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

We’re back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two people on hillside collect remains of a dinosaur.

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

Closeup of a scorpion.

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

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

Closeup of an exposed dinosaur fossil in ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

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

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Curiouser and Curiouser: Our Discoveries in 2013

by Mark Graham and Lory Beaudoin

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

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

Two Liropus minusculus specimens.

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

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

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

Dorsal and lateral views of a weevil.

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

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

A diatom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be curious, keep discovering and pass on the buzz.

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

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Working with Bioluminescence: Firefly Replica

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

A woman holds a firefly model.

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

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

A mass of chicken wire.

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

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

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

Project materials laid out on a table.

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

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

The base structure on a table.

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

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

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

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

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

The firefly replica, all white.

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

Detail of the replica.

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

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

The finished replica.

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

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

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From foothills to badlands—fossil discoveries in Alberta

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

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

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

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

Close-up view of fossil leaves in rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

Alberta Bound! Returning to hunt for dinosaur fossils

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

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

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

A map showing relevant locations.

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

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

A small shelter beside a few trees.

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

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

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

Bloody Falls rapids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Relive the Magic of Childhood Summers on a Firefly Walk

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

Small points of light above a pond at night.

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

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

Ventral view of a firefly.

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

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

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

A firefly (Ellychnia corrusca).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated from French.

Posted in Animals, Education | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Alberta Bound! Returning to hunt for dinosaur fossils

Jordan Mallon crouches behind a dinosaur bone embedded in rock.

During fieldwork in 2013, Jordan Mallon found this tibia in a hadrosaur bonebed along the South Saskatchewan River. He is returning to Alberta this year to find more fossils. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I write this while sitting on a plane, 38,000 feet above the earth. I’m on my way from Ottawa to Calgary to start my second field season as dinosaur palaeontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature. The next three weeks are sure to be filled their share of highs and lows, satisfaction and disappointment. I couldn’t be more excited!

For the first week of my trip, I’ll be doing some fieldwork in the foothills of the Rockies, about an hour’s drive northwest of Calgary. This might strike the keen observer as an odd place to look for dinosaurs, whose remains are most often found in deposits further east such as those in the better-known Dinosaur Provincial Park or on the outskirts of Drumheller. But that’s precisely the point!

Map of southern Alberta shows the two locations Jordan Mallon will explore to search for dinosaur fossils.

Dr. Jordan Mallon will be prospecting for dinosaur fossils at two areas in Alberta (indicated by pushpins): the foothills of the Rockies and along the South Saskatchewan River. Image: © 2014 Google Image Landsat.

Relatively little is known about dinosaurs from the foothills of Alberta, and I’m anxious to find out more. Are the dinosaurs preserved in the foothills the same species as those we find further east? How does species diversity compare between these two settings? Or what about the relative abundance of species?

Answers to these questions are no doubt going to be difficult to come by—dinosaur fossils are already known from the foothills, but they tend to be scrappy and not very abundant. This likely reflects a few things: (1) the remoteness and inaccessibility of fossil-bearing sites, (2) the lack of effort spent collecting, (3) preservational biases in the fossil record (i.e. a fossil is less likely to be preserved in a mountainous region with lots of erosion than in a lowland region with lots of sediment deposition) and (4) the possibility of a real biological signal (i.e. that dinos may have been naturally less abundant near the mountains than in the lowlands, which is why their remains tend to be more scrappy).

Backpack and rock pick lie on ground at fossil site overlooking the South Saskatchewan River.

A view of fossil sites along the South Saskatchewan River. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But I’ll be darned if I’m going to let those setbacks stop me! This work is being done in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Vavrek from the new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum near Grande Prairie, Alberta.

For the second leg of my trip during the last two weeks of June, I will be joined by Canadian Museum of Nature palaeobiology collections assistant Margaret Currie and research assistant Scott Rufolo on the South Saskatchewan River. This is about an hour’s drive north of Medicine Hat. Margaret and I conducted fieldwork in this area last June, and I’m excited to get back there.

We found a number of interesting prospects that I hope to follow up with this year. These include a few duck-billed dinosaur bonebeds and disarticulated horned dinosaur skeletons. I also plan to do some more prospecting, in the hopes that we might find something really spectacular.

Jordan Mallon and Margaret Currie examine dinosaur fossils on table at the museum’s research facility.

At the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus, Jordan Mallon and Margaret Currie examine the cheek bone of a ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) collected during Alberta fieldwork in 2013. Also on the table is the lower jaw of a ceratopsian collected during the same expedition. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I should add that I’m going to be tweeting the events of this year’s field season, so if you’re interested, please be sure to follow me at @