The Month of Arctic Onions and Western Birch: Arctic Botany 2014

Our botany team returns from a four-week expedition along the Coppermine River in Nunavut. Links to Paul’s previous articles about the Arctic expedition appear at the end of this article.

The long-haul and milk-run flights that dominate return voyages from Arctic adventure provide a lot of time to reflect on the past month spent collecting plants along the Coppermine River. So here I am, blogging at cruising altitude (OK, I’ll admit it: I finished the books I brought with me and am itching for something to do).

A lichen specimen on a rock.

Lichens such as this tumbleweed-like Masonhalea richardsonii made up a large part of our haul this year. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

By the numbers, our expedition from the treeline to the Arctic coast was a resounding success: we collected nearly 1400 vascular plant, moss, lichen and algae specimens—new records for each of the four divisions of the National Herbarium of Canada. Fun for the whole photosynthetic family!

We were particularly struck with a bit of moss and lichen madness. While we always collect a few of these minuscule organisms each trip, this year we were hauling them in by the bag-load in an effort to better learn about these important components of all Arctic ecosystems.

Lush mosses growing near rock.

Mosses (Bryum sp. and Myurella julacea) growing under an overhang in Bloody Falls Territorial Park. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over the next few months, we will also examine the vascular-plant specimens closely, comparing them with the literature back at the lab and the specimens already in the museum’s collections to determine and confirm their identity. That said, many times over the past month, there were many “wow” moments, times when we came across a plant and knew that this species was significant.

Hairy butterwort growing among other plants near the river.

Easily missed, the miniscule hairy butterwort (Pinguicula villosa) is one of many range extensions we added to the flora of Nunavut. Previously, these plant species were known only from further south along the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories. Our collections on this trip indicate that the species extends well into the Arctic tundra in western Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The two most interesting discoveries for us were the chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and western birch (Betula occidentalis)—boreal species common below the treeline—that we found growing on the tundra along the northern Coppermine.

View of the river with chives (Allium schoenoprasum) in the foreground.

We still have to check the scientific literature, but it looks likely that these chives comprise the first wild onion reported for Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

A leafy branch of western birch (Betula occidentalis).

The known range of western birch has been extended north from Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories to western Nunavut, thanks to our finds along the Coppermine River. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

These finds represent significant range extensions for both species; our collections now push further north the boundary limit of all known specimens of these plants, and firmly place them within the scope of the Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska project.

Other boreal range extensions, such as twinflower (Linnaea borealis) and hairy butterwort (Pinguicula villosa), confirm our initial suspicions that the Coppermine River valley, and its transition from trees to tundra, would harbour a biodiversity rarely seen in the low Arctic.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) in bloom.

We found twinflower growing along a few south-facing cliffs well into the Arctic portion of the Coppermine River valley. These cliffs are the first to thaw in the spring, and receive more direct sunlight than any other part of the Arctic. This warmer microclimate hosts many species that are otherwise unable to live on the tundra. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of course, some of our most interesting collections are from the hardy white spruce trees. From sizable interconnected groves to lone sentinels steadfastly enduring north of the treeline, Picea glauca dominates the landscape to the south of Bloody Falls Territorial Park.

A few white spruce (Picea glauca) with tents in the background.

White spruce trees growing in our camp near the Coppermine River. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

You may recall from my first article about this trip that we (naively) hoped to collect samples from the trees featured in photographs from the Canadian Arctic Expedition’s camp along the river 100 years ago.

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. Image: Fritz Johansen © Canadian Museum of History

As you can see from this photograph of Sandstone Rapids along the Coppermine River, if we had decided to find those exact trees using only the historical photo for reference, we’d still be there.

The Sandstone Rapids of the Coppermine River.

