Botanical and Cultural Treasure, Hidden in Plain Sight

On May 23, 1884, on an Arctic island just east of Ellesmere, American Army Sergeant David Ralston starved to death. He was a member of a scientific expedition that had begun three years previously. In his Lady Franklin Bay Expedition party of 25, only seven were still alive when rescuers finally reached their collapsed tent on June 22, 1884.

When Ralston’s body was exhumed and returned to the United States with the survivors, it was found to be just one of six from which strips of flesh had been removed post-mortem, the implication of cannibalism adding even more fuel to sensational accounts of polar ambition, tragic error, achievement, astronomical tax expense, and especially the riveting behaviour—resourcefulness, heroism, cowardice and survival—of human beings pushed beyond their limits.

A formal studio photograph of the expedition members.

Members of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition—including David Ralston—prior to embarking in 1881. Only seven members of the team were still alive when they were rescued from a small island east of Ellesmere. Image: U.S. Government/ George W. Rice © U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

On February 28, 2014, in the National Herbarium of Canada—a climate-controlled bank of carefully organized metal cabinets protecting Canada’s national “plant library”—botanical specimens collected by David Ralston at Lady Franklin Bay were discovered. The thrilling find was prompted by a seemingly routine request received through the website of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Requests from researchers and the public seeking details relating to specimens that make up the ongoing record of wild plants in Canada are part of the everyday service work of herbarium staff: the name of the scientist who identified a certain sedge; the number of Rosa nutkana samples from British Columbia that might be suitable for DNA extraction; the flowering dates of all the specimens ever collected at Arctic Bay. It’s isn’t every day, however, that one of these requests turns up something like David Ralston.

Collage: A herbarium sheet and an enlarged detail of the specimen.

One of the plants collected during the expedition and recently discovered in our collections: Erigeron uniflorus (one-flowered fleabane; catalogue #CAN 103777. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

The specimens were in plain sight. Most are miniscule single shoots of flowers and grasses attached with narrow white tape to standard 11 × 16 inch herbarium sheets. One flower is so small that it is instead tucked inside an envelope that was glued to the sheet.

Finding 10 of the sheets was made easy by the fact that they had already been databased as part of the daunting, slow task of digitizing a collection that grew to a million specimens before databases even existed. Finding any remaining Ralston specimens will take time—we will not be sure of everything that is in our cabinets until the entire collection has been databased and imaged, years from now.

Two herbarium sheets.

Two of the specimens collected by D.C. Ralston before his fatal ordeal: Potentilla rubricaulis (on left; catalogue #CAN 72661) and Poa abbreviata, or short bluegrass (on right; catalogue #CAN 36426). The story of how the museum came to have them is still being pieced together.

Until the end of last month, the only surviving plant specimens from the Lady Franklin Bay expedition were thought to reside at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, which received over 50 specimens and Ralston’s diary in the 1970s from the sergeant’s descendants. (More information about the Carnegie specimens).

In contrast, the specimens at the National Herbarium of Canada seem to have arrived in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Acquisition records from that time are sparse, but the specimens bear Canadian Geological Survey labels that seem to have been carefully inscribed by Miss Marie Stewart, who was the herbarium assistant to the National collection from 1902 to 1928. We suspect this because someone thought to preserve a sample of her handwriting along with that of a great number of prominent botanists, in a card index designed to help herbarium staff attribute ambiguously inscribed specimens to specific scientists.

An index card with a handwriting sample attached.

Handwriting samples such as this help National Herbarium staff determine who wrote a specimen label.

It is common for herbaria to share duplicate specimens with each other, and entirely plausible for the Canadian National Herbarium to receive a set of specimens collected on Canadian soil by an American expedition. However, the exact source and circumstances of the transfer of these few Ralston plant collections to the Museum of Nature’s precursor remains an enticing mystery for now.

Despite their presence in the collection, the significance of Ralston’s plants simply hadn’t been recognized—at least not within recent memory—among the hundreds of thousands of herbarium sheets that make up a scientific collection that also includes specimens collected by legendary 19th-century Arctic exploration “superstars” such as Edward Parry, Robert Peary, John Rae, James Ross and John Franklin.

With the museum’s specimen database becoming available online this month, the cabinets’ contents become available for browsing to potentially millions of virtual visitors, thereby making more discoveries of this kind possible—and likely.

More information about the expedition:

Posted in Arctic, History, Plants | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Most Prestigious Can of Tomatoes You’ll Ever See: The Canadian Museum of Nature’s R.W. Brock Award

Each year members of our research and collections staff publish dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles, manuscripts and books. These high-calibre publications contribute new knowledge to the fields of botany, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology. This internationally recognized research is one of our core activities at the museum, so we feel it’s important to recognize and encourage such good work. Therefore, every year for over 20 years, we have awarded the R.W. Brock Award to the Canadian Museum of Nature staff member who produces the best scholarly publication.

Reginald Walter Brock.

R.W. Brock, Ph.D., the namesake of the Brock Award, was described as possessing “tremendous energy and driving force” and a “splendid physique”, all qualities that can be ascribed to Dr. Wu, this year’s honouree. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

This award commemorates a quality embodied by its namesake, Dr. Reginald Walter Brock: tireless dedication to the museum’s core mission of advancing scientific knowledge. In addition to a certificate, a small amount of research funding, and the respect of their peers, Brock Award winners also receive a can of tomatoes.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Tomatoes? I’d rather a can of peas!” (Or peaches, or corn, or water chestnuts, anything really). Well, tomatoes have been a tradition around here for over 100 years, harkening back to the museum’s origins within the Geological Survey of Canada, during the days of Dr. Brock himself in the early 1900s. When his team performed exceptionally well in the field, Dr. Brock would award them a can of tomatoes for their hard work, a precious gift at that time. To this day, every Brock Award recipient receives a can of the finest tomatoes for their trouble. I wonder if the winners have any good tomato recipes?

Xiao-chun Wu holds a framed certificate and Tamaki Sato holds a can of tomatoes, in front of a panel-mounted dinosaur skeleton.

Dr. Xiao-chun Wu (on right), a palaeontologist at the museum and this year’s Brock Award recipient, and his co-author Dr. Tamaki Sato, an associate researcher at the museum, proudly display their winnings in our fossil collection. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our latest tomato-winning Brock Award recipient is Dr. Xiao-chun Wu for his work on the paper “A new Eosauropterygian (Diapsida, Sauropterygia) from the Triassic of China”, published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Co-authored with scientists from Taiwan and Japan, Dr. Wu and his colleagues describe both a new genus and a new species of sauropterygian—an immense reptile similar in form to a plesiosaur (think the long-necked swimming marine reptiles you remember from your youth), that flourished over 200 million years ago. This species, Qianxisaurus chajiangensis, is particularly important because it adds information to international work on Sauropterygia, and could help answer questions about how diverse lineages of these large marine reptiles evolved in what are now China and Europe.

An illustration of Qianxisaurus chajiangensis, swimming.

Qianxisaurus chajiangensis, as illustrated by prolific palaeontology illustrator Nobu Tamura. Image: Nobu Tamura © Nobu Tamura

Dr. Wu joined the museum after a postdoc at the University of Calgary, and for the last 15 years has split his time between China and Canada researching the prehistoric marine reptiles that plied our ancient seas. When he’s not hard at work on manuscripts in his office, out scouring through the fossils in our collections, Dr. Wu can be found successfully defending his title as the reigning Ping-Pong champion here at the museum.

We are proud to announce Dr. Wu as the current winner of the Brock Award, and would like to extend our appreciation to his co-authors for their hard work on this valuable publication.

Now, with next year’s Brock Award still undecided, I’ve got to get back to research ;).

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How Do Frogs Survive the Winter (When It Feels Like We Humans Hardly Can)?

Wind chill, polar vortex… brrrr… it’s been a frigid few months. Regions throughout Canada have experienced one of the coldest winters in decades.

Most of us are fortunate to have warm shelter and proper winter clothing to protect us from the elements. But how do animals survive harsh temperatures?

At the Canadian Museum of Nature, we have a live-animal exhibition currently on view called Frogs – A Chorus of Colours. I spoke with Elisa Caballero—a frog-keeper from Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland, the zoo that produced the show—to learn how frogs cope with extreme seasons and conditions.

Two American bullfrogs.

American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus).

Frogs are very interesting creatures in many ways, especially in their adaptations. Different species have special tactics for surviving the deep freeze. Aquatic frogs, such as the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus, which you can see in this exhibition), hibernate in water during the winter. They descend to oxygen-rich water and their metabolism slows down. The northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens—we have some temporarily residing in our RBC Blue Water Gallery) also hibernates this way.

The American toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) has thick, dry skin and can burrow deep-enough below the frost line for the winter, where it hibernates.

Three northern leopard frogs in a terrarium.

Northern leopard frogs (Lithobates pipiens).

Other species such as the wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) and the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) must rely upon their “antifreeze” capabilities. They actually freeze—ice crystals form in fluid compartments such as the bladder. As long as not more than 65% of the frog freezes, it can survive. It does so by manufacturing high concentrations of glucose (sugar) or sugar alcohols in its cells. The thick, syrup-like solution props up the cells so they don’t get damaged. Their heart and lungs stop functioning, but resume their action when the frog thaws upon the return of warm temperatures. These frogs hibernate in places such as leaf litter or in cracks in logs.

Most of the species in Frogs – A Chorus of Colours are tropical, so they don’t have to worry about freezing during part of the year. But hot conditions in the desert or on the savannah can also pose problems. The African bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus; be sure to check him out in the exhibition—he’s a big guy!) relies on a cool process called estivation.

An African bullfrog in a terrarium.

African bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus).

Basically, estivation involves burrowing a few feet into the ground and remaining there during the excessive heat or drought. The frog’s breathing and metabolism slow down and its body temperature drops. Conserving energy this way means that the frog can go prolonged periods of time without food (similar to hibernation). He also grows a few extra layers of mucusy skin before estivating to prevent water loss.

Visit Frogs – A Chorus of Colours (on until May 11) to learn more about the different frog species and their cool adaptations. If you see Elisa working around the displays, taking care of the frogs and cleaning their habitats, be sure to say hello and tell her you were reading about frog hibernation and estivation.

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Hybridization in the Living World

Human beings have a need to categorize the living world in order to define and delineate it within their own environment. This classification activity makes up the field of taxonomy. Species can be defined according to various concepts. According to the biological concept of a species, which prevails among evolutionary biologists, species are genetically isolated from each other and are not capable of crossbreeding. There are indeed various natural reproductive barriers that prevent the exchange of genes between species.

When hybridization occurs, however, there is crossbreeding between two distinct species, producing hybrid individuals with a mix of features that are characteristic of either parent entity. Does hybridization invalidate the concept of a biological species? Would it otherwise have to be an extremely rare occurrence?

This was the subject of an evening talk I gave before a live audience in the series NatureTalks. The evening was hosted by Fabienne L’Abbé.

Staunch defenders of the biological-species concept, particularly zoologists, consider hybridization as a defect or glitch in the mechanisms that isolate species for the purposes of reproduction.

In fact, hybridization is a natural process. Genetic analyses show that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have been crossbreeding with grizzlies (Ursus arctos) for 120 000 years. Similar cases can be found in the animal world.

Three skulls of various sizes lying side by side.

During the Wisconsin Ice Age, the coyote (Canis latrans; small skull in the image) and the wolf (Canis lupus; big skull) were pushed back towards the southern glacierless regions of North America. The geographical and ecological barriers that had maintained the two species separate from each other were abolished; the two species started crossbreeding almost 11 000 years ago. A very vigorous hybrid of intermediate size developed: the north-eastern coyote (middle skull). Since then, it continues to spread towards the north-eastern parts of the continent. It is generally agreed that this is a coyote subspecies (Canis latrans thamnos). However, some argue the contrary, that this is a new species. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the animal kingdom, the average rate of hybridization is around 10%. In fact, some taxonomic groups have much higher averages. Seventy-six percent of duck species practice crossbreeding. In the Phasianidae family, which includes turkeys, partridges, pheasants and chickens, the hybridization rate is just as high, if not higher. The numbers for butterflies range between 6% and 35%, depending on the genus.

On an individual basis, however, hybridization appears to be a much rarer phenomenon. When hunting of fin whales was permitted, 0.1% to 0.2% of individuals captured were hybrids produced by crossbreeding with blue whales. The hybridization rate on an individual basis typically ranges from 0.01% to 0.1%.

A DNA sequencer beside a laptop computer.

Hybrids can be identified using morphological features. Molecular-biology techniques are probably a better tool, but they often have their limits. Here, a DNA sequencer at the Canadian Museum of Nature is being used for genetic testing to confirm a hybrid species of a Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and a bobcat (Lynx rufus). Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Even though hybridization is natural, human beings are often responsible for breaking down reproductive barriers, thus creating conditions conducive to hybridization. This phenomenon has completely changed the natural distribution range for 65% of the 822 species of North American fish, leading to a significant increase in crossbreeding between native and non-native species.

A taxidermic specimen of a Northern Bobwhite.

The Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) was once abundant in much of Ontario. When individuals from American populations, possibly from different subspecies, were wilfully introduced in the province, the Ontario population began to suffer from the adverse effects of hybridization. It is now classified as endangered. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of course, natural hybridization can be beneficial both for the species and biodiversity. It encourages the creation of new species; it also makes hybrid individuals more robust. But it can also have deleterious effects.

Hybrid individuals are often unviable and sterile and have a poor ability to survive in natural conditions as a result of hybridization. Gametes and energy are squandered in this delicate effort to reproduce, especially when it comes to endangered species, possibly leading to extinction in some cases.

Hybridization has greatly contributed to the decline of 38% of North American fish that have recently become extinct. The large-scale decline of Golden-winged Warblers may be partly due to its crossbreeding with the Blue-winged Warbler, which is growing in numbers. Do we need to feel concerned about this? This probably requires a case-by-case approach. In any case, we need to completely re-examine our relationship to the natural world.

What do you think?
Fill out our online survey to give greater depth to your thoughts on hybridization.

Check out the comments from some of the people who participated in the informal discussion on this topic, at our NatureTalks evening event.

Upcoming NatureTalks:
Plant Intelligence: Rethinking Thinking—March 18, 2014
Parasites: Rethinking Healthy—April 16, 2014

Translated from French.

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What’s in a Colour? On the Trail of Zircons in Cambodia

In early February, I embarked on a second trip to the zircon deposits of Cambodia, this time with a colleague from Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Our goal this year was to visit a little-known locality 80 km north of Tbeang Meanchey, in Preah Vihear province, and then return to Ban Lung in Ratanakiri province. We would collect zircons and accessory minerals found with them for research, and buy cut gemstones for our respective national mineral collections.

Paula Piilonen and man examine zircons while sitting at table.

Votha Un and Paula Piilonen examining rough and faceted Tram Poung zircons. Dermot Henry © Canadian Museum of Nature

Tram Poung, our first stop, is a new locality for me. It is located in the far northern province of Preah Vihear, 50 km from the Thai-Cambodian border and the hotly-disputed Prasat Preah Vihear, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. This temple was built during the Khmer empire, along with Angkor Wat, between the 9th and 11th centuries.

Mining in this region happens only during the wet season, when there is enough water to be able to spray the weakly-consolidated outcrops with high-pressure water from a hose. This dislodges the precious zircon crystals.

Assorted zircons displayed on a table.

Rough and faceted zircons from Tram Poung, Cambodia. The brown-red zircons are natural, but the colourless faceted stones are the result of heat-treating in an open flame. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Where the zircons in this region originated is up for debate—in Ban Lung, it is obvious that the crystals, which started life deep in the Earth’s mantle, were brought up by alkaline basalts which covered the area about one million years ago. Like diamonds in kimberlite, the zircons are not formed in the basalt, but simply hitch a ride, getting trapped in the basalt as it makes its way to the surface.

In Tram Poung; however, there are no basalts in the area—the nearest are located 100 km to the south, or possibly across the border in Thailand or neighbouring Laos. The zircons are found in gravels which are weakly consolidated (turned into solid rock) along with a host of other minerals and rock fragments.

A gem cutter holds a stick holding a zircon as he sits at table with cutting device.

Mr. Leko, a gem cutter and dealer, does the first cuts on a zircon on a dope stick. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

So, where did they originally come from? This is one of the questions I will try to answer in the coming months after I return to my lab at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus. The second question is whether or not these Tram Poung zircons came from the same part of the mantle than those in Ratanakiri province. Are they the same age? Same chemistry? Understanding the chemical characteristics of these zircons can tell us a great deal about the mantle deep below the surface.

Unlike Ratanakiri zircons, which are heat-treated to turn them a brilliant blue colour much sought after by both collectors and gemmologists, Tram Poung zircons are left in their natural state—colours range from orange-red to red-brown to orange-brown and all shades in between. As a mineralogist, I am a bit of a purist when it comes to cut gemstones—I would prefer that no mineral is treated to enhance its colour —so these stones appeal to me.

Man sitting outdoors in red chair polishes a zircon using a polishing stone.

Mr. Leko’s assistant puts the final polish on faceted zircons. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The gem dealers in town tell me that when they try to heat treat these zircons, they turn colourless or slightly yellow, not blue. One dealer, Mr. Poung, demonstrated this by placing a brown-red cut zircon into the flame of a gas burner for one minute—after removing it, the stone was completely colourless and transparent …no colour left at all!

When Ratanakiri zircons turn blue, it is because the small concentration of uranium within the atomic structure undergoes a change in charge. What causes a brown-red Tram Poung zircon to turn colourless in a flame? That’s another question to be answered. The great thing about scientific research is that there are always more questions than answers.

We left Tram Poung having bartered for a selection of rough material for research, and a couple of cut stones for our gem collection. All the stones are cut and polished by hand, by the local gem dealers and their assistants. It is rare to be able to buy a stone for which you know the exact locality from which it was mined, the miner who collected the rough zircon, and the cutter who faceted the final gem stone. In this case, it is all the same person. Having this information adds value to the stone when it is catalogued and placed into the collection.

Closeup shows hands around a tray of zircons sitting on top of a glass case.

Dermot Henry from Victoria Museum in Melbourne examines faceted zircons from Tram Puong. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After our wheeling and dealing to acquire rough and cut zircons, we got back in our van and prepared for the long drive back—through Tbeang Meanchey and then 400 km east, across the Mekhong River to Ban Lung in Ratanakiri province where more zircon adventures awaited!

Posted in Collections, Fieldwork, Research, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

X-Ray Insights into the Atomic World of Minerals

This year, 2014, celebrates ‘the 100th anniversary of X-ray crystallography, a technique that I regularly use in my research on the structure of minerals. The centennial marks the first determination, in 1914, of an atomic structure. William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence solved the crystal structure of a very common mineral, halite, which is sodium chloride. They were the first to derive the law of physics that governs the relationship between X-ray diffraction and the arrangement of atoms in a crystal—now known as Bragg’s Law.

Assistant Ralph Rowe prepares a sample for analysis using the museum’s X-ray diffractometer.

Research assistant Ralph Rowe prepares a sample for analysis using the museum’s X-ray diffractometer. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

During the 38 years I have worked at the Canadian Museum of Nature, I have solved over 100 crystal structures and described about 100 new minerals. Much of the work done in the museum’s X-ray lab is for routine mineral identification.

A crystal of a yellow mineral on the head of a pin.

This yellow crystal of leucophanite, half a centimetre in size, grew on a spear of aegerine. I was the first to solve the structure of leucophainte and discover its hidden secret of crystal formation. Image: Michel Bainbridge © Canadian Museum of Nature

Minerals are notoriously difficult to identify as many can have very similar physical properties, yet their ‘invisible’ properties, such as chemical composition and atomic structure, are vastly different. Knowing exactly what mineral you have is essential to the mining industry and to geological interpretation.

I have used analyses of crystal structure in a number of ways. They have helped describe new mineral species, such as moydite, named after Lou Moyd, the museum’s first curator of minerals. Moydite was investigated by other researchers as a possible containment material for radioactive cesium, a dangerous by-product from nuclear-power generation. More recently, I have also been investigating structure changes in minerals such as veatchite and hilgardite to help interpret the geological conditions in salt formations such as the potash deposit in Sussex, New Brunswick.

Image from a scanning electron microscope shows layered crystals of nisnite.

Image from a scanning electron microscope shows crystals of nisnite from the Jeffrey Mine in Quebec, viewed. Nisnite is a new mineral recently described by museum staff using X-ray crystallography.
Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Now, the word X-ray is most familiar to people in terms of medical and dental uses, radiography, and airport security imaging. These X-rays have a much shorter wavelength and higher energy than those used in crystallography; hence, their ability to pass through materials such as human tissue or suitcases to a detector that displays the transmitted image.

Drawing shows the crystal structure of nisnite, a rare metal alloy of nickel and tin.

Drawing of the crystal structure of nisnite, a rare metal alloy of nickel and tin.
Image: Joel Grice © Canadian Museum of Nature

For crystal-structure determination it is necessary to choose an X-ray wavelength comparable in size to that of an atom. Shooting X-rays into a crystal creates the phenomenon of diffraction off planes of atoms. This is known as ‘Bragg diffraction or reflection’. The resulting image appears as a set of dots or reflection peaks.

Image of an X-ray diffraction pattern, with dots in a large circle.

X-ray diffraction pattern of a single crystal of synthetic calciotantite.
Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

The intensity of a peak is proportional to the total number of electrons associated with atoms in a plane. As an example, planes of atoms that contain lead, which have a lot of electrons, diffract an intense peak while planes composed of atoms of oxygen, with much fewer electrons, produce a much less intense peak.

It was mineralogists who established early developments in X-ray crystallography, since they had access to crystals grown in nature. Today the vast majority of crystallographers are in the field of inorganic chemistry studying proteins, DNA and drugs. To conduct their structure-determination experiments they must first grow a crystal. Crystal growth is as much a science as it is an art but without a crystal no X-ray diffraction is possible. A single molecule does not diffract X-rays. Once the crystal is produced the important work to determine the crystal structure begins—and it all started 100 years ago with the determination and insight of the Braggs.

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Roses Are Red, Entodon seductrix Is Green, I Really, Really Like You, If You Know What I Mean

This might be a controversial statement, but really, roses are out. I mean, they’re beautiful to the eye and smell lovely, but after decades, surely we can be a bit more creative when it comes to expressing our undying love to one another. Therefore, we asked the members of our botany team to each nominate a species to succeed the venerable Rosa sp. as the plant world’s ultimate emblem of romance.

Collage: Jennifer Doubt and a close-up of seductive entodon moss.

Herbarium curator Jennifer Doubt (inset) sees lots to love in the seductive entodon moss (Entodon seductrix). Image of plant: Dr. Joseph R. Rohrer © Dr. Joseph R. Rohrer; inset: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Curator of the National Herbarium of Canada and lover of all things mossy, Jennifer Doubt thinks that the seductive entodon moss fit the bill perfectly:

Entodon seductrix could be nominated on the basis of its name alone, but with its shiny allure, no-one can argue that the name isn’t perfect for this living, botanical bling. Unlike the rose, it lives on when winter comes—what better way to express your undying love? ☺

Collage: Jeff Saarela and grass growing in its habitat.

Jeff Saarela (inset) admits he gets warm and fuzzy feelings over the lovegrass genus Eragrostis. Image of plant: Matt Lavin (CC BY-SA 2.0). Inset: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Research scientist Jeff Saarela is as committed as anyone can get to studying grasses, so his nominee for most romantic plant does not surprise me at all:

There is much to love about grasses (wheat, corn and rice feed the world, for example), but they probably aren’t the first plant group most people think of around Valentine’s Day. But one group does conjure up those warm and fuzzy feelings every time you say its name. Eragrostis is a large genus of grasses—the lovegrasses–with some 350 species occurring in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions of the planet. The origin of the name Eragrostis, first described in 1776, is thought to be from the Greek eros (“love”) and agrostis (“a grass”), hence the common name lovegrass.

There are nine lovegrass species in Canada. Six of these are native in at least part of their Canadian ranges, and three are introduced. The most widespread species in Canada is the introduced Eragrostis cilianensis (stinkgrass or strong-scented lovegrass), often found along roadsides and in other disturbed habits. Eragrostis species are “warm-season grasses”—they have a photosynthetic pathway called C4 photosynthesis adapted to warm and dry environments. Consequently, C4 grasses in Canada, including Eragrostis, generally appear in mid- to late summer. This is a bit late for Valentine’s Day, but if you are a grass known as a lovegrass, how much more romantic can you get?”

Collage: Lynn Gillespie and a hot lips plant.

Lynn Gillespie (inset) thinks the bright red lips of hot lips (Psychotria poeppigiana) make it the perfect romantic emblem. Pucker up! Image of plant: Franz Xaver © Franz Xaver (Creative Commons 3.0 license); inset: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., one of our research scientists with a strong interest in tropical plants, nominated the hot lips bush (Psychotria poeppigiana) from South America. When I asked her why, she simply showed me a photo of the bush in response. I agree completely: the romantic appearance of the flowers is completely self-explanatory. On a side note, this plant is in the Rubiaceae—the coffee family. Since I hold coffee so dear to my heart, I’m happy to second Lynn’s nomination ☺.

Collage: Paul Hamilton and a single algal cell.

Paul Hamilton’s nominee, Micrasterias thomasiana, was first discovered in 1862 and is approximately ¼ of a millimetre long (yes, with a magnifying lens you can see them). An indicator of clean water, this species can be found around the world, across Canada and even in the Arctic. Image of plant: Yuuji Tsukii © Yuuji Tsukii, Hosei University, Japan; inset: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Biologist Paul Hamilton studies freshwater diatoms, microbial photosynthetic plankton that can be found the world over. Unsurprisingly, his nomination is the smallest species on this list:

The desmids, like Micrasterias thomasiana, represent a group of single-cell algae that illustrate the perfection of symmetry and togetherness. Even researchers in the field of algae refer to these as the largest and most beautiful of the desmid algae. These spectacular life forms show the complete union of two parts (semicells) that together illustrate harmony and symmetry.

These highly unique cells have been recognized since the mid-1800s, and anyone with a microscope and a drop of pond water can find them. Note the union of the two semicells at the centre where the nucleus is located and the projecting “fingers” on either side that complete the symmetry.

Even the chloroplast shows the harmony between the two semicells. Only the pyrenoids (circular globules for food storage) show differences between the semicells. A complete reflection of shape and form from one half to the other is symbolic of the togetherness we show on Valentine’s Day. Just by looking at the incredible symmetry, we can feel the complexity and yet togetherness of life. Will you be my Valentine?

Collage: Paul Sokoloff and a milkweed plant with two beetles.

See, even the red milkweed beetles are feeling romantic (two hugging Tetraopes tetropthalmus). Their food source, the milkweed in the background, is my nomination for most romantic plant. Image of plant with beetle: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature; inset: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Me, I’m happy to nominate the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) as the most romantic plant. Why would anyone see love in this common roadside weed, you might ask? The answer isn’t so much how it looks, but what it represents to the insects that use it for food and shelter. Particularly, the red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophalmus), has co-evolved along with the milkweed genus, both plant and insect lineages evolving in parallel, with adaptations in one triggering changes in another.

They are so tightly knit by evolutionary forces that the red milkweed beetle is completely reliant on milkweed for food and predator defence (its red carapace is a warning signal to predators that it stores toxins from the milkweed itself in its body—”eat me at your own peril”). To me, the story of two organisms, chasing each other through deep evolutionary time, changing and adapting for their partner, and existing now as intertwined beings, is an epically romantic tale for the ages.

Many thanks to Jennifer Doubt, Jeff Saarela, Lynn Gillespie and Paul Hamilton for being good sports and co-authoring this blog post.

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Creating Light in the Lantern

A few weeks ago, during the museum cleaning “blitz”, our beloved inflatable whale, Logan, was taken down from the Queens’ Lantern. Working at the front desk, I received so many questions daily from museum members and visitors. Where did the whale go? When will he be put back up? Is there going to be something replacing the whale?

I learned very quickly that everyone liked seeing something suspended in the glass enclosure. Luckily, I had the answers! The Queens’ Lantern was getting a new tenant—an enormous inflatable jellyfish!

Overhead view of the deflated mascot on the floor.

Image: Guy Romain © Canadian Museum of Nature

On Monday, February 3, the day finally arrived— jellyfish installation day! I knew I wanted to be a part of it somehow so I started taking photos of the installation process and posted them on Twitter.

A person and the deflated mascot hang near the ceiling.

Installing the jellyfish on the ceiling of the Lantern. Image: Martin Leclerc © Canadian Museum of Nature

I watched as it was hoisted up and hauled across the top of the Lantern, inflated and then secured into place.

A person and the deflated mascot hang near the ceiling.

Installing the jellyfish on the ceiling of the Lantern. Image: Guy Romain © Musée canadien de la nature

In an advantageous twist of fate, I even got to help the installers with the ropes used to pull the jellyfish into place. Thankfully, that’s all I had to do. I certainly did not envy the installer who had to dangle from the ceiling in order to secure the jellyfish.

A person and the inflated mascot hang near the ceiling.

Installing the jellyfish on the ceiling of the Lantern. Image: Martin Leclerc © Canadian Museum of Nature

The inflated mascot viewed from directly underneath.

View of jellyfish inflatable from below. Image: Guy Romain © Canadian Museum of Nature

In case you were wondering, it was made to resemble a species of jellyfish called Pelagia noctiluca, or a mauve stinger. I’ve heard someone say it looks like an alien, especially when it lights up at night. Someone else said it reminded them of a monster from an H.P. Lovecraft novel. Others say it looks like an octopus. A little boy asked me if it was a spider. Most people, though, recognize it right away as a jellyfish. Everyone agrees that it is super cool!

The colourfully lit mascot seen through the windows of the museum's tower at night.

Night view of suspended jellyfish inflatable. Image: C.W. Clark © C.W. Clark

Why a jellyfish? Jellyfish are colourful and there are many varieties. Jellyfish have crazy anatomy; they don’t have brains or hearts. Some jellyfish are dangerous; they have venomous tentacles that can even kill a person. And some jellyfish glow in the dark!

The mascot seen through the windows of the museum's tower.

Daytime exterior view of inflatable jellyfish suspended in the Lantern. Image: Guy Romain © Canadian Museum of Nature

On May 3, the museum will open a special exhibition called Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence. The exhibition is about the plants and animals that, like certain jellyfish, produce their own light. I am certainly looking forward to discovering not only how they create light, but why they do it.

See you soon!

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Amateur Collectors: The Original Crowdsourced Science

Professionally, I’m a collector. In my work as a research assistant, I work with our team of scientists, curators and technicians to describe the plant biodiversity of Canada. This all begins in the field, where piles of moss-filled paper bags and towering stacks of pressed plants signal the end of a hard day’s work. Eventually, these all find their way back to the beating heart of our institution: a collection of 10 million specimens (and counting) that document minerals, plants, animals and fossils from across the globe.

Arthur C. Waghorne.

This photo of Reverend Arthur Waghorne was published in 1900, the year of his death. Image: The Tribune Christmas Number, vol. 7 (1900): p. 5. St. John’s, Newfoundland: P.R. Bowers.

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always been doing this, hoarding rocks, coins and many other obsessions well throughout my youth. While this is now my vocation, many amateur collectors and citizen scientists have throughout the years passionately built their own collections, driven for their love of the natural world, and often amassing thousands of specimens in their free time! We are incredibly grateful that these collectors often choose to donate these collections to us, where they add immeasurable value to the national collection. Two stories (out of hundreds) spring to mind for me.

Firstly, without the collections of Reverend Arthur C. Waghorne, some of my personal research projects would not be possible. Recently Dr. Guy Brassard, botanist and historian, dropped by our research and collections facility to present his research into the life and botanical contributions of Waghorne—an Anglican minister in Newfoundland during the last years of the 1800s. Waghorne devoted the last decades of his life to collecting and documenting the plants, lichens and mosses of Newfoundland and Labrador, in addition to his full-time job caring for his congregation!

Though he didn’t possess scientific training, Waghorne’s sharp observational skills, keen mind and energetic demeanour made him the most prolific collector in Newfoundland at that time. His brazen solicitation of pretty much every major botanist on the planet no doubt helped him too—he sought out identifications from international experts, and even took out newspaper ads to find people willing to identify his plants.

A herbarium sheet of two specimens.

One of the many botanical specimens collected by Arthur Waghorne that can be found in the National Herbarium of Canada. This beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus) is likely one of the first records for the species from Labrador. For many parts of the province, Waghorne was the first collector. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Such was his knowledge that he had began to write the first Flora of Newfoundland and Labrador, left unfinished when he passed away at the relatively young age of 50. Even so, thanks to his network of exchanges and communications with botanists from around the globe, his legacy lives on in thousands of collections in dozens of herbaria, including ours, the museum’s own National Herbarium of Canada.

Two other amateur naturalists who have contributed much to our field are the husband-and-wife team of William and Eileene Stewart. William, born in 1923 in St. Thomas, Elgin County, Ontario, possessed a lifelong love of the natural world that motivated him to collect and study the entire flora of his home county on evenings and weekends with his wife at his side! By day, he was an instrument technician for the Astronomy Department at the University of Western Ontario, but off the clock, both William and Eileene could often be found collecting specimens, photographing flowers and writing manuscripts.

Thirteen booklets arranged on a table.

William Stewart’s publications run the gamut of biodiversity in Elgin County, Ontario, covering everything from mosses to vascular plants to dragonflies. Poignantly, he even wrote biographies on other amateur collectors. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Thanks to their efforts, no other county in Ontario has such a fine-scale accounting of its biodiversity, and their collections at Western’s herbarium are still used today.

Watch an interview with William Stewart in 1978 about his botanical work in Elgin County.

I am very grateful for the background information that Guy Brassard and Jennifer Doubt provided for this article.

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

Deliberating De-extinction

It’s been a long time coming, but my NatureTalks: De-extinction event is finally over. And what an evening it was! It began with an engaging conversation with science journalist Ivan Semeniuk of The Globe and Mail regarding the prospect of bringing extinct species back to life. As you can see in the video (below) we spoke about various aspects of de-extinction: possible candidates, the methods involved, and the pros and cons of doing it.

We were restricted to speaking for only 20 minutes (limitations imposed by video playback on the web), so we were able to only briefly touch upon these important subjects. There were also many interesting questions that we didn’t get to cover, but which inevitably came up during our audience discussion afterwards. I thought I would share a few of these with our readers, with the intention of further promoting the dialogue.

Are resurrected individuals truly the same as those that went extinct?

In all this talk of “de-extincting” species, there is often little mention of the fact that the end result (say, a newborn Pyrenean ibex) isn’t 100% authentic. What I mean by this is that de-extinction procedures, such as somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning), fail to replicate the entirety of the lost genome.

Rather, the reliance upon surrogates to carry the developing embryo to term means that a small percentage of the newborn’s genetic makeup will come from the surrogate mother in the form of mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited maternally). Moreover, the resurrected newborn isn’t likely to exhibit all the same learned behaviours as its extinct ancestors because it has no example to follow. Can we therefore say that we have truly resurrected an extinct species? Are we comfortable with this kind of hybridization?

Are de-extinction efforts viable in the long term?

A Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), mounted in a portable display case.

A Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), mounted in a portable display case.

Congratulations! After hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and years of painstaking research, you’ve managed to clone an extinct woolly mammoth. Now what? If you were hoping to reintroduce the species to the wild, you’re going to need a lot more than a single individual to make such a project sustainable. A mating pair would be a start, but even then, the long-term outlook seems bleak because the predictable inbreeding between siblings would quickly reduce the fitness of the species.

In fact, you will likely need to resurrect tens or hundreds of individuals to get the genetic variability necessary to maintain a healthy population. This is especially true of such de-extinction candidates as the highly social passenger pigeon, which only initiates breeding when present in high numbers. You might want to apply for more money…

Isn’t extinction normal?

If there’s one thing that the fossil record has taught us, it’s that species come and go all the time. In fact, some 99.99% of all species that ever existed have gone extinct. Put another way: extinction is the norm. Therefore, at what point—if any—should we intervene?

Skull of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

A woolly mammoth skull in the museum’s collections (collection #CMN 766). Could these animals once again roam the Canadian Arctic? Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

De-extinction advocates would argue that we should focus on bringing back only those species that we have caused to go extinct. But why? Are we not also a part of the natural order of things? Moreover, how culpable must we be before getting involved?

Extinction is a complicated thing, and there are likely many factors involved in the extinction of any one species. If climate change led to the decline of woolly mammoth numbers, and we killed off only the few remaining populations, is the onus entirely on us to bring them back?

The issue of de-extinction can be a divisive one, and I don’t think the answers to many of these questions are simple. People have asked me for my take on the matter, but I’m far from decided. I tend to think we have more important things to worry about (such as species conservation) before we start to re-introduce previously extinct animals to the wild, yet I find the argument about re-establishing biodiversity in otherwise desolate ecosystems to be appealing.

Two men sit and talk in front of an audience in the Mammal Gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

In the big red chairs: Ivan Semeniuk (right) and I (left) discuss the finer points of de-extinction at NatureTalks. Image: Cynthia Iburg © Canadian Museum of Nature

I hope you’ll have fun engaging these questions in the comments section below, or by voting on our online polls. For the reactions of some audience members at the event, watch the video below. In the meantime, I’m going back to studying non-avian dinosaurs, which we have no chance of resurrecting.

Up next for NatureTalks:
Species Hybridization: Rethinking Extinction—February 19
Plant Intelligence: Rethinking Thinking—March 18
Parasites: Rethinking Healthy—April 16

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