Creativity at the Museum: Collaborative Art Project

When the idea first came up for me to build a larger-than-life replica of a bioluminescent Jack-o’-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), I had to say yes!

After the completion of the firefly and smaller mushroom models in late June, this project began to take shape. The opportunity to create a collaborative art piece with the public seemed too good to be true, and I could not wait to start working on it.

A cart loaded with supplies.

The set up: our cart with all the essentials. Lots and lots of newspaper for the papier-mâché! And lots of cleaning materials for the mess! Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

For this sculpture we created a wooden stand for the mushroom to insure stability. Chicken wire was moulded around the stand to create the initial shape of the mushroom replica. Papier-mâché is placed over the wire to create the hard surface for the sculpture. After papier-mâché has dried you are able to paint over it (we will be using glow-in-the-dark paint). With these simple materials you can even make your own sculptures right at home!

A large cloth protects the floor while a sculpture is being made.

Our set-up in the museum. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

On the first day of the project, we were off to a great start! I had a fantastic helper come by and tell me all of these wonderful ideas for how to make the sculpture look (and I quote) “Awesome!” He helped me decide where to put some wire, told me how to properly apply the papier-mâché, and came up with the idea that when it is finished, I should illuminate it with blue and green lights.

A girl works on the sculpture.

Our wonderful helper Evelyn adding papier-mâché to the sculpture! Great job! Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of my most memorable assistants was Evelyn, who kindly gave up most of her afternoon to help with the project! Evelyn, being very talented with art, has helped me with the papier-mâché step of the project—allowing for the sculpture to take its shape. Evelyn also was a great helper, showing others how to place the papier-mâché onto the sculpture.

The sculpture.

Close-up of the current stage we are at. Finishing up the papier-mâché shell and then on to painting! Can’t wait to see it glow! Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

After we complete the papier-mâché, the next step in the project is to paint! We will put a few coats of primer down and then glow-in-the-dark paint to add the final touches of our bioluminescent mushroom replica.

I have had a great experience working with our helpers so far and look forward to seeing the rest of you between now and mid-August! Don’t miss out on this great opportunity to create a collaborative art piece for the Canadian Museum of Nature!

This program runs
• Wednesdays and Sundays
• 10 AM – noon, 1:30 PM – 4 PM
• until August 13, 2014
• on the first floor, in the rotunda.

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A Geological Wonderland Defines a Journey with Students on Ice

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 from the first part of the trip in Labrador—a true geological wonderland—which preceeded the expedition’s journey to Greenland.

Stunning. Rocky. Green. Breathtaking. Desolate. Pristine. Harsh. Unforgiving. Amazing. These are just a few words that I could use to describe the landscape of the Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador.

Sunset off the northern Labrador coast

Sunset off the northern Labrador coast. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Steep fjords carved out of the ancient folded gneiss. Ice-filled bays where the water is so pristine and clear that you can watch Arctic char swim beneath the Zodiac and strike your lure. Alpine peaks separated by snowfields and meadows filled with Arctic wildflowers. Brilliant blue bays where polar bears dive, play and hunt while, quite pointedly, ignoring the Zodiacs close by. Sunsets (at 11p.m.!) which paint the sky and surface of the water with streaks of pinks and oranges that are not to be found on any colour wheel and cannot be properly captured by a camera lens. Oh yes, the Torngat Mountains are a special, magical place and I for one am feeling humbled and honoured to have been given the opportunity to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

View of fiord from the bow of the expedition ship.

View from the bow of the Sea Adventurer in Kormaktorvik Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park.
Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

As I write this, I am sitting on the bridge of the Sea Adventurer, watching the endless grey expanse of the Labrador Sea on all four sides and feeling thankful that we have once again lucked out in the weather department and that the sea is calm. Gary Donaldson, our on-board ornithologist, is also on the bridge doing a survey and watching for Arctic sea birds.

We are headed east towards Greenland (about 550 km away) after spending three days in the Torngat Mountains National Park along the coast of northern Labrador. It has been a trip full of many “firsts” with Students on Ice, a trip for which the original schedule has been thrown out the window and “Plan B” has become the norm.

We have visited fjords and bays, climbed peaks and walked on beaches where no one, with the exception of local Inuit, has roamed before.

Paula Piilonen with two other participants pose on top of peak overlooking a fiord.

Museum staff Caroline Lanthier, Noel Alfonso and Paula Piilonen atop the small peak (330 metres) in Kormaktorvik Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park.
Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Torngat Mountains are still relatively unexplored and offer visitors a true sense of adventure and a chance to be an explorer.