Sandstone Rapids, a well-known section of the Coppermine River, is a challenge relished by the many paddlers who shoot the river each year. It also nicely illustrates the transition between trees and tundra common to this stretch of the sub-Arctic. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Previous Instalments

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Connecting Youth to Nature

Logo: Canadian Committee for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Last January, I had the pleasure to listen to young people from across Canada sharing their ideas on what it means for youth to connect to nature. They were gathered at the Canadian Museum of Nature to participate in the Canadian Committee for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (CC IUCN) Annual General Meeting.

They talked about obstacles such as youth apathy and lifestyle. For example, North American youth spend 90% of their time indoors, and seven hours a day, on average, in front of a screen. (Source: Connecting Canadians with Nature).

But more importantly, the youth delegates to the meeting also talked about wonderful examples of their experience of engaging youth with nature. Examples ranged from simple actions such as planting trees, to more formal programs such as

Participants at the meeting were also tasked with brainstorming ideas on what the CC IUCN can do to advance a youth and nature agenda in Canada. Fast-forward to August, and one of those recommendations is now coming to fruition.

A group photo in our fossil gallery.

Participants in the workshop Engaging Canadians: Inspiring the New Generation. It was held during the CC IUCN Annual General Meeting in January 2014 at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Ian Davidson © Nature Canada

Youth Ambassadors Wanted
Through the leadership of CC IUCN board members Elyse Curley and Shailyn Drukis, the CC IUCN is seeking two volunteers (19–29 years old) to become Youth Ambassadors.

A group photo in our fossil gallery.

Image: Ian Davidson © Nature Canada

Successful applicants will receive $2500 in funding towards attending the IUCN World Parks Congress that will be held November 12–19, 2014, in Sydney, Australia.

A kangaroo hops through a landscape.

Flinders Ranges National Park, Australia. Image: Kathleen Conlan © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Youth Ambassadors will also work with the CC IUCN over the coming year on initiatives to connect youth to nature before, during and after the IUCN World Parks Congress.

For more information on the Youth Ambassador role and to apply:

About the IUCN
The International Union for Conservation of Nature is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. Its vision is a just world that values and conserves nature. Its mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

About the CC IUCN
Canada’s national committee, the Canadian Committee for IUCN was formed as a not-for-profit corporation in 1992. The Canadian Museum of Nature was one of the original members of the CC IUCN and has hosted the CC IUCN Secretariat from its inception.

The objectives of the CC IUCN are to provide a focus for its members to support IUCN by

  • promoting the mission, objectives and program of IUCN in Canada and internationally
  • stimulating and fostering the conservation of nature and natural resources and their sustainable utilization in Canada and internationally
  • mobilizing scientific and other advice and experience in the service of conservation in Canada and internationally.
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The Alphabet Soup of the Science World

We marvel at the wonders of life on Earth, and we worry about its living creatures and plants. In 1993 our global cooperative, the United Nations, obtained a promise from 194 nations (that’s everyone except Andorra, the Holy See and the United States), to work together to decrease the loss of the species we live with.

The Parties to the resulting Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have put significant resources into this global effort to plan for conservation, create ways to follow progress, raise awareness about this good work, and to find any roadblocks.

An amphitheatre with a few people sitting at a conference.

The plenary hall at the 15th meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Technology and Technological Advice. November 2011. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

There is much to be proud of in seeing this kind of collaborative effort, and there is great frustration in noticing what still needs to be done. It isn’t surprising that our greatest obstacle is us, as a result of our great ability to reproduce, be innovative and thrive.

The United Nations biodiversity convention gets regular advice from a scientific body, and once you dip into that world it becomes apparent that the milieu of the UN is like swimming in a bowl of alphabet soup. For starters, the meeting rooms are awash in six official languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, French and Chinese). Also, every initiative, plan, working group, document, and procedure has a full name that once created is forevermore known by its acronym.

Most people are thankful for the acronym because the full names are beautifully descriptive, all inclusive and usually cumbersome and long-winded. For example, if you are going to the science advisory meeting of the convention, you are attending the UNEP CBD SBSTTA meetings—the United Nations Environmental Program’s Convention on Biological Diversity’s Subsidiary Body for Science, Technology and Technological Advice.

Early morning dew on a field of grass.

Early morning dew on a field of grass. Image: Mark Graham © Mark Graham.

The CBD organizes itself around numerous themes relating to biological diversity, such as forests, mountains, islands, freshwater, marine and agriculture. It has been evident from the beginnings of the CBD in 1993 that some issues impact all of these themes. Taxonomy is one of those cross-cutting issues because it identifies and classifies the species that provide the world’s biological services (such as food, fibres, waste removal; the things we all need to survive).

The work of taxonomists is joined with the results of other science disciplines to better understand the sustainability of those services. The capacity of taxonomic expertise; however, is so low that it is considered an impediment to the progress of conservation efforts.

Logo of the Global Taxonomy Initiative

The Global Taxonomy Initiative is a program of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Image: © Secretariat, UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Early on, the CBD Secretariat created the Global Taxonomy Initiative to help improve this taxonomic expertise. For the past few years, the Canadian Museum of Nature has chaired the Coordination Mechanism (CM) for this initiative. The GTI-CM facilitates meetings during SBSTTA events, and carries out a detailed program of work. The efforts focus on issues related to the identification of IAS (invasive alien species), the botanical challenges of the GSPC (the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation), the work of the IUCN SSC (International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission) , and data sharing through GBIF, iBOL, and the EoL (Global Biodiversity Information Facility, International Barcodes of Life, and the Encyclopedia of Life respectively).

A museum botanist kneels beside the Coppermine River while holding plants collected

Museum botanist Dr. Jeff Saarela collects Arctic cottongrass during a plant collecting expedition along the Coppermine River in Nunavut, July 2014. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Museum of Nature and many like-minded organizations continue to build awareness of the importance of taxonomy, add to our capacity to do it, and share our results freely and broadly. We add new knowledge for the scientific community through our Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration and our Centre for Species Discovery and Change. We share it through our collections data portal and talk about it in exhibitions and educational programs.

People crowd around a table to hear a scientist talk about mussel biodiversity.

Museum scientist Dr. Andre Martel engages visitors about the biodiversity of mussels during a public Open House of the Natural Hertitage Campus, October 2013. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

At each meeting of the CBD, the pot of alphabet soup grows deeper and thicker as we head toward the year 2020. At that point, the heads-of-state will take the pulse of our decades of focussed effort to slow the disappearance of the estimated 2 million species with which we share life on this planet.

Posted in Animals, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Seeking Inspiration in the Arctic

Caroline Lanthier is Senior Content Developer and Exhibition Project Manager at the Canadian Museum of Nature. She joined the 2014 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition to collect ideas from young participants for the museum’s next permanent gallery, which will have an Arctic theme. Here she presents a few ideas inspired by the expedition’s daily activities.

July 7:  I am told that a seat has been vacated on board the Sea Adventurer, the boat used by the 2014 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition, and this seat has been reserved for me.

My mission:  Learn as much as I can about the Arctic, immerse myself in the beauty of its landscapes, flora and fauna, seek out and meet its inhabitants, and discover the interests and concerns of young participants in the expedition.

Caroline and a museum mineralogist examine rocks on a beach.

Caroline (left) and Paula Piilonen, a museum mineralogist, examine rocks on the 2014 Students on Ice Expedition. Image: Martin Lipman © Students on Ice

My goal:  Collect ideas for the next permanent gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature, which will open in 2017.

My state of mind:  Delighted, fantastically happy; I will finally see the Arctic.

July 12 – Nunavik (northern Quebec)
Arrived in Kuujjuaq. Welcomed by the community, visited the village, attended a barbecue and Inuit games. Boarded the Sea Adventurer.

Sunset and iceberg near Nachvak Fjord, Labrador

Sunset and iceberg near Nachvak Fjord, Labrador. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ideas collected:

  • Put a quad or snowmobile in the exhibition, as these are the means of transportation in northern communities;
  • Put a cloth ball suspended from a string at the entrance of the exhibition. Visitors can attempt a “high kick” to gain entry;
  • The houses in Kuujjuaq are very colourful. The exhibition should look like this.

July 13 – Nunavut
Briefly entered Nunavut to visit the abandoned community of Killiniq, on the island of the same name; rode an inflatable boat around the Button Islands and sampled surrounding waters.

Ideas collected:

  • Show casts of various animal droppings, e.g., polar bear, caribou, and hare droppings, and explain what can be learned on these mammals’ eating habits from examining them.
  • Remove one of the old houses of Killiniq, or just a piece of one, and place it in the exhibition to tell the story of this and other abandoned communities;
  • Install a lighted aquarium with zooplankton and jellyfish inside.
A scientist shows participants.

David Gray, one of the expedition’s experts, identifying Eclipse Bay seaweed, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

July 14 to 16 – Labrador, Torngat Mountains National Park
Visited the majestic fjords, beautiful bays and Torngat Mountains National Park base camp. Hiking, fishing, polar swimming and meeting with Inuit elders. Attended many presentations and workshops. Observed polar bears and a small blue whale.

View of the base camp, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador.

Base camp, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ideas collected:

  • Reconstruct a seal skeleton using a 3D puzzle;
  • Show specimens of various types of algae found in the Arctic Ocean.
  • Talk about polar bears, climate change, and the state of various populations such as the one at Davis Strait.
  • Is it true that lemmings commit suicide? Debunk this myth using a funny video.
  • Put music in the exhibition such as Inuit throat songs and rap.
  • Include a giant aquarium with Arctic fish species, such as the weird fish we caught called the Arctic sculpin.

July 17 and 18 – Labrador Sea, on the way to Greenland
Attended various presentations and workshops on Greenland, life in the Arctic, glaciers, climate change, arctic fauna and underwater exploration; threw bottles to the sea and observed pilot whales and fin whales.

Ideas collected:

  • Show several life-sized models of whales, for example a group of narwhals or belugas.
  • Talk about seabirds, what they eat, where they nest, and explain how they find their way home during migrations.
  • Explain the challenges facing Inuit communities such as education and food security.
  • Create a video game on the melting of glaciers and the impact on sea currents, coastal cities, and the various species living in the ocean.
View of glacier at Evigsfjord, Greenland

Glacier, Evigsfjord, Greenland. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

July 19 to 23 – Greenland
Visited majestic fjords, hiked to the foot of glaciers and on the ice cap, visited the community of Nanortalik, the abandoned mine at Ivigtut, and Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Observed humpback whales and muskoxen.

View of the community of Nanortalik.

Community of Nanortalik, Greenland. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ideas collected:

  • Include a muskox specimen in the exhibition. Create a video game in which one person leads wolves while another person leads muskoxen, to explain how they defend themselves by forming a circle.
  • Use giant models of various types of icebergs that visitors can play with to create a maze pattern.
  • There are many beautiful flowers in the Arctic. Show large images of flowers.
  • Divide the exhibition into four parts: The Arctic Life Environment; The Arctic Frontier; Arctic Wildlife; and The Arctic Lab.
Image of Giesecke’s bellflower (Campanula gieseckiana).

Giesecke’s bellflower (Campanula gieseckiana), Paradise Valley, Greenland

  • Talk about the feeding and digestive system of humpback whales; why are their excrements red?

 July 24:  Back in Ottawa, the young participants in the 2014 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition say a heartfelt goodbye. For my part, it’s mission accomplished. The young people generously shared their ideas. I was able to gather that climate change is at the heart of their interests and concerns.

Now it’s time to get to work!

An abandoned mine at Ivigtut.

Abandoned mine at Ivigtut, Greenland. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Translated from French.

Posted in Arctic, Exhibitions, Fieldwork | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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
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photos and messages sent from the field.

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

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!

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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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