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 250-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.

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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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

Nature Campers Really STAND OUT!

What a great inaugural season! Nature Camps was fun, unique, and had as much quality science learning that we could pack into a week!

Pages of open notebooks glow under UV light.

Gotta love these Glow Moments. Even the campers’ notebooks glow under special light in the Mammal Gallery dress-up area. Image: Pamela Kirk © Canadian Museum of Nature

In addition to providing in-depth opportunities to discover our permanent and special exhibitions (such as Creatures of Light and the Passenger Pigeon), the campers participated in daily programs to help them explore behind the scenes and delve into the natural science of the museum. We fed the fish with our animal care technicians, we investigated birds with museum educators, we ran around in the sunshine (and sometimes in the rain), and generally mixed learning in with a lot of fun!

A boy shows his trilobite model.

Hands-on activities, such as making a cast of a trilobite, opens the world of nature to young campers. Image: Laurel McIvor © Canadian Museum of Nature

We offered four different camp themes throughout the summer. Dinosaur and Fossils camps made fossil casts, Bioluminescence camps extracted chlorophyll and explored the difference between fluorescence and bioluminescence, Canada’s Creatures camps dissected owl pellets and one of our Arctic camps got a special visit from ichthyologist Noel Alfonso!

Two girls dissect owl pellets at a table.

Dissecting owl pellets. Image: C. W. Clark © C. W. Clark

Each week, all of the campers had the opportunity to participate in our Trading Post. They brought in their own nature treasures, were awarded points (based on quality of the specimen, correct identification, and any supplementary observation notes, research or presentation) and then traded for other nature specimens. This activity was a big hit! Said one 10-year-old: “I really like the Trading Post because I got to trade cool stuff for even cooler stuff.” Many campers have already been back the museum on weekends to make more trades and report on the rest of their summer.

A handmade card, open to the message.

“I liked when we did the TRADING POST”, wrote one young camper. Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Other highlights for the campers included the opportunity to explore each of the museum galleries, to discover and play outside in our outdoor classroom and to make friends with other nature-lovers. The Nature Camps staff was rewarded by having the opportunity to provide “ah-ha” moments for the campers, to share the thrill of learning and to feel the satisfaction and sense of pride at completing an experiment, a craft, or a particular task.

Said one camper: “The best thing today was the experiment where we shmushed a strawberry, put a liquid in it and got to see real DNA.” How cool is that?!

Nature Camps was a great experience for campers, our camp staff and for our many volunteers that helped out. We can’t wait to build and expand upon this year’s success!

Eight children and their camp counsellor jumping up and down on the museum’s west lawn.

Along with experiments, projects, and crafts, Nature campers enjoyed jumping around in the sunshine on the Museum’s west lawn. Image: Laurel McIvor © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Nine Days on Top of the World

Snow-capped mountains. Colliding slabs of sea ice. Polar bears, narwhals and ringed seals. These are the images that I had in my head of the Arctic.

That was before I went to Resolute.

A map showing relevant locations.

I feel lucky for the chance to travel to the High Arctic. Apparently, at 75°N, above the Northwest Passage on Cornwallis Island, it’s a polar desert. I have never been to the Arctic before, and as I embark on designing the museum’s new Arctic Gallery, it’s time I had a look for myself.

My flight to Iqaluit, Nunavut, is delayed. “Bad weather up there these days”, they say.

On the plane from Iqaluit, I watch the landscape roll by—for 800 km. No sign of civilization. The land’s skin seems to have been peeled off to expose its muscle. No trees, no roads, no houses.

A barren, hilly landscape.

The view from our 30-seater plane on the flight from Arctic Bay to Resolute, Nunavut. No skin, just muscles. Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A sign that is almost invisible in fog.

The combination of warm weather (a constant 5°C) and plentiful sea ice causes fog that can last for weeks. Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

After landing, I’m brought to Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program compound in Resolute Bay (PCSP for short). Scientists and researchers use the PCSP as a launching pad for fieldwork in the High Arctic. PCSP is an island on an island: self-sufficient, yet totally dependant on the south—for supplies, fuel, food, equipment, buildings, materials, people.