Research basecamp and buildings at edge of bay along Torngat Mountains.

The research basecamp at Torngat Mountains National Park. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

The geology of the Torngat Mountains serves as one of the world’s best places to teach geology. You couldn’t ask for a better classroom—from the ins and outs of large-scale metamorphic processes, to the weathering of rocks to form heavy mineral beach sands, to the analysis and identification of minerals under the microscope back on the ship.

The students on the expedition are learning what it means to be a geologist and are already picking up interesting rocks whenever we make a Zodiac landing. They have learned how to use their mineral identification tools provided by the museum; back on the ship we can take the time to examine the samples under a loupe or a microscope and determine what minerals are present.

Paula and others sitting on side of Zodiac with fish they have caught.

Let’s go fishing! Paula, Noel Alfonso and some of the students on the expedition with their catch of the day—12 Arctic char and one Arctic cod. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Normally, there is no collecting in a national park, but Gary Baikie, our absolutely wonderful Parks Canada representative, allowed us to collect a few samples from the beach at Komaktorvik Fjord to take back to the ship for educational purposes. For this, we are extremely grateful—thanks Gary!

Paula Piilonen and colleague Noel Alfonso sitting on an ice floe in a harbour.

Paula Piilonen joins museum ichthyologist Noel Alfonso atop a “bergie bit” in St. John’s Harbour, Saglek Fjord near the basecamp of Torngat Mountains National Park. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Soon, we will reach the Tasermiut Fjord in Greenland and embark on a new adventure with new geology to explore. We will have more opportunities to do extensive sampling along the western coast of Greenland, especially at the now-defunct Ivigtut cryolite mine in the Arsku Fjord and in the many Proterozoic deposits along the way.

But Greenland is in the future and we are learning to take life one day at a time appreciate the nature around us. Today is a sea day and our expedition team is busy participating in workshops on board the ship. We are learning about Greenland, leadership in harsh environments, climate change, wildlife monitoring, glacial processes, Inuit art, and songwriting with Kathleen Edwards and Ian Tamblyn, our resident musicians. For now, the ship steams ahead and we keep our fingers crossed that the weather gods remain on our side and the crossing remains calm.

Paula Piilonen holds an Arctic sculpin caught while fishing.

Paula Piilonen with an Arctic sculpin caught near the basecamp of Torngat Mountains National Park. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Read more about the journey to Labrador and Greenland with the 2014 Students on Ice Expedition.

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No Microscopes, No Laptops, No Library, No Problem: The Challenges of Bringing Our Laboratory to the Field

Our team of botanists continues its four-week expedition along the Coppermine River in Nunavut. This is one one of several articles in which team members describe conditions that they face when doing research in the Arctic.

If I say “scientist”, you probably conjure up images of white-coated professionals gliding through pristine laboratories filled with gleaming glassware, the highest-of-high-tech machinery, equation-covered whiteboards and myriad other scientific paraphernalia. Pretty cool place, huh?

While such laboratories can be found at our research and collection facility in Gatineau, when we move our work out into the field, it’s a bit hard to fit these well-equipped facilities into our duffel bags.

Two men sit on the floor of a tent while they work.

A typical scene in the lab tent. Jeff Saarela (left) finalizes his field notes while Paul Sokoloff (right) arranges sedges on newsprint for pressing. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Therefore, when setting up our field laboratory, there is no better mantra than “less is more”. First, you need “the lab”: a space to prepare our specimens out of the rain, wind, sun, bugs—anything the Arctic throws at us. We use a large geodesic dome tent for this purpose. Despite taking a very long time to set up, it’s sturdy in the wind and comfortably seats six famished botanists when dining outside seems less than appealing.

A tent with plant presses beside it.

Our team’s lab tent—the work hub of Arctic camp life. Inside, plants are pressed, silica-gel samples for DNA analysis are processed and field notes are finalized. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Once we have our tent, we can start filling it with gear and resources—the physical things we need to do our jobs. From thick stacks of cardboard and bundles of newsprint to fresh silica gel, we must bring enough supplies to press over 3000 plant samples.

A bag containing bagged samples.

Bags full of plant-tissue samples taken from specimens processed in the lab tent. These samples will be frozen upon our return to the museum, awaiting their turn to be extracted and sequenced in our DNA lab. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Samples brought back from long hikes are sorted out, identified and sampled to store DNA samples for later use. This process is as low-tech as we can make it, using loupes instead of bulky microscopes and handwritten notes instead of spreadsheets, and relying on our memories and a few selected reference books instead of an Internet connection.

Jeff Saarela studies a plant using a hand lens.

A hand lens is standard issue for field botanists, and much, much more portable than even the lightest microscopes. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Finally, these plants are cleaned (we bring a fork specifically to remove dirt from the roots), arranged on newsprint, sandwiched between layers of cardboard and squashed into two dimensions in a plant press—another effective, low-tech solution.

Two stacks inside a tent.

Stacks of plants sandwiched between cardboard awaiting their turn in the press. We keep these stacks away from breezes and wayward feet, lest an afternoon of pressing be undone. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Finally, you have us—the botanists—working tirelessly away processing plants from when we return to the camp until (often) very late at night. Surrounded by piles of gear and competing for foot space with carefully arranged plants, we process, annotate, compare and package our plant samples. After all, a tent is not a lab without scientists!

A table with equipment and a plant specimen.

The lap of luxury: Last year during my expedition to Arctic Watch Lodge (in Nunavut) I was afforded an entire table as our field lab, and it was even indoors! I’ll remember this set-up very fondly while setting up our (much smaller) lab tent this year. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Follow the 2014 Arctic Botany Expedition live:
• Twitter: #naturescience
map
photos and messages sent from the field.

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A Yukon Quest for Rare Mosses Provides Priceless Memories

On some of the best days, my line of work as a botanist can be part geocaching, part scavenger hunt, part amazing race. Oh, and part miraculous coincidence.

Case in point: at the end of May, my colleagues and I spent four days in southern Ontario looking for the Canadian rarity, Porter’s Twisted Moss. We carefully researched places where it had been found in the past, sought guidance from local knowledge-holders, obtained permission for land access, covered up from head to toe against mosquitoes and ticks, and sweated (rain, shine…and rain) up and down the Niagara Escarpment, looking for—and ultimately finding—our prize. Woohoo! Very satisfying!

Jennifer Doubt looking for mosses behind a waterfall.

That’s me checking behind a waterfall. And yes, I am getting soaking wet. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

However, the biggest population of this moss that we found that week required little effort. It was on the rocks lining the walkway that we sauntered up, in our sandals and shorts, to shop for souvenirs before hitting the highway for the drive home. I love that kind of luck.

So knowing how much I enjoyed the Porter’s Twisted Moss foray, you won’t be surprised that I was thrilled at an invitation to lend my efforts to a search for Porsild’s Bryum (Haplodontium macrocarpum) in Yukon Territory in June. It had all the ingredients of the perfect botany trip:

1. A beautiful quarry: Porsild’s Bryum is brilliant green, with plump capsules resting on sparkly leaves;
2. A mysterious and elusive habitat: this moss likes shady, wet, sheltered, and relatively undisturbed rock (often calciferous), such as one might find behind some waterfalls or on seepy, hidden cliffs;

Closeup of Porsild’s Bryum under an overhang.

Porsild’s Bryum growing under an overhang beside a waterfall in northern BC. A water droplet is suspended below the moss. Sheltered, shaded, cool, wet rock seems to be what Porsild’s Bryum likes best. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

3. An adventurous venue: They say, temptingly, that the Yukon is ‘Larger than Life’! I had never been there;
4. An awesome team: I would be working with three of biology’s inspiring, skilled, productive leaders and teachers—Syd Cannings, Bruce Bennett and Rene Belland.

A man at base of waterfall collects mosses.

Rene Belland collects bryophytes close to a waterfall along the Beaver River, Yukon. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Before setting out, we stopped at CBC’s studio in Whitehorse for a radio interview about the work ahead. To ensure success regardless of the search for Porsild’s Bryum, we explained that we would survey bryophytes (mosses and their liverwort cousins) everywhere we stopped. We were going to come back with great specimens and new knowledge, no matter what!

Closeup of botanist examining mosses along a roadside outcrop.

We brake for seepy cliffs! This wet, roadside outcrop was too tempting to pass by. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Unbeknownst to us, the interview was heard by author Ellen Davignon. She is the granddaughter of M.P. Porsild after whom Porsild’s Bryum is named. She is also the niece of A.E. Porsild, one of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s best-known botany curators. With this connection in mind, she called the station and had an interview of her own.

Our route in the first week took us from Whitehorse to Dawson and beyond. Regrouping in Whitehorse at the halfway mark, we then drove south and east, through northern British Columbia, and north again to Fort Liard, Northwest Territories. From there, we could access southeastern Yukon by helicopter.

View of mountains from inside a helicopter.

View from helicopter on the day we were snowed out of our planned excursion into the Ogilvie Mountains. We turned back and headed up the Dempster Highway instead, and had two flats before the end of the day! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The days were full—the long northern sunlight hours allowed us to do all the surveying we could stand. To preserve our moss samples for later identification and accession in our home herbaria, we put them in paper bags (2 lb Kraft, to be precise—they fit in the pockets of cargo pants) and spread them out to dry when the opportunity arose. While on the road, I spent time cataloguing the new specimens…thanking, all the while, the ancestors that furnished genes permitting me to type on a laptop in the back of a tightly-packed truck cab, without turning as green as the mossy samples!

View of landed helicopter beside river and steep cliff.

Best pilot ever! Just enough room for him to land between the Beaver River and our waterfall. When we flew along the rivers, we saw more waterfalls and seepy cliffs than we were able to land at (we’d like to come back with a boat, which is much easier to park!). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Did we find Porsild’s Bryum? We hiked up numerous creeks and stopped at a lot of seepy cliffs where we can now say with some confidence that Porsild’s Bryum…isn’t found there! We experienced flat tires, gorgeous landscapes, wet boots, views of wildlife, bug bites, terrific exercise, learning experiences, some great discussions, and filled lots and lots of little paper bags. Nonetheless, we only saw Porsild’s Bryum at the one spot where someone had recorded it in the past—in northern B.C., where we laboured up a steep talus to confirm that it persists where Nathalie Cleavitt found it in 2003.

View of canyon.

View of one of the dark canyons we climbed into along the Alaska Highway. It was difficult to know what we’d find when we selected these hikes from the road: sometimes there was no water in the creek at the highway, but once we got higher up there were falls, seeps, and even deep snow. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But ask us instead if we found Porsild’s granddaughter! One morning, a call arose in the truck for a coffee stop. Knowing a place with magnificent cinnamon buns nearby, Syd pulled in at Johnson’s Crossing, where we were welcomed with refreshments and friendly conversation. We soon learned that the person operating the mixer—that day only, for old time’s sake—was none other than a smiling Ellen Davignon, the author who was ready to share some stories with four travellers on the trail of a plant named for the granddad she remembered so fondly. I love that kind of luck.

My 700 paper bags of moss are now fully dried and (thanks to our fabulous summer student, Emilie Viau!) sorted into batches for identification and accession into the National Herbarium of Canada. The information gleaned from them will become part of the growing territorial biodiversity database managed expertly by the Yukon Conservation Data Centre.

View of waterfall along steep cliff.

One of the waterfalls in northern BC where Porsild’s Bryum was first recorded in 2003. It was a steep climb! None of the team was game to climb to the topmost falls, which is where the nimble grad students that were there a decade ago reported seeing the largest number of colonies. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Both public resources support countless projects for research, resource management, and education, and will continue to do so long after we are pushing up daisies … and moss, too!

Posted in Fieldwork, Plants, Research | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Thinking Back, Looking Ahead: The 2014 Palaeobiology Field Season in Alberta

We’re back!

Having spent the better part of June tromping around Alberta in search of fossils, my team (Margaret Currie and Scott Rufolo) and I are home again. And as much as we spent time out there belly-aching about the weather, the insects, the lack of amenities, and so on, we miss it dearly. Same story every year.

The good news is that we had another great field season, which is reason enough to return next year. Aside from the finds I wrote about previously, we made a number of other cool discoveries.

Scott found a third, extensive microsite, which we took time to sample carefully for small vertebrate fossils, as we did at the other two. A microsite is a dense accumulation of small vertebrate fossils, which includes the smallest bones and teeth of the largest animals, as well as various parts from the smaller fauna. Together, these sites should give us a good idea about the biodiversity of the South Saskatchewan River area about 75 million years ago.

Scott Rufalo collects samples at a fossil site while sitting on ground.

Scott samples a rich microsite that he found. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We also collected some bits and pieces of a small meat-eating (theropod) dinosaur eroding out of a hillside. Small theropod bones, like those of their avian descendants, tend to be very fragile and, unfortunately, erode quite readily. I think we got enough, though, that we should be able to tell which species we found. (Interesting side story: while collecting the theropod, we had a close encounter with a Northern Scorpion!) We were sure to nab the soft-shelled turtle mentioned in my previous blog post, too.

Two people on hillside collect remains of a dinosaur.

Scott and Margaret collect the eroded remains of a small theropod dinosaur from a hillside. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Closeup of a scorpion.

Surprise! While collecting the theropod, we came face-to-face with a Northern Scorpion (Paruroctonus boreus). Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Did I mention the two new horned dinosaur bonebeds that we found? These are sites where we find numerous, disarticulated individuals mixed together, probably a result of their remains having been reworked by an ancient river channel.

Closeup of an exposed dinosaur fossil in ground.

Exposing a horned dinosaur bonebed that we plan to develop next year. Note the broken thighbone (femur) and tail vertebra. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

From what we could tell, the bonebeds appear to be fairly extensive—somewhere on the order of tens of metres wide, where exposed. Uncovering these sites would have been far too much work, given our limited time and resources, but I hope to return with some students next year to develop them properly.

Remains of an exposed fossil shell of a turtle in ground.

A beautiful soft-shelled turtle, as found. The rippled texturing of the shell betrays its identify. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Bonebeds can tell you all sorts of interesting things about herding behaviour, population structure, and predation. I’m all ears

If I have one disappointment about this field season, it’s that we weren’t able to find a nicely articulated dinosaur skeleton—something to really rally around. I suppose I shouldn’t be too upset, though—at last count, it takes about 66 person-days to search out a good specimen in the ideal setting of the well-studied Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. By my estimation, we’re now at about 70 days, including last year’s expedition. That means we should be due for a big find next year! I can’t wait to get back…

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

Alberta Bound! Returning to hunt for dinosaur fossils
From foothills to badlands—fossil discoveries in Alberta

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Curiouser and Curiouser: Our Discoveries in 2013

by Mark Graham and Lory Beaudoin

Have you made any discoveries lately? If you answer “yes” to that question, it is in keeping with one of our most dependable features as a species: our immense curiosity. We are surrounded by an ever-developing, complex world with lots of moving parts, so there are endless possibilities to discover what things are, how they work, and where and when to find them.

At the Canadian Museum of Nature, our stock-in-trade is all about discovery—species discovery. Across the broad landscape of “-ologies” that reside with our scientific experts, and throughout the 150+ years of research and collection development at the museum, we have an impressive record of finding and describing plants, animals, fossils and minerals.

Two Liropus minusculus specimens.

Cave-dwelling skeleton shrimp of the species Liropus minusculus. The identification of this species is one of the top 10 discoveries in the world for 2013, according to the Institute for Species Exploration. Above, the smaller specimen is female and the larger one is male. Image: SINC (Information and Scientific News Service; http://www.agenciasinc.es) and J.M. Guerras-García, used under licence (Creative Commons BY 3.0)

The year 2013 was no exception, with 12 new discoveries! The defining achievement of these discoveries is a thorough description of the new species, presented to and accepted by the scientific community in a publication. (A full list of our publications is compiled each year in our annual report).

More specifically, in 2013 our museum scientists and their collaborators discovered five new mineral species, five new animal species and two new plant species. Bob Anderson’s work in Central America and the Caribbean uncovered three new species of weevils, like Metamasius planatus, which is found amongst the fallen palm fronds of Dominica.

Dorsal and lateral views of a weevil.

The weevil Metamasius planatus. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the case of Ed Hendrycks, his two discoveries were crustaceans from California, U.S.A., and Korea. One is a cave-dwelling skeleton shrimp, Liropus minusculus, that is also counted amongst the top 10 discoveries in the world for 2013 by the Institute for Species Exploration. These interesting creatures are like the baseball outfielders of the ocean, standing up tall, waving their arms to catch passing morsels of food. (Watch a video of shrimp feeding).

A diatom.

A valve of the new epiphytic marine diatom, Mastogloia stellae, seen in electron microscopy. The scale bar is 5 microns long. Image: Chiara Pennesi, Università Politecnica delle Marche (photo has been modified)

Michel Poulin teamed up with his European colleagues to discover two new species of diatoms (microscopic plants) from the Red Sea and the South Pacific Ocean, including Mastogloia stellae, which is found on eelgrass near Egypt.

Joel Grice was busy describing new minerals from Canada, Norway, Russia and Bolivia, such as bussyite-(Y) from the famous quarries at Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec.

The discovery of new species is really a starting point in science: being able to find and designate something allows for a huge range of dependable, carefully referenced inquiries and the sharing of information. We keep careful records of our discoveries because each one involves a piece of evidence, an object that becomes a part of the collection (you can rummage through our digital collection holdings at any time, or you can visit the collection in person during one of our open houses in autumn 2014).

Regular and detail views of a specimen of bussyite-(Y).

Bussyite-(Y) from the famous quarries at Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec. Image: Glenn Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

We keep these objects because the science community continues to use them in other research, over and over again. We not only share our discoveries with the scientific and professional communities, we tell our stories to the public too. Check out our latest blog posts and videos on nature.ca, visit Creatures of Light at the museum, and find out about one of our travelling exhibitions coming to a town near you.

One of the most insightful things about our discoveries, and about museum collections in general, is brilliantly stated in the Many Minds Principle: “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else” (attributed to Rufus Pollock, Open Knowledge okfn.org).

Be curious, keep discovering and pass on the buzz.

Scientific Discoveries at the Museum in 2013
Diatoms: Mastogloia matthaei, Mastogloia stellae
Weevils: Archicorynus kuscheli, Melchus jessae, Metamasius planatus
Crustaceans: Liropus minusculus, Socarnes tongyeongensis
Minerals: bussyite-(Y), chromo-alumino-povondraite, ferrivauxite, ferrochiavennite, veblenite

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Working with Bioluminescence: Firefly Replica

When I first began my internship with the Canadian Museum of Nature in early May, I was unaware of how fundamentally important creativity is to the museum. I did not expect how much I would be able to apply my experiences of visual arts to this museum setting.

A woman holds a firefly model.

Stephanie and the firefly replica during the painting stage. Image: Loralie Hachey © Stephanie Hachey

My main objective of my internship thus far has been to create two replicas: one of a firefly (Photinus pyralis) and one of a bioluminescent mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). Both will be used in presentations on bioluminescence that will be offered at the museum until mid-July.

A mass of chicken wire.

The beginning of the wire process—the making of the firefly’s head. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

And so, in early May the brainstorming began. My original idea was to sculpt the body of the firefly out of Styrofoam. However, knowing how much I hate the sound of scraping Styrofoam, I was quick to scrap this idea. Thinking more about what materials I could use, I decided that chicken wire would work best because it is both lightweight and easily manipulated.

As someone who is math-illiterate, the beginning steps were the most difficult. With multiple trips to the Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence exhibition and numerous searches for fireflies in Google I ultimately decided to create a firefly replica that was 50 times the actual size. Forgetting to add a few numbers here and there a couple weeks into the project, I realized that I was making a firefly 60 times actual size—evidently math will never be my strong suit.

Project materials laid out on a table.

Creating the firefly’s wings—wire skeleton sewn onto a wing pattern made out of mesh. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

After a few weeks of bending wires and trying to be as patient as possible, I finished the skeleton form of the firefly model. The next step in the process was to papier-mâché over the wire skeleton to create a hard outer shell that I would be able to apply paint to.

The base structure on a table.

After creating the skeleton form of the firefly, I attached all the pieces together. The next step (as shown here) was to prep for the papier-mâché by covering the replica in tape. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

You would think that mixing up a batch of papier-mâché would be very simple. However, given that I have non-existent cooking skills and a short attention span, it was more difficult than it should have been. After adding, removing, and then adding more water and flour to a bowl, I finally had the ability to discern how much of each ingredient was needed: one part flour and two parts water was the final working result. For those of you out there who want to create your very own papier-mâché project: don’t forget to add salt—it helps prevent mould!

The chicken-wire structure with some papier-mâché applied.

Papier-mâché process—the completion of the head and wings. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

After the papier-mâché process, I applied a few layers of Gesso to the replica to act as a base paint. I am currently working on applying detail and colour with acrylic paints—attempting not to get it all over my clothes, which is impossible. I hope to also add lights to the end of the firefly so that visitors will be able to see first-hand how fireflies “speak” to one another through their bioluminescent flashes.

The firefly replica, all white.

The papier-mâché process is finally complete! Gesso has been painted over the replica to create a smooth surface to paint detail on. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Detail of the replica.

Close-up of painting process. This is a depiction of the firefly’s abdomen. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The end-result firefly replica, as well as the mushroom replica, can be seen at the museum’s bioluminescence presentations. Don’t forget to visit the museum and check it out!

The finished replica.

The firefly is finally complete! Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

And if my experience has seemed fun to you, join me at the museum on Sundays and Wednesdays starting on July 6: I will be creating another giant mushroom with the help of the public until August 13. The experience I gained while creating the firefly will surely come in handy!

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From foothills to badlands—fossil discoveries in Alberta

My team and I have been in the field in Alberta for two weeks now, so I thought I would pass along a summary of our findings so far.

Jordan Mallon and Scott Rufolo sitting on ground amidst the hills of the badlands.

Jordan Mallon and Scott Rufolo pause during fieldwork prospecting for fossils in the badlands of southeastern Alberta. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As mentioned previously, I spent the first few days in the foothills of Alberta, near Bottrel and Sundre. The intent was simple: to prospect the local Brazeau Formation for signs of otherwise rare Late Cretaceous dinosaurs. I’m happy to say that we weren’t skunked— my guide, Sue Marsland, turned up a fragmentary dinosaur bone from a spot near the Little Red Deer River. It’s difficult to say just what it is from the little that remains, but it appears to be a small limb bone from an ornithischian dinosaur.

Close-up view of fossil leaves in rock.

Fossil leaves and bone found while prospecting in the Albertan foothills. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Otherwise, we found lots of leaf and marine invertebrate fossils, which are quite common in the Brazeau Formation. It’s obvious that we’re going to have to put in a lot more time exploring this area to get a better idea of what the dinosaurs of the Albertan foothills were like.

In contrast to the foothills, my time in the southeast end of Alberta has been productive so far. My team (Margaret Currie and Scott Rufolo) and I have made a number of interesting finds. Our first prospect was a horned dinosaur (ceratopsid) leg, which we didn’t collect because it was too poorly preserved.

Scott Rufolo sits beside a partially excavated leg of a horned dinosaur.

Scott Rufolo poses with a horned dinosaur hindlimb that we uncovered, but didn’t collect. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We’ve also turned up two microsites, which contain abundant fragmentary remains of fossil vertebrates such as fish, turtles, crocodiles, and dinosaurs. These sites are ideal for getting a handle on the local biodiversity of the time. We found a ceratopsid bonebed, which has so far produced some limb bones and vertebrae, and a small brow horn.

A badly weathered nose horn of a ceratopsid (beside a pick for scale).

A badly weathered nose horn of a ceratopsid (beside a pick for scale). Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We also collected a forward-curving ceratopsid nose horn, probably of a Centrosaurus, which are common to this area. The complete carapace of a soft-shelled turtle was also uncovered; we will return to collect it closer to the end of our trip (read about the collecting of a turtle shell found last year). We will also be bringing home some bones for the kids’ fossil prep station in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery.

All in all, I’m quite happy with our efforts so far. We’ve got a number of finds on the go, despite the difficult and often steep nature of the badlands terrain out here. Still, I hope the best find awaits us yet. I’ll be sure to post a debriefing of our field season following our return next week from Alberta. Until then, keep up on our progress on Twitter by following me (@Jordan_Mallon) or via the hashtag #CMNPalaeo.

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

Alberta Bound! Returning to hunt for dinosaur fossils

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Collecting on the Coppermine 100 Years after the Canadian Arctic Expedition: A Long Overdue Follow-Up Appointment

In a few short days, Canadian Museum of Nature botanists Dr. Jeff Saarela, Roger Bull and yours truly will depart Ottawa, bound for the Arctic hamlet of Kugluktuk, where adventure and new plant discoveries surely await us. For the next month, we will be documenting and collecting the vascular plants along the Coppermine River—a Canadian Heritage River and paddling hotspot—from the tree line to the coast, a roughly 40 kilometre-long transect of Arctic-plant biodiversity.

A map showing relevant locations.

Located in the western mainland of Nunavut (the Kitikmeot region), Kugluktuk is a vibrant community of 1500, and serves as the hub for our travels along the Coppermine River.

From Kugluktuk, a helicopter dispatched by the Polar Continental Shelf Program—Canada’s Arctic logistical support group—will take us to Sandstone Rapids, the first of three camps that we will establish along the river. Here, the favourable microclimate (warmth and shelter from the wind) provided by the Coppermine River Valley coaxes the tree line to its northernmost point in Nunavut.

A small shelter beside a few trees.

Taken in February, 1915, this photo shows the campsite of the Canadian Arctic Expedition at the northernmost spruce trees along the Coppermine River. With any luck, we’ll be able to relocate this grove nearly 100 years later. Image: Fritz Johansen © Canadian Museum of History

These spruce groves hosted a Canadian Arctic Expedition camp in the winter of 1915, and we are hoping to find these historic trees and sample them for the National Herbarium of Canada. Unfortunately, as the CAE passed through this area in winter, there are very few collections from that location and that era in our herbarium—a gap that we will soon fill!

From Sandstone Rapids, we will move north along the Coppermine, travelling by helicopter and collecting on foot until we reach Kugluk/Bloody Falls Territorial Park, a place known for both its infamous past, and for its present as “the” park for the residents of Kugluktuk. There, we will document the flora of the park—data that will contribute to the understanding and management of the park’s ecosystems for years to come.

Bloody Falls rapids.

Kugluk/Bloody Falls hosts a vibrant and often-visited territorial park, and hopefully a vibrant flora to match! Image: D. Gordon, E. Robertson © D. Gordon, E. Robertson (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

Finally, we will boat back into the community of Kugluktuk and spend a week collecting the plants within and around the town. We will cap off the trip with a big community presentation, giving the citizens of Kugluktuk the first chance to learn about our findings along the river.

This “spruce-to-shore” expedition allows us the unique opportunity to collect plant species along an ecological gradient from boreal forest through to low Arctic tundra. In particular, a complete assessment of the floristic diversity at the tree line will allow for (relatively) rapid assessment of climate change impacts in the future, as the taiga-tundra ecosystem is projected to be amongst the first impacted ecosystems.

The expedition team (from left to right): Paul Sokoloff, Jeff Saarela and Roger Bull, shown here in a photo from 2012 fieldwork, which also included fellow botanist Dr. Lynn Gillespie (in white hat). Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

The expedition team (from left to right): Paul Sokoloff, Jeff Saarela and Roger Bull, shown here in a photo from 2012 fieldwork, which also included fellow botanist Dr. Lynn Gillespie (in white hat). Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

As with our previous trips, we will live lightly on the land: camping in remote areas, eating delicious dehydrated food (cooked by our “chef extraordinaire” Roger), and aiming to collect over 1000 plants for the herbarium. Unlike our previous expedition, a paddling trip on Baffin Island, we’ll leave the boats at home; the rapids on the Coppermine are a bit too extreme for us, and it wouldn’t do to lose our collections down the river!

Follow the 2014 Arctic Botany Expedition live:
• Twitter: #naturescience

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Relive the Magic of Childhood Summers on a Firefly Walk

After spending many childhood summers in the Laurentian Mountains, one significant highlight will always remain in my memory: the arrival of the fireflies! These little beetles have always been special to me because their arrival marked the end of classes and the start of summer. What could be more magical for a schoolboy? For someone like me who loved walking through meadows, this was like an explosion of nightlights, a fireworks display just for me!

Small points of light above a pond at night.

A firefly ballet above a pond. Image: © iStockphoto/Debra Millet

At the time, my brothers and I would fetch a few jam pots from my father’s workshop to go firefly hunting. The hunt always began at dusk, without a net. We had to capture these little Lampyridae with our bare hands.

Ventral view of a firefly.

The organ that lights up is visible at the end of the firefly’s body. Image: © iStockphoto.com/ABDesign

I remember well that in the heat of the moment, we would sometimes end up crushing the bug’s body between our fingers. This was a sad event for the insect but a spectacular event for me, watching the green light spread over my fingers. I couldn’t understand why this light had no effect on my fingers, other than leaving a very characteristic odour. This odour is in fact produced by toxic substances that the bug uses to protect itself.

It was only later, as a teenager, that I started understanding the secrets of this green light by reading books on entomology. It was also at this time that I realized that one of the most common beetles in Quebec, Ellychnia corrusca, was also a member of the Lampyridae family. However, unlike the twilight and nocturnal varieties, it does not produce any light. How can a firefly not produce any light? Simply because it is a diurnal or daylight species that cannot possibly compete with the sun.

A firefly (Ellychnia corrusca).

Being diurnal insects, Ellychnia corrusca fireflies do not produce light. Image: Ben Coulter © Ben Coulter

Nevertheless, several kinds of fireflies produce light. But why? Bioluminescence, which is at the heart of our new exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, is a phenomenon that emerged a number of times in several groups during evolution. This ability therefore has more than one purpose.

A forest at night, illuminated by many points of light.

On display in the exhibition Creatures of Light, this photo captures firefly signals. Photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu combined photos taken with a slow shutter speed in Japan. Image: © Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, digitalphoto.cocolog-nifty.com

In the case of our fireflies, it is a means of communication between males and females. What better way to attract a partner in the dark than by using light signals? Several species of fireflies can however be active at the same time and place. Each of these therefore evolved different features that make up as many “languages”. Flashing signals can be observed at various frequencies and colours, ranging from yellow to green to a reddish colour.

Fireflies are usually rarer in cities. You can, however, see them in parks, especially near the edge of a forest, in small, slightly damp valleys. There are 31 species of fireflies in Canada, including about 15 in the National Capital Region.

You can go firefly hunting with me on Friday, June 20, 2014, in Gatineau Park (see details). Let’s hope we’ll be as lucky as I was in my childhood memories!

Translated from French.

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