A Photographer’s Dream: Capturing the National Collections

My first job for the Canadian Museum of Nature was providing photographs for the brochure that introduced the museum’s collections and research facility to the public in 1997 —the site of Saturday’s Open House. It was the first time in decades that all the collections of the museum were together again under one roof.

A man touches one of hundreds of antlers on a wall.

Technician Alan McDonald examines one of the hundreds of antlers in the museum’s Large Skeleton Room. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The job cemented my love for natural history and scientific research. The depth and breadth of various collections held within the walls of the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus is without rival in Canada and is equal to the greatest collections in the world. That brochure was the first time that all the various collections were featured in one document.

Two images: spiral-shaped shells and eggs of a Rock Ptarmigan.

The beauty of nature: shells from the invertebrate collections and eggs of a Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) from the vertebrate collections. Images : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Yet for all the tapeworms and Narwals, my favourite things in the collections are the labels on the specimens—particularly the original labels, with some dating back to the 19th century.

Two rows of bird skins with specimen labels attached.

A drawer of bird skins with attached specimen labels that provide scientific data such as where and when the specimens were collected. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During the Open House, it can be hard to see the labels well but they tell you the real story. They take you out onto the land and into the elements, to the badlands of Alberta or the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. They tell the story both of the specimen and of explorations across Canada. Each specimen is a window into the past and, as we are now learning with our Arctic fossils, into the future as well.

Close-up of a hand holding a pressed plant.

A plant being prepared for mounting for the museum’s National Herbarium. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Recently, the museum asked me to come in once again to photograph the collections—to show off just how extensive and fascinating they really are.

Close-up of a woman examining a large mammal skeleton.

Research assistant Marisa Gilbert examining a specimen in the Large Skeleton Room. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During the shooting there was talk of a great photograph that the Smithsonian did years ago that showed off the amazing scope of one of its collections. “Wouldn’t it be great if we did one like that”, we thought.
Well, during this last round of shooting we did it. Because it is such an effort to open cabinets for viewing, to pull out and move shelves and to display the invertebrate specimens for each and every Open House or special tour, it was decided to try the next best thing—to have a life-sized photograph showing what you would see if all the drawers were open.

Thanks to the painstaking work of Judith Price, Assistant Collections Manager for Invertebrates, and Jean-Marc Gagnon, Curator of Invertebrates, hundreds of specimens on shelves were laid out for the camera. And this is just a fraction of the entire invertebrate collections!

Open drawers of cabinets showing invertebrate specimens.

Judith Price and Jean-Marc Gagnon stand among a sampling of the museum’s 1.5 million invertebrate specimens. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Because the final print would reach almost 2 metres high, we brought in a 60 Megapixel digital camera from Toronto with the help of Walter Borchenko at BK3 Digital and Mamiya Leaf. With that high-resolution camera we managed to get incredible detail of each and every specimen the length of the display. Look for it on Saturday—it’s like looking at the real thing.

Posted in Collections, Our visitors, Research | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Going Deep: Research Off the Beaten Path

Canada is one of the most urbanized countries in the world: most of us live in cities. Even if we venture out of those highly constructed places to spy on plants and animals in more natural environments, our immersion is usually around the edges. We follow trails in parks and wildlife areas, we take a canoe or kayak across the lake or down the river, we go camping… but that is as far as we usually get from our city lives.

I have the good fortune to work with people who regularly step off the edges to go deep into the world of natural history in their quest for species discovery. One of the ways to do that is to literally immerse themselves using scuba.

A scuba diver's head emerges from the water.

Mark Graham on a recent dive. Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature

Scuba diving is a sport where the romance of it is greatly disconnected from how it really works. Most people who pass the training course will never dive again. It has something to do with claustrophobia, tight neoprene suits that makes it hard to move and loading up with lead and other heavy gear. If you are amongst the few who can get past those bits, then you will likely get completely hooked with what goes on below the surface.

Scientific diving adds other elements to the experience. Like other science operations, the objective is to use this method of investigation to challenge a question. Your objective isn’t to dive in the usual places to see how much cool stuff you can spot. Instead, you might team up with Dr. André Martel, who has deep insights into the natural history of freshwater clams, especially the rare ones.

Two people wading in the river near a boat and the shore.

Researcher André Martel and research assistant Jacqueline Madill on the Ottawa River, where they are studying freshwater-mussel populations. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

André creates a research scenario that considers bottom substrate (sand, rocks, etc.), water current, depth, previous records, and local knowledge. Then he pours over charts and like a prospector looking for treasure, points his finger and says, “I believe the clams will be there.” That’s when the fun begins for the divers. How do we get a boat there, are there any natural or man-made hazards, can we get permission, and so on?

A man's hands indicate a site on a chart.

Selecting a dive site on a chart of the Ottawa River. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

In his recent exploits on the Ottawa River, André wanted to dive in remote areas over sand, down to five metres, in fast current. To a diver, that means gearing up with extra lead to make sure you stay on the bottom, swimming through a bunch of weeds until you find the sand, turning on your light because it is dark below three metres, and knuckling along the bottom to make way into the current.

Because this is a science dive, it also means carrying bags for the collections, note pads to write observations, and a one-metre-square frame of rigid tubing to measure the density of animals living on the bottom (density is the number of clams counted per metre squared). Awesome.

A group of mussels at the bottom of a river.

Eastern elliptios (Elliptio complanata). This freshwater mussel species is native to Canada. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

What does a diver see out there in the dark, sandy reaches of the Ottawa River in the circle of light made by the flashlight on the bottom? Some clams, like the eastern elliptio, are common. These bulldozers of the river plough slowly along the bottom with their muscular foot, thereby mixing the nutrients through the top few centimetres of the bottom.

Every once in a while, a bass or a sturgeon will drift past and cause moments of muted excitement as the divers shout into their breathing apparatus, “Did you see that?” Then there are moments of discovery, like the recent find of rare hickory-nut clams. Finding things where no one else has looked, based on sound logic and a bit of luck, is about as good as it gets for a science diver.

The real hard work follows the euphoria of the discovery. How extensive are the populations? How does this new knowledge become conservation action? And like most of our research, we conserve a few good examples of what was found within the national collection so that others can study them.

On shore, two people hold mussels in both hands.

Each specimen is identified and samples are taken back to the lab for DNA analysis and for inclusion in the national collection. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are amazing things just beyond our urban existence, and natural history museums make it their business to help connect people to them. For example, the coming exhibition Arctic Voices (opening in December at the museum) will help immerse us into the natural history of the North.

Stay curious, you may spot our diver’s bubbles in a lake or river near you.

Posted in Fieldwork, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Brook Lamprey Where Art Thou?

Dr. Claude Renaud, an expert on lampreys, set off in early September on a week-long collecting expedition in New York State. In his first blog, Claude outlined why it was important for him to search for American Brook Lamprey along the Hudson River. In Part Two, Claude and research assistant Noel Alfonso battle poison ivy, logjams and polluted rivers… and no lampreys in sight!

Our next three localities down the Hudson River had very similar names: Saw Kill River, Sawkill Creek and Saw Mill River. This reflects the enormous importance of the forest industry in New York State. Sixty-three percent of the state is forested and provides employment to over 60,000 people. Much of this land is privately owned and managed for wood or pulp.

Saw Kill River is very near Bard College where our good friend Dr. Bob Schmidt worked for many years. A single lamprey was collected at the mouth of the river in 1974. However, Bob advised against sampling at that precise locality because the water is too deep to wade in, the current is strong and it’s simply too dangerous. Bob told us that in all the years he sampled the river, often with an electrofishing apparatus, he never saw a lamprey anywhere along its length.

A man in hip waders standing in the muck of the Saw Kill River.

Museum research assistant Noel Alfonso looks concerned as he is stuck knee deep in the muck of the Saw Kill River. Image Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

However, if we were going to try anyway, he pointed out where we could find good habitat. We electrofished extensively in that area and saw no lamprey larvae despite an abundance of ideal habitat (i.e., an appropriate mix of silty and sandy sediment). There were a lot of frogs and racoon tracks all around though. Bob was right!

The next place we tried was the mouth of Sawkill Creek, a direct tributary to Esopus Creek. Access to the water was a little tricky as poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) was everywhere! From then onwards, we treated our chest waders as if they had been contaminated and were extra careful in handling them. Here again, the habitat was ideal but there was not a trace of any lamprey larvae. As in the previous locality, the only lamprey ever caught in Sawkill Creek was taken in 1974.

A tree covered with poison ivy.

Ground cover and climbing poison ivy along Sawkill Creek. Image Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Claude Renaud standing in Esopus Creek holding his electrofishing gear.

Claude Renaud in Esopus Creek wondering if he’ll ever catch another lamprey. Image Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our final two localities were down in the New York City area. The first one we attempted was the Saw Mill River in Yonkers. This river has an interesting history. The last 600 metres of the river was covered in the 1920s by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Joni Mitchell even mentioned this in a song with the lyrics, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” In 2011, and again this year, sections were “daylighted” by removing the parking lot that covered it.

However, our sampling sites were further upstream along the river. Surprisingly, the problem that we faced here was neither access to the river, nor the lack of suitable habitat. The problem was logjams, debris and garbage. We tried at a place where there was suitable habitat and the result was once again negative.

A man stand beside a logjam along the Saw Mill River.

Noel Alfonso standing next to a logjam in the Saw Mill River, Yonkers. Image Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Then we went to the place where one specimen of American Brook Lamprey was reported caught in 1956. What we found there was death and desolation. We saw one sucker (Catostomus sp.) gasping its last few breaths and at least four more that were floating belly up. Two sunfishes, one of which was a Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) were also seen dead, lying on their side. Remarkably, we saw schools of three to six large Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) swimming up and down the current with seemingly no ill effect.

Close-up of garbage caught in the logjam in the Saw Mill River.

Close-up of garbage caught in the logjam in the Saw Mill River, Yonkers. Image Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our last locality was Tibbetts Brook where American Brook Lamprey had been documented since 1897 and as late as 1979. We were met on the Yonkers side of the brook by Melissa Cohen, Regional Fisheries Manager, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and three of her staff: James MacDonald, Annie Murphy and Steven Wong.

They brought their own electrofishing apparatus and the six of us spent a morning working the partly channelized brook. We saw dozens of crayfish, and a couple of Goldfish (Carassius auratus) one that had the bright orange color familiar to aquarists and the other that had reverted to the wild coloration, a drab greenish color. We also had to negotiate the inevitable logjam.

A man in hipwaders stands by another logjam in Tibbetts Brook.

Noel Alfonso stands by another logjam in Tibbetts Brook, Yonkers. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We parted with the New York biologists and made our way to Van Cortlandt Park in order to access Tibbetts Brook from the Bronx side. Van Cortlandt Park is a 464-hectare oasis of greenery in the middle of the Bronx. Tibbetts Brook flows through it and into Van Cortlandt Lake.

There is a large golf course in the park and we proceeded to the golf clubhouse to ask permission to rent a golf cart to help us reach the brook. The people there were very pleasant but told us that we couldn’t gain access to the brook from the golf course because the course edge was fenced. What a disappointment!

Claude Renaud stands beside Van Cortlandt Lake.

Claude Renaud beside Van Cortlandt Lake close to where American Brook Lamprey was last collected in the Hudson River Basin in 1979. This time, he was not successful in finding them. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Luckily, we had a chance that morning to thoroughly examine the upper course of the brook on the Yonkers side or else this would have been extremely discouraging.
Our fieldwork was not in vain. We learned that in all likelihood the American Brook Lamprey has become extirpated from the Hudson River Basin. It was probably never abundant to begin with as indicated by the few collections made since its discovery in 1842. Fortunately, I have some material from the Lake Champlain Basin in Vermont that I can use to compare with the other material collected in the Northwest Territories in 2012.

Posted in Collections, Fieldwork, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Searching for the American Brook Lamprey along the Mighty Hudson River

Dr. Claude Renaud, an expert on lampreys, set off in early September on a week-long collecting expedition in New York State. His goal? Collect specimens of the American Brook Lamprey, from areas where the species may have first been identified almost 170 years ago. Read more to see if his quest was successful.

For the past few years, I have been working on determining the number of species in the lamprey genus Lethenteron and establishing their evolutionary relationships. This genus is distributed over much of northern North America and Eurasia.

In 2012, with the help of Dr. Alexander Naseka of the Institute of Zoology, Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and Noel Alfonso, a museum colleague, we collected two species from the Northwest Territories: the Alaskan Brook Lamprey, (Lethenteron alaskense) and the Arctic Lamprey (Lethenteron camtschaticum).

Claude standing knee-deep in water with electrofishing gear to collect lampreys.

Claude Renaud stands knee-deep in water with electrofishing gear to collect lampreys. Image : Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In order to complete the North American coverage of the genus, I needed to collect one more species: the American Brook Lamprey (Lethenteron appendix), described by James DeKay in 1842. In a taxonomic study, a scientist ideally examines material of a species from its type locality (i.e., the place from which the species was originally described) in order to compare it with other species.

While the Canadian Museum of Nature possesses thousands of specimens of American Brook lamprey, mostly from the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence River basin, we have none from the type locality, which DeKay generally gave as being the Hudson River in New York State. Now, the Hudson River is over 500-km long, so that’s a lot of river to cover!

Adding to the challenge is that DeKay did not mention whether he placed any of his lamprey specimens in a museum, nor could any be found in the museums along the east coast of the United States, where they would likely have been deposited (United States National Museum, Washington, DC; American Museum of Natural History, New York; New York State Museum, Albany). This meant that I needed to collect the material myself.

Larva of an American Brook Lamprey.

Larva of American Brook Lamprey (Lethenteron appendix) collected by Richard Pariseau at Rouge River, Quebec, June 12 2006, CMNFI 2007-0134. Image : Brian W. Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Consultation with Dr. Jeremy Wright, Curator of Fishes at the New York State Museum, as well as a search of the database of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation indicated that the presence of American Brook Lamprey had been reported in only six tributaries to the Hudson River. These were distributed along a 230-km stretch of the Hudson between Troy in the north and the Bronx, New York City, in the south. The earliest collection made was in 1897 and the last reported was in 1979. In total, less than 50 individuals had been collected throughout the Hudson River basin during that time.

So, we had our work cut out for us! Noel and I left Ottawa early on September 5 and arrived at our first stop that afternoon: the New York State Museum fish collection in Troy. I was able to examine six spawning adults of American Brook Lamprey and confirm that the species was present in Tibbetts Brook, the Bronx in 1903.

The following morning we visited our first locality to search for the species, a place called Moordener Kill. Apparently, American Brook Lamprey was collected at this locality only once, in 1934.

Noel Alfonso stands beside a tributary along the Hudson River.

Noel Alfonso pointing to the spot where American Brook Lamprey was collected in Moordener Kill in 1934. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

“Kill” derives from the Dutch word for riverbed or water channel, and reflects the early colonisation of New York State by Dutch settlers. “Moordener” is Dutch for murderer and the creek name commemorates the fact that nine Dutch settlers were killed there in 1643.

In the end, we didn’t even try to sample at that locality because the habitat was inappropriate (i.e., a deep ditch with no water movement rather than a gently-flowing stream with a silty-sandy bottom). I suspect that the conditions might have been very different 80 years ago. We tried at a couple of places further downstream, but very little suitable habitat could be found and no lampreys were seen.

Our next stop was Roeliff Jansen Kill where we met Dr. Bob Schmidt, recently retired from Bard College, New York State. Here we collected a dozen suitable lamprey larvae in about an hour. Unfortunately, field identication indicated that these were Sea Lamprey, Petromyzon marinus, and not American Brook Lamprey.

Bob Schimdt and Noel Alfonso rest along the bank of Roeliff Jansen Kill.

Success…of sorts! Dr. Bob Schmidt and Noel Alfonso sit on the bank of Roeliff Jansen Kill after having collected lamprey larvae. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I will confirm this in our lab at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus once the specimens are transferred from formalin to ethanol. Regardless of the final identification, it indicated to us that lampreys were present and that our technique worked.

Claude Renaud stands by table upon which lie equipment used to collect lamprey specimens.

Claude Renaud after having processed the lamprey specimens collected in Roeliff Jansen Kill. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum o Nature.

What’s next? A future blog will reveal whether Claude and his team are successful in finding the American Brook Lamprey along the Hudson River.

Posted in Collections, Fieldwork, Research | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Expedition to Davis Strait

As I pack my bags, I keep anti-nausea medications and lots of warm clothing and raingear high on the list. I am trying to be well prepared for rough weather. The last time I participated in a research cruise like this was in 2001. The weather was really stormy for the first four days of the trip—I felt really nauseous and threw up a lot.

A large ship and several boats near shore.

The Paamiut off the coast of Greenland during my first trip in 2001. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

From September 18 to October 22, I will be working with a Canadian and Danish crew aboard the RV Paamiut to conduct a multi-species trawl survey. It will focus primarily on the distribution and abundance of Greenland Halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides).

Collage: Four fish, each on a measurement grid for length.

Top: The head of a Greenland Halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides). In flatfishes, both eyes are usually on the same side of the head. In the species depicted here, however, one of the eyes is on the top of the head. Middle: American Plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides). Bottom: Two Arctic Staghorn Sculpins (Gymnocanthus tricuspis). Images: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

While you are reading this, I will be identifying and collecting fish species such as viperfish, lanternfish, deepwater gulpers and even a bioluminescent shark. I will also collect invertebrate species such as amphipods, shrimp, squid and sea cucumbers.

Collage: Three specimens, each on a measurement grid for length.

Top: A Lumpfish on an anemone. Middle: A sea slug (Careproctus reinhardtii). Bottom: A squid. Images: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

While the amphipod species that I see locally in Ottawa and Gatineau are the size of my baby fingernail, these northern amphipods can reach the size of my hand and, like the northern shrimp, are bright red. This is because red light does not penetrate far into the water; red looks black, thus rendering the shrimp really hard to see by predators.

Three specimens on a board, with a label that says, "This one's for Ed!"

Amphipods and a shrimp. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Davis Strait separates the deep waters of Baffin Bay to the north from the Labrador Sea to the south, in Nunavut. It forms part of the Northwest Passage and was named after John Davis, who was the leader of three voyages in the late 16th century.

A map showing relevant locations.

Davis Strait between Baffin Island and Greenland. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature, after a map by Natural Resources Canada

It is a large body of water, varying between 350 km and 600 km in width. It can also be very deep, reaching 3660 m, the deepest portion in the eastern Arctic. The surface waters are strongly affected by two major currents: the relatively warm West Greenland Current and the cold but nutrient-rich Labrador Current. A combination of different temperatures and depth, along with high productivity in the summer season, makes Davis Strait a hotspot of biodiversity for fishes in the Canadian Arctic.

Noel holds a large fish.

During the expedition to Davis Strait, Arctic-fish specialist Noel Alfonso will focus on the Greenland Halibut, a specimen of which he holds here.

Davis Strait is an ecosystem that has been heavily modified, beginning with large-scale whaling by Europeans in the 18th century and continuing with today’s commercial fisheries for species such as Greenland Halibut and northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis).

An iceberg.

One of the many icebergs that you encounter at any time in Davis Strait. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

This research cruise will help to better understand these stocks. My involvement will add specimens to the museum’s Arctic collections from an area that has been poorly surveyed. I have a list of Arctic marine species that are not in the museum’s collection at all, plus another list of species that would be nice to obtain because we have only a few specimens.

We are always trying to increase the depth and breadth of our collections. Collecting in the Arctic is always challenging and expensive, so this is really a great opportunity.

Two specimens of coral in a collecting bucket.

Corals live in the cold water of Davis Strait. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Animals, Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In Search of the Elusive Canada Lynx

The iconic and oh-so-majestic Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) quickly conjures up the vast forest lands of Canada. In Eastern Canada, though, humans have greatly modified its habitat. Over the last few centuries, picks and shovels have shrunk these so-called vast forests and jeopardized the future of this big shy cat in the region. In order to adapt conservation strategies to the needs of this species, we need to gain better understanding of the scope and impact of these habitat alterations.

A Canada lynx in the snow.

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). Image: © Getty Images

I am interested in lynx biology. Recently, I have been trying to understand the environmental factors that make this animal population viable. After spending several months working hard on maintaining and adding to the vertebrate collections at the museum, I am now returning to my research work on this animal.

I wanted to do field work to validate one of the mathematical models I worked out with two of my students, Lauren and Lindsay, to model the distribution of this lynx. This model assumes that the distribution of the feline is discontinuous in Eastern Canada, and that only a few forest habitats are suitable for it.

I started out by joining up with a group of Canadian and American researchers who have met regularly over the past few years in New Brunswick to study the region’s biodiversity. I then continued my field trip alone in the Lower St. Lawrence region of Quebec.

People sitting at tables examine specimens while others are standing and talking.

Meetings in Gagetown between various experts from all areas of Canada and the United States were a great opportunity to share field experiences and collectively learn more about the region’s biodiversity. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

After many hours driving in pouring rain, I finally arrived in Gagetown, New Brunswick. The ground was too wet to set up my tent, but we found a spot in a storeroom where I could sleep until the weather improved. I joined up with biologists and scientists who had spent several days working in the old courtroom of the Queens County Courthouse—now converted into a study lab.

The next morning, I travelled to the Grand Lake Protected Natural Area (GLPNA) to check on my small mammal traps, along with two colleagues, Howie and Karen. Howie, one of my research associates, is one of the most dynamic mammalogists I’ve ever met. Karen, another mammalogist, is interested in the white-nose syndrome that affects North American bats.

Standing in a forest, Kamal Khidas examines the trap he is holding in his hands.

I check and set traps on several sites to learn more about the region’s fauna. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Mosquitos avidly greeted us on the first site—an open, wet habitat. I quickly became a prime target, having forgotten my mosquito repellent in my rush to pack my things in the morning. The entomology team was also there looking for ants.

We stepped into a canoe to get to French Island, just a short distance from shore. There, trapping sites consisted of thick wooded areas dominated by eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), some specimens reaching almost 20 metres in height. The undergrowth consisted mostly of mosses and lichens, as well as ferns (Dryopteris sp.) and bunchberries (Cornus canadensis) here and there.

The third site of the day was a fir stand (Abies balsamea) similar to the wooded lots on French Island. The next day, we checked our traps and recovered a few catches.

Kamal Khidas sitting at a table measuring a wolf skull.

By day, I patrol the forests, following the trail of the invisible lynx; by night, I take skull measurements in the lab on wolf specimens collected a few years ago in Eastern Canada for another research project. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The first traps were a success: we caught two mice (Peromyscus sp.; DNA analysis will be needed to determine if these are white-footed mice, P. maniculatus, or deer mice, P. leucopus) and a meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius) that were attracted by the tasty peanut-butter bait.

Rodent specimens pinned on cardboard and labeled.

Specimens collected in the Grand Lake Protected Natural Area are prepared on the spot in the lab according to museum standards. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

New traps were set up on other sites. Over the next few days, several other mice were collected—a few woodland jumping mice (Napaeozapus insignis), meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and red-backed voles (Myodes gapperi). No red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) were caught though; they are probably hard to catch because they are extremely wary of anything new. Lynxes hunt these when the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus)—their favourite prey—becomes rare. No traces of snowshoe hares either. Hmmmm!

I also took many notes on the GLPNA’s natural environment to get a better grasp of the needs of the Canada lynx in the region. I explored several other forest habitats, including deciduous stands at various stages of development, but did not find a single sign of the lynx’s presence. This is definitely not a favourable environment for this animal.

A girl sits and prepares a mouse specimen while a man stands nearby.

The future of mammalogy is bright in Canada: here, under Howie’s watchful eye, an open-house visitor at the Gagetown lab prepares a mouse that was collected in the field. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

We know that lynxes are a rare sight in New Brunswick, and this has been true for a long time now. After the Europeans arrived, these animals disappeared from a large area of the Maritimes and southern Quebec. Since the 1950s, a small number have been spotted in New Brunswick, but the population density is still very low. It is a protected species in the Maritimes.

An illustration of a Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) in a forest.

Canada lynx. Image: Charles Douglas © Canadian Museum of Nature

This scarcity concords with the predictions of the mathematical model we developed. The situation I observed in the field also confirms this model. Lynxes avoid these habitats because they are not favourable and because various human activities, such as logging and road construction, disturb the environment.

A man speaks while a camera operator films the scene.

In New Brunswick, I gave an interview to local media about the work I do in the field and in the lab. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

My mission in New Brunswick was almost over. My next destination was the Gaspé Peninsula (Péninsule de la Gaspésie), Quebec. On the way, I made several stops to take notes on this south-north route. Mixed coniferous and deciduous stands dominated the forest landscape.

In the first part of my work in the Gaspé Peninsula, I explored several sites in the Rimouski Wildlife Reserve. These were mostly lots with young vegetation no older than 10 to 30 years, made up of regenerating deciduous trees. These lots are in the process of healing after heavy logging activities in the mid-1990s. Moose are more abundant here than elsewhere. Philippe, the forestry technician on duty in the reserve, confirmed what I had predicted: lynxes are very rare here, if not totally absent, because the environment has been heavily modified.

Kamal Khidas takes notes while standing in a forest.

In the field, I make observations and take sufficient notes and photographs to fully describe the available habitats and their potential for harbouring viable lynx populations. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Things were very different near the Rivière Patapédia, as this region included yellow-birch stands (Betula alleghaniensis) and white-spruce stands (Picea glauca) that were less damaged and more mature. I then crossed the St. Lawrence River on a boat to reach the North Shore and the Saguenay region, where I found mixed forests similar to those in the Patapédia region.

Based on the clues I found (including tracks and droppings left by lynxes and hares, their main prey), and on the many other observations I made, I concluded that this was a preferred habitat for the lynx. That was reward enough for me.

Though it covered only a small portion of the vast region I am studying, this 3146 kilometre voyage has allowed me to visit various instructive environments. It was also helpful to meet with other scientists. Back at the office, an endless list of new emails scrolls before my dream-filled eyes still brimming with quaint images. Many of these urgently require my dazed attention. It looks like busy times are ahead at the office!

Translated from French.

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bioluminescence: The World of Gollum and Glow-Worms

Ever since discovering glow-worms one night while out for a walk at a New Zealand campsite and then seeing them highlighted in our Creatures of Light exhibition, I’ve wanted to visit the Waitomo Caves. This is where glow-worms live in abundance, hanging their sticky feeding lines above the cave’s river and catching insects that emerge from the river, attracted to the glow-worms’ self-produced light.

"Curtains" of silver strands hang from a cave ceiling.

The New Zealand glow-worm, Arachnocampa luminosa, spends most of its life in the larval stage, eating insects entangled in its gluey strings or other glow-worms if they get too close. The adult looks like a mosquito, has no mouth, and lives for only a few days—long enough to mate, disperse and lay eggs. Image: Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The Māori name for the Waitomo caves derives from wai, meaning “water”, and tomo, meaning “entrance” or “hole”. The caves were discovered in 1887 by local Māori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace, when they floated along the river and into the cave on a flax raft, using candles for light.

A waterway leads into a cave.

Explorers adventured down this channel and discovered the hidden world of the glow-worms. Image: Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The cave ceiling is covered with small dots of silver blue light emitted by the glow-worms. Beautiful but deadly (for their prey) threads are suspended below the worms and look like beaded necklaces.

A boatload of visitors in the cave.

Glow-worms produce their own light to attract unsuspecting prey, making the ceiling look like it is covered in fairy lights. Image: Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The atmosphere in the cave is surreal because of the thousands of soft lights above and the cave seeps dripping in irregular plops into the river. Movie director Peter Jackson recorded the cave’s sounds to give that same eeriness to Gollum’s cave in The Hobbit.

An irregular cave ceiling with glow-worm threads hanging down.

Dark and mysterious, the caves inspired the refuge of the monstrous Gollum. Image: Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Visiting the cave after attending a conference in Auckland, I learned that more than glow-worms are there. Chief Tane Tinorau had also discovered an upper level, full of chambers and catacombs decorated with cascades of gold stalactites. “The Cathedral” chamber has such good acoustics that it is used for underground concerts.

Interior of The Cathedral.

“The Cathedral” is a dry cave above the glow-worm grotto. It got its limestone coat 30 million years ago when it was under water. Geological and volcanic activity uplifted the cave network. Rainwater seeps through the cracks to cause stalactites to form. A stalactite grows 1 cubic centimetre every 100 years, on average. Image: Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

In 1990, the New Zealand government returned the caves and the surrounding lands to Tane Tinorau’s descendants, many of whom now lead the tours.

A view down a shaft in the rock.

A 16 metre-deep limestone shaft carved by a waterfall, showing layers of limestone formed from an ancient seabed. Image: Courtesy of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

When you visit the Creatures of Light exhibition at the museum, immerse yourself in its replica glow-worm grotto and imagine yourself drifting slowly below with the only sound being the slow drip of cave water. Could that be Gollum who is peering at you from the end of the tunnel?

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Fun, Sun and Fatmuckets: The Canadian Museum of Nature Goes to River Day at Petrie Island

By Jacqueline Madill and Val Tait

Amid the chirping of crickets, calls of children to their mothers and gentle lapping of waves, a team from the Canadian Museum of Nature headed past the beach at Petrie Island in Ottawa in search of aquatic invertebrates.

The Friends of Petrie Island had invited the Canadian Museum of Nature to introduce local invertebrates to visitors on River Day, July 19, 2014. Our invertebrate team—Jacqueline Madill (Senior Research Assistant), Val Tait (Research Associate) and Emily Cooper (student from the University of Ottawa)—needed to perform a quick survey on the shores of the island before the presentation. We were fortunate to have one of those amazing hot summer days, with a refreshing breeze coming off the Ottawa River.

A map showing relevant locations.

Map of Collecting Sites. Site 1 is in the Ottawa River and close to the Nature and Interpretation Centre. Site 2 is in Muskrat Lake. Site 3 is in the Ottawa River close to Muskrat Lake. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature, after a map from Google Maps

In no time at all, despite poor visibility in the water, we found three species of freshwater mussels nestled between aquatic plants: the eastern lampmussel (Lampsilis radiata), the pocketbook (Lampsilis cardium) and the eastern elliptio (Elliptio complanata). Our team could locate them fairly easily by feeling with our hands and feet because the mussels were happily feeding with their shells poking above the sand.

Mussels in a river bottom.

Eastern elliptio (Elliptio complanata; upper) and Eastern lampmussel (Lampsilis radiata; left) feed by filtering water through their inhalant siphons. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the other sites, we caught swamp lymnaea snails (and other snails), fingernail clams, water striders, beetles, amphipods, isopods and chironomids. Although this was not a quantitative study, the diversity of aquatic invertebrates at Petrie Island was impressive. Every specimen was healthy and the best news was that no zebra mussels were found on that day.

Three women in waders, carrying buckets and nets.

Jackie Madill, Emily Cooper and Val Tait prepare to wade in Muskrat Pond, Petrie Island, Ontario. Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature

All the invertebrates were displayed at the River Day activities, alongside the GeoCaching exhibit and the Ottawa Riverkeeper. Young visitors laughed at the spiralling whirligig beetles and watched fascinated as amphipods reached surprising speeds while doing laps around the tray, bypassing sediment and other invertebrates. The biggest mussel, a fatmucket (Lampsilis siliquoidea), was very cooperative, lying on its back, opening its shell, extending its foot, displaying siphons and papillae. It was the star, wowing visitors who had never seen mussels in action before.

The beautiful Ottawa River and its tributaries are a resource that connects the National Capital Region. There is another type of linkage that most people do not know about: the amazing relationship between freshwater mussels and their host fish.


How do mussels reproduce? Jacqueline Madill, a senior research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature, explains. Video: Tara Conroy © Canadian Museum of Nature

Visitors did not know that freshwater mussels are in decline. We stressed that during shoreline clean-ups, citizens need to protect our native freshwater mussel populations because, as they feed, they are filtering the water continuously and help to keep the river clean. We also need to recognize that the invasive zebra mussel is quite different and is responsible for killing many native invertebrates. Dense populations can also clog water intakes and modify habitat, thereby changing the availability of food for young fish. It is important not to confuse native mussels and the zebra mussel—to know the good guys from the bad guys.

A girl looks at mussel specimens.

Emily Cooper shows Marianne Turmel how zebra mussels from the Rideau River can cover a shell of a native mussel. Image: Tara Conroy © Canadian Museum of Nature

Petrie Island is such a beautiful location and many visitors to the area enjoy it on a regular basis. “Farewell”, we thought fondly as Emily carried our live invertebrates back to their watery homes.

Posted in Education, Water | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fluorescent Lichens: Dazzling Creatures of Light

One of the great things about traveling in far northern Ontario this July was the fact that our multi-disciplinary botany team included a lichenologist.

It was great because lichens are amazing, because lichen experts are very rare, and because there’s so much left to learn in lichenology that every lichen outing seems to result in spectacular discoveries.

Lichen growing taller than the moss around it.

Powdered funnel lichen (Cladonia cenotea)—Just like in this photo, the specimen of powdered funnel lichen that we collected for exhibition at the museum is mixed with the common boreal feathermoss called big red stem (Pleurozium schreberi). Image: R. Troy McMullin © R. Troy McMullin

It was also great timing, because we’ve been making the (already ultra-cool) temporary exhibition Creatures of Light even better by adding material from the Museum of Nature’s research and collections… and as it turns out, some lichens are dazzling creatures of light.

Dr. R. Troy McMullin of the University of Guelph generously collaborated with me in finding specimens to share with museum visitors (I’ll also be adding specimens to the museum’s collections).

Lichens aren’t bioluminescent, which is to say that if you turn out the lights, they won’t glow in the dark. Under ultraviolet light, however, many of them fluoresce, glowing vividly in ways that most humans can’t detect in normal daylight conditions.

Collage: A section of lichen-covered branch under white light and the same branch under UV light, showing the lichen fluorescing.

A new exhibit—Visitors to Creatures of Light can make the lichen (Ochrolechia arborea) on this branch fluoresce by turning on the ultraviolet light. Bottom photo: white light; top: UV light. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sometimes the colours of fluorescing lichens under UV light (also called black light) appear completely different from what appears to dominate under ordinary white light. This means, for example, that a bone-white lichen may appear a startling egg-yolk yellow under black light.

Intriguingly, scientists have not yet determined why only some lichen species contain fluorescent chemicals. They have determined, however, that they are natural by-products of the lichens’ daily life.

I have to admit that although I’ve known for decades that black lights are standard equipment in lichen identification labs, I didn’t realize how common it is to encounter fluorescent lichens in Canada. Their almost flamboyant glow makes them seem like they should be more exotic.

A patch of lichen on a rock.

Candy lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum)—Candy lichen is a favourite of many naturalists because it’s easy to recognize, with its pink fruiting bodies on a mint green crust, and its memorable alternate common name of fairy puke. Under UV light, it fluoresces because of the presence of thamnolic and perlatolic acids. Image: R. Troy McMullin © R. Troy McMullin

In the Hudson’s Bay Lowlands, however, Dr. McMullin routinely pointed out clumps of lichen for prospective display. Of one ubiquitous, brownish, stick-like specimen, he commented, “This one glows blinding blue”.

Blinding blue?! And it’s growing in every Canadian province and territory? How come no-one tells us these things in school?

Collage: A specimen of powdered funnel lichen (Cladonia cenotea) and big red stem moss (Pleurozium schreberi) under white light and under UV light, showing the lichen fluorescing.

The blue surprise—I collected this specimen to exhibit in the museum. Under UV light (At left), the “blinding blue” of the powdered funnel lichen contrasts strikingly with its non-fluorescent neighbour, big red stem moss. At right: white light. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

When I wondered aloud what it might be like to turn a northern bog psychedelic with UV floodlights, Dr. McMullin referred me to another lichenologist, Dr. Robert Lücking, and the astonishing photo that resulted when he set up his black light next to a lichen-encrusted tree trunk. Dr. Lücking graciously shared that photo, and one of the same tree under white light, which you can see here.

Collage: A section of lichen-covered tree trunk under white light and the same tree trunk under UV light, showing the lichens fluorescing in different colours.

The astonishing example—Matching images (white light, UV light) of a lichen-covered tree trunk, as captured by Dr. Robert Lücking at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica. Image: Robert Lücking © Robert Lücking

As another group of lichenologists introduced them, “Lichens… belong to an elite group of survivalist organisms…”. They are tough, beautiful, unique, and puzzling. And far from being confined to remote northern peatlands, they also grow in back yards, on concrete steps and on city tree trunks, not to mention parks and natural areas—every terrestrial environment, except for the most heavily polluted regions of our planet.

A man wearing bug netting holds a hat that contains a lichen specimen.

Dr. R. Troy McMullin—Hermetically sealed against blackflies and excited to visit lichen-encrusted peatland habitats, Dr. McMullin takes advantage of all available containers for collecting lichen samples. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

The real mystery is why so few people know about them. If you want to see them, step outside. If you want to see them fluoresce, stop by Creatures of Light at the museum, any time before November 9, 2014.

Jennifer covered a lot of ground on this collecting trip. Read her previous article, Blackflies, Begone! Studying the Plants of Northern Ontario’s Peatlands.

Posted in Arctic, Exhibitions, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Tools of the trade | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Blackflies, begone! Studying the plants of northern Ontario’s peatlands.

As I reported in emails home to my “muddah” and “faddah”, Muketei Camp, with its clouds of voracious black flies, might seem to have some things in common with the infamous Camp Granada from the 1963 novelty song. However, going home early from the drill camp, which was two flights (float plane, then helicopter) past the end of the road, never crossed my mind.

A float place beside a dock. A helicopter taking off from a dock.

(top) The float plane we took from Nakina to Koper Lake, the closest landing lake to our camp. (bottom) The helicopter leaving from the Koper Lake pad (which is connected with the Koper float plane dock) with the first load of scientists and gear bound for Muketei Camp, just a few minutes’ flight away. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A Pitcher plant.

This Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), like most of the bog vascular plants we encountered, is rooted in a carpet of Rusty bog moss (Sphagnum fuscum). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I mean “drill camp” in the mining sense—many of the visitors who make Muketei their temporary home are drillers, exploring the region’s mineral resources. Different treasure—specimens and data—brought me to this camp in remote northern Ontario, located about 75 km southeast of the Ojibway community of Webequie.

Potential changes in the nature of human activity in Ontario’s Ring of Fire make it prime time to capture a snapshot of the current state of the environment, including the terrestrial vegetation.

A Bog laurel in bloom.

Flowering season in the North: one of many perks to our peatland work! Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) bloomed profusely at some of our sites. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Accordingly, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change assembled a crew consisting of Ministry team lead Murray Dixon and three botany specialists—one for each of three organisms that grow most abundantly in the vast, soggy far north of the province: mosses (that’s me), lichens (Dr. Troy McMullin, University of Guelph), and sedges (Dr. Tyler Smith, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).

Our job was to scrutinize (identify and, in several ways, measure) these plants and lichens within carefully defined squares and strips of land. By faithfully recording our observations and methodology, we hope to equip future researchers to detect environmental change when they visit the same sites.

Two scientists put metal stakes in ground at a sampling site.

After documenting each plot with photos, measurements, and species names, metal stakes marking the corners of our sites remained to guide the next researchers to visit this plot. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Thrillingly, this chance to contribute to a valuable project also put us botany nerds right in the middle of a big, juicy gap in many distribution maps for plants and lichens.  Accessing these kinds of areas not only allows us to learn what’s in those tantalizing blank patches, but it also gives us a chance to place the hard evidence of our findings in our herbarium collections, to be drawn on by projects that have been stymied by the same perplexing gaps.

Mosses on the floor of a bog.

A bog floor garden. The further north one travels, the more the competitive advantage shifts toward tough lichens and bryophytes, as compared with vascular plants. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Other crews were at Muketei Camp too, studying the ground and surface waters that define the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Eighty-five percent of the land from northwest Quebec to northeast Manitoba consists of muskeg—bogs and fens—saturated with this water. Between our camp and field sites, we flew over astoundingly beautiful water-signature patterns that are only apparent from the air. Wherever we landed, we found ourselves in urgently blooming, northern peatland gardens, which make the most of brief access to liquid water between long, frozen winters.

Practically speaking, all that water also meant that I wore rubber boots for 11 days straight…even on the plane, as it turned out, since strict weight restrictions limited our total gear to 40 pounds (about 18 kg) *including* carry-on luggage!  After removing more than half of what I originally intended to pack, I could still meet this criterion only by wearing my rubber boots for the flight.

View of the peatland landscape.

Incredible patterns develop in northern peatlands, according to factors such as the flow of water and the distribution of permafrost. Finding a place to land was sometimes a challenge in this water-dominated landscape! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Botanist Troy McMullin wears bug protection clothing as blackflies swarm around.

University of Guelph lichenologist Troy McMullin demonstrates the Hudson’s Bay Lowland dress code, while blackflies demonstrate why it is a good idea to suit up in this way, regardless of high temperatures. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

And it was worth every minute! This being my second year at Muketei, I have an idea of the value the specimens we brought back will score for the project and for the National Herbarium when the winter’s lab work is done. Under the guise of mudslinging between devotees of “higher” vs. “lower” plants, or of plants vs. lichens, I also secretly pilfered skills, knowledge and ideas from my esteemed colleagues, and absconded with awesome fluorescent lichens to share with museum visitors. More on those another time…there’s no end to the cool stuff around here to write home about!

Posted in Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , | 1 Comment