I will need to sleep tonight: it’s Community Day at the PCSP tomorrow. I’ll be showing off Museum of Nature materials—a Mammals of Canada poster, a beaver skull, a piece of birch tree and other wildlife from “down south”—to visitors from the nearby community. There will be a barbecue and traditional throat singing. I try to close the ineffective horizontal blinds against the light outside, which at 9 p.m. looks just like the overcast 6 p.m. of when I arrived.

People stand near warehouse shelving.

Kids from Resolute play with NRCat, Natural Resources Canada’s mascot, in the PCSP warehouse during Community Day. Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Two days pass; the rain stops but the fog remains. I venture out for a short walk around the compound. Various heaps of rusted machinery and fuel drums and neat piles of broken-building parts litter the site. Clearly the cost of removal is higher than the value of steel. Everything brought up to the Arctic will be there, for better or for worse, until it is returned down south. On my way back to the compound, I stumble on three curious Arctic fox pups that seem unperturbed by the absence of vegetation, darkness, or clear skies.

Dozens of fuel drums in a pile.

To live a modern western life in Resolute, bring everything: energy, equipment, shelter… Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

An Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus).

Arctic fox pup in a wood pile. Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The intense fog remains the next day, the day after that, the day after that… The light never changes. As everyone waits for a window in the cloud-cover to fly to their destination, it feels as though time stands still. We talk about research, the weather, experiences in the field. People bond quickly in this remote place. Someone corrects me: Resolute is a community, not a village. I get it—it’s people, not things, that turn a place into home.

Five days in, at 10:30 p.m., the sun comes out. Micheline Manseau, a Parks Canada biologist up here to track caribou movements, asks if I want to accompany her for a walk to the beach. Distances are deceiving in the North. No trees, no familiar landmarks to gauge distances. I can see five days’ walk in front of me in any direction. I feel a strange contrast of freedom and exposure. Although I can go anywhere I want, I’m most certainly visible. Ninety minutes later, we are at the beach. Low tide, I learn. Quiet and still as a desert, covered in ice; Arctic Terns dancing overhead.

In a flat landscape, a woman stands in the distance.

Micheline Manseau, a biologist at Parks Canada, is a fast walker, and used to trekking up here. She waits ahead of me, as I take photos while returning from the beach at 11 p.m. Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

“Remote” used to mean “picturesque” for me. Now it means that you have nothing more than what you brought with you, and no amount of technology can rescue you if Mother Nature refuses. If you’re weathered in, all you can do is wait. And when the weather breaks, you take advantage of it, whatever the time of day.

“The ice is still so thick for the end of July,” comments Micheline, back at the base. “This is an unusually cold summer.” I look around the barren, snowless landscape. No ice-capped mountains, no polar bears, no seals. The Arctic is a vast, diverse land, and cannot be reduced to a mere handful of clichés. It seems that the only Arctic I recognize is the ice on the ocean, and with it, the sense that this place is entirely different from my life back home in Ottawa.

Ice floes in the water, up to the shoreline.

Breaking sea ice on the quiet beach in Resolute at 10:30 p.m. Image: Dan Boivin © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Searching for ‘White Gold’ in southern Greenland

Museum mineralogist Dr. Paula Piilonen was thrilled this July to be part of the educational team for the annual Students on Ice Arctic expedition. Enjoy her reflections as she continues the journey to Greenland where she collected minerals from an abandoned mining site.

As usual, I wake up before my alarm and the ritual “Good morning Students On Ice!!” wake-up call by Geoff Green over the ship’s PA system. Getting out of bed, I open our window hatch and look outside–—craggy peaks with blue-white glaciers are perched above the brilliant blue waters under a bright blue sky. Each morning aboard the Sea Adventurer, the vistas that greet us are stunning. How are we going to go back home where the morning vista consists of the street or the side of your neighbour’s house? Staring out at the amazing beauty of Greenland causes me to giggle a bit—sometimes it doesn’t feel real, like the whole trip has been a dream. I am developing a definite obsession with icebergs and glaciers.

Paula Piilonen and students examine rocks along the shore of the mine site.

