversity.

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Rubber Trees and Zircon Mining in Cambodia—All in a Day’s Work

In this second instalment describing a recent fieldtrip to Cambodia with Australian mineralogist Dermot Henry, Paula Piilonen journeys to new mining sites and others she had visited two years earlier—and reflects on the challenging lives of miners that rely on the sale of gemstones for their livelihood.

Arriving at the Mekhong River crossing after a dusty, long drive from Tbeang Meanchey, Preah Vihear province, Cambodia, was a definite feeling of relief. The Mekhong at Stung Treng is quite wide—a lazy, grey vastness stretching north to Laos and south through Cambodia and Vietnam before its final destination, the South China Sea.

There is no bridge to cross the river to Stung Treng on its eastern shore, so we had to put the van into the queue for the ferry and wait for the next one. Waiting gave us a chance to walk around the market area, and watch the efforts of some of the locals who were unloading a truck carrying bricks that had become stuck in the river.

A long truck partially submerged along the bank of the Mekhong River.

A truck carrying bricks sunk into the bank of the Mekhong River. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After boarding the ferry, we had a relaxing ride across the river to Stung Treng, after which we set off for the last leg of our trip—a three-hour drive to the town of Ban Lung in Ratanakiri province where more zircons awaited us.

View of the street in downtown Ban Lung.

Downtown Ban Lung, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

View of the market in Ban Lung, where gems are sold.

The market in Ban Lung where both real and fake gems can be bought – buyer beware! Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The last time I had driven down this highway, two years ago, it was not paved, so the presence of a smooth, paved surface was quite a surprise. What I was not happy to see was the extensive deforestation that has taken place along the highway—as far as the eye could see, the native, hardwood forest has been cut down, and in its place regular lines of small rubber trees have been planted. Rubber is one of the main industries in this part of Cambodia and more and more of the natural habitat is being disturbed to make way for rubber plantations. It’s possibly a short-sighted endeavour that does not take into account the long-term environmental damage to the natural habitat—rubber trees only start producing at three years of age, and the average productive lifespan is 20 years, after which they must be cut down and new trees planted. The fragile lateritic soil, which is held tentatively in place by the native forests and vegetative cover, is exposed and washed away with every successive planting, depleting the ground of important nutrients. The destruction that had taken place in a mere 24 months was shocking.

View of abandoned mines at Phum Throm with rubber trees now growing.

The mines at Phum Throm have been abandoned and young rubber trees have been planted among the waste piles. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Image of abandoned mine, now a simple hole in the ground.

Abandoned mine at Old Phum Throm – watch your step! Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unfortunately, the profits to be reaped from harvesting rubber for latex are exponentially higher than those gained by mining for zircons. As we were to discover, two of the main mining communities in the Ban Lung area, Phum Throm and Bo Loei, have been overtaken by the main rubber company in town and the miners have been evicted.

Our first morning, Dermot, Votha (our translator and Cambodian gem guide) and I set out to visit Phum Throm, 30 minutes to the east of Ban Lung. Two years ago, two to three dozen miners and their families were camped out under tarps and you had to watch your step for fear of stepping into a 10-metre-deep hole. Today, the only evidence that mining activity existed were the regular piles of mine waste, vacant holes (many of which were starting to cave in) and, in between, newly-planted rubber trees.

We wandered around the area, hoping to find at least one miner, but to no avail. We were forced to head back to the village of Bokeo and search for the miners and the “new” Phum Throm. Mining is too lucrative of a business in this region—they would not simply abandon the zircon deposits entirely.

View of ground where new mines are active.

The “new” Phum Throm mining area nestled among an active rubber plantation. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sure enough, we discovered that they had moved to the other side of the highway, directly across from the old site. Happy with this information, we decided to stop in Bokeo and check out what the miners there had for sale. No sooner had we sat down at a bench than we were surrounded by a horde of villagers, miners and family and friends of miners alike. The tourists have arrived! The tourists have arrived!! And of course, every single person came carrying a small grubby bag or plastic vial containing zircons of all sizes, colours and quality.

Crowd of people stand around a table where zircons are examined.

Dermot Henry (Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australia) and translator Vothua Un examining rough, uncut zircons in the town of Bokeo, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

If you have never experienced this type of mineralogical circus, it’s a bit overwhelming. Miners and their friends and relatives put a handful of rough stones in front of you and wait for their turn to name their opening price. Prices this year were much higher than in past years—what I paid $2 for two years ago has jumped to $25. But negotiating is part of the game of, course. If you don’t come back with a counter-offer, they are offended. Even if you do not intend the buy the stones, you must name a price for the seller to save face. Additionally, most sellers will withhold their best material until the end—for instance, you may see three or four different assortments of stones from the same person, the quality increasing each time the hand is opened in front of you. It is best to simply settle in, grab a cold drink and enjoy the experience.

Closeup of two zircons laid out on an open hand.

Profits from a morning of mining – two small zircons from 30 buckets of lateritic dirt. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

For the most part, 75% of the asking price was about what I was aiming for. It was also important for Dermot and I to explain to the villagers, using Votha as an interpreter, that we were after zircons that actually contained flaws, or were not perfect or usable as gemstones. We explained that we really wanted the material that they would likely throw away at the end of the day.

Mineralogists are like that—we want the discards! I think the miners find it amusing, but buying this material serves two purposes: first, it provides us with zircons for our research and national collections, and second, it puts money directly into the hands of the miners and their families. As rough stones are moved upwards from the miner through to gem dealers and gem cutters, prices increase exponentially.

Away from the villages in downtown Ban Lung, we were offered one kilogram of rough gem-quality zircon for $3,000! You can be guaranteed that the miner did not receive near this value initially. All the more reason to buy directly at the source and support the local economy.

A zircon miner man stands beside a wood machine used to raise buckets from a mine hole.

Zircon miner at Bokeo Clas. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After lunch, we headed off to visit some of the miners still remaining in Bokeo Clas. Mining zircons is hard work, no doubt about it. And it is dangerous work—the holes are 10 metres deep and very unstable , collapses are common and miners are buried alive. Miners work fully exposed to the sun in the 35 to 40 °C heat for more than eight hours a day.

Paula Piilonen stands by an open hole and turns a crank to life a bucket.

Paula Piilonen trying her hand at zircon mining. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of the miners we talked to showed us his haul for the day to that point—two small zircons after more than 30 buckets of dirt hauled to the surface and sorted through by hand. Physically, most of us would never be able to handle this sort of work—it’s dangerous, back-breaking and exhausting. I asked if I could attempt to haul up one bucket (silly foreigner wanting to do his work for him!) and even that one bucket weighing about 40 lbs had me breaking a sweat. Two small zircons for every 30 buckets? I couldn’t do it.

Paula Piilonen and colleague Dermot Henry stand beside a wooden crank used to raise and lower buckets for mining.

Dermot Henry and Paula Piilonen at Bokeo Clas. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

I was happy to pay him $10 for his morning’s efforts—by Western standards, a small price to pay for scientific research material. Considering that most Cambodians earn less than $100 per month, it is not hard to see why zircon miners will risk their lives to produce stones to sell to gem dealers—it’s a lucrative business and provides for their family in ways that no other jobs will.

Next stop on our geological journey, Yeak Lom, a lake in the centre of a volcanic crater!

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

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The art of Ikebana gives life to the moment

Ikebana—a beautiful, brief burst of spring that comes to the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) every year—is back again from March 20-23.

Ikebana is the art of Japanese floral design; a creative expression with origins dating back to the 6th century. Materials such as branches, leaves, dried plants and fresh flowers are used. Nowadays there are over 2,000 registered Ikebana schools in Japan and 164 practising chapters worldwide.

An example of an ikebana arrangement.

Anne Breau’s arrangement at the Museum in 2013. Image: Gregor v. Bochmann © Ikebana International Ottawa

This elegant exhibition which the CMN is honoured to host yearly is jointly presented with Ikebana International’s Ottawa Centennial Chapter 120. 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of this special partnership.

The Museum’s relationship with Ikebana International is thanks to former long-time CMN employee, Anne Breau. She was introduced to the art of Ikebana on a trip to Tokyo in 1976 where she attended a demonstration at the Sogetsu School by the top Master. She remembers feeling blown away by the experience. The following year, Anne began studying the Sogetsu style of Ikebana. In 1984, Anne put forward the idea of an exhibition to the director of the (former) Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History). The Ikebana-Museum partnership was created, with the first exhibition at the Victoria Memorial Museum Building “castle” mounted in 1985.

A woman stands beside an ikebana arrangement.

Anne Breau, Ikebana artist and former Museum employee, stands by her floral arrangement at the Embassy of Japan in Ottawa in 2012. Image: Helene Breau © Anne Breau

In 1988, the Museum of Man moved out of the “castle”, which it had jointly occupied with the National Museum of Natural Sciences (now the Canadian Museum of Nature). Ikebana, which aligns with the Japanese philosophy of developing a closeness with nature, remained a project of the new nature museum.

Thirty years later, Ikebana continues to bring beauty and grace to the museum through a four-day showing of live floral arrangements. Both the Sogetsu (contemporary) and Ohara (traditional) schools are represented.

After many years of study, Anne holds the highest rank diploma (Riji) that is awarded by the Sogetsu School in Tokyo. Each year, she has presented an Ikebana display in the museum’s exhibition. In 2013, she retired from the CMN and continues to practise her art.

A woman stands beside an ikebana arrangement.

Anne stands by her floral arrangement at the Embassy of Japan in Ottawa in 2013. Image: Helene Breau © Anne Breau

I asked her what was involved in the planning of her Ikebana design.

Preparation is very important: drawing the design, making a solid base, and freezing materials, such as wood, for 10 days to avoid pest contamination in the museum. But there are sometimes unforeseen glitches. One year, the flowers Anne had ordered arrived frozen, and she had to quickly order something else.

Does she deviate from the plan once she arrives in the exhibit space to assemble her arrangement? Anne chuckles when she replies, “Always!”

“You have to allow flexibility,” she says. “Once you’re in the room, the environment where you place your arrangement…who is next to you…all that has to be taken into account.” Not to do so is a disservice to your arrangement, she feels.

A stack of slices from a log.

These five pieces of wood from New Brunswick provide the base and focal point for Anne Breau’s Ikebana arrangement this year. Image: Anne Breau © Anne Breau

Look for Anne’s arrangement in the exhibition beginning March 20. Hers will have a wooden base from New Brunswick that you can see in this picture. Anne grew up in that province in a small town right on the border with Maine. Her love of nature was born at an early age when she would go for walks with her father and collect tree branches which she learned to identify.

Ikebana brings Anne serenity and wellbeing. “It’s not a hobby; it’s a way of life”, she states.

“Ikebana sort of gives life to the moment. That’s what life is all about—to enjoy the moment. It is very fleeting. Once I’ve created a piece for the exhibition, I’m already thinking of the next one. I don’t dwell on what’s there; I move on immediately.”

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From Happy Camper to Camp Developer: Building the New Nature Camps at the Museum

We are frequently asked if the Canadian Museum of Nature runs day camps during school holidays. This year we are really pleased to be able to answer a resounding “Yes!” This summer, for the first time since finishing our renovations in 2010, we will be offering Nature Camps for children and youth aged 6 to 14.

Two women stand near a field.

Memories of 1984: Laurel (left) and a fellow counsellor prepare for summer at Camp Canterbury Hills. Image: Kathleen Marsman © Kathleen Marsman

My colleague Pamela and I have both had memorable and extremely formative experiences as both campers and counsellors at summer camps. Our past experiences provided inspiration for us as we laid out the foundations of the new camps.

For me, summer camp is where I first did bark- and leaf-rubbings and became aware and mesmerised by the diversity of trees around me. Summer camp is also where I learned to express myself through drama, music and public speaking.

More fundamentally, summer camp is where I gained self-confidence and established life-long friendships. How exciting to be able to offer similar experiences here at the Museum of Nature!

A woman holds a bottle that has been turned into a hanging trap for flying insects.

Pamela Kirk explains how a flying-insect trap works during a workshop at the museum. Image: Nathalie Benoît © Canadian Museum of Nature

Pamela had similar experiences. She recalls, “I often went to specialty-themed camps during the holidays. Those are some of my favourite childhood memories—really delving in to the topics that had piqued my interest throughout the year was a fantastic way to spend part of the summer! I remember a particular day camp where we went to a local preserve and sketched birds and other creatures. I was among more experienced artists and learned so much just by being with that group. What I learned at that camp formed the basis for my love of scientific drawing.’

“Things learned in camp can have a life-long influence, even shaping career choices,” adds Pamela. First a camper, she later became the programmer, and then the administrator of an outdoor science camp.

“I’m still in touch with many of my co-workers and camp alumni, some of whom have gone on to become professional palaeontologists, archaeologists and geologists.”

So it is with great enthusiasm that our team started building the new Nature Camps. First, we defined the camp goals, scope and overall focus. There are a lot of great camps in the Ottawa region. How and what can we do that will be special?

We considered our unique expertise, consulted with colleagues and came up with four themes for our Nature Camps: Dinosaurs and Fossils, Arctic, Canada’s Creatures and Bioluminescence.

We want to capitalize and build on the incredible wealth of knowledge and experience of a variety of museum staff. Campers will learn from a real palaeontologist, Arctic explorer, or maybe even a mammalogist! They will also explore behind the scenes with an animal-care technician, exhibition designer or museum-collections curator.

Two boys use fine hand tools to remove rock from around a fossil.

We want to expose Nature Camps campers to the scientific work done behind the scenes at the museum. Here, two boys help remove rock from around a fossil. Image: C.W. Clark © C.W. Clark

In addition to providing in-depth opportunities to discover our permanent and special exhibitions (for example, Creatures of Light), we want the campers to discover the science behind the museum.

We also want them to be inspired by as many museum staff as possible and learn about potential museum careers. We want to build museum ambassadors and life-long friendships with the campers.

And who knows, maybe some of these children will love their experience enough to walk in our tracks and welcome future participants in Nature Camps!

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