Paula Piilonen leads students on a mineral collection trip along the shore of the Ivigtut Mine site. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

But today isn’t a dream! Today is special and I bound out of bed to gather all the tools I will need for a mineral collecting trip. Today we get the opportunity to visit the Ivigtut cryolite mine in Arsuk Fjord. Cryolite is an extremely rare sodium-aluminum-fluoride mineral (Na3AlF6), which is found at fewer than 50 localities worldwide, and generally as crystals less than 2 cm in size.

Paula Piilonen and student examine rocks along the shore of the mine site.

Paula Piilonen and Ottawa student Jack Patterson examine rocks containing cryolite along the shore of the Ivigtut Mine site. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the Ivigtut mine, cryolite occurs in huge masses—to this day, chunks of cryolite ore three metres in width are still available in the dumps. In the 100-year lifespan of the mine (1854-1962), more than 3.5 million tonnes of cryolite ore was extracted from the open pit.

Archive photo from 1920 with cryolite ore being loaded onto ship.

Cryolite ore from the Ivigtut Mine being loaded onto a ship to be sent to Denmark for processing, 1920. Insert: Cryolite (white) with siderite (brown) from the Ivigtut Cryolite Mine. © Secher & Johnsen 2008

The rare mineral was once used as a source for sodium bicarbonate, as a flux in the mirror and glass industry and in the extraction of aluminum from bauxite ore.
The mine at Ivigtut has been inoperative since the mid-1980s, but there is still plenty of collectable material lying along the shore and in the dumps further into town.

View of old mine building and water-filled pit.

The open pit of the Ivigtut Cryolite Mine has abandoned and been filled with water since the late 1980s, but the old mine buildings remain. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The museum has equipped each of the students and staff on the trip with a mineral ID kit. Each kit includes a hand lens, streak plate, nail and enough sample bags to bring many mineral samples back to the ship in order to examine them in the lab.

Paula Piilonen talks to student as they sit near microscope.

Paula Piilonen talks to student about minerals on board the ship. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

As we disembark from the zodiacs, I find myself standing on the “waste” rock from the mine and automatically drop into the mineral collector’s pose—bent over at the hip, scanning the ground for interesting specimens.

Paula Piilonen uses power drill to cut into large piece of cryolite.

Paula Piilonen, helped by Kelly Walsh, drills into a piece of cryolite ore at the Ivigtut Cryolite Mine.
Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Students and staff follow suit, and soon I am surrounded by hands thrusting specimens forward with the follow-up question, “What is this?”. Nowadays, it’s not easy to collect minerals at a famous historical location and come away with spectacular specimens—most of the time, these places have been picked over by collectors and little of value or interest is left. At the Ivigtut cryolite mine, spectacular specimens are the norm!

It’s a unique opportunity for these students and my hope is that they realize that, putting the science aside, minerals have an inherent aesthetic and artistic quality that reflects Nature’s need to have every atom in order. Every sample I pick up is of better quality than those currently in the national collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Paula Piilonen sits on a large piece of ore containing cryolite and siderite crystals.

Paula Piilonen sits on a large piece of ore containing cryolite (white) and exceptional siderite (brown) crystals. Ivigtut Cryolite Mine, Arsuk Fjord, Greenland
Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Cryolite is everywhere we look, along with a suite of sulphide minerals (galena, pyrite and chalcopyrite to name a few), fluorite, quartz and siderite (FeCO3). The siderite is simply stunning—a lustrous garnet-red colour with crystals that exceed 12 cm in length. Collecting at the site is like being a kid in a candy store and the excitement is infectious. It’s a very good thing that we have a larger plane to fly back to Ottawa – all of us will be coming home with extra “baggage”!

People in zodiacs in Arsuk Fjord.

Whale-watching in Arsuk Fjord after a morning of mineral collecting. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After a few hours of collecting at the old mine site, we once again load the zodiacs and head out into Arsuk Fjord to follow a humpback whale which has been observed surfacing near the ship. Whale-watching in a zodiac on a warm, sunny Greenlandic day after a morning of amazing mineral collecting? What more could anyone ask for? It’s another amazing day with Students on Ice with more to come before we head back home.

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

Posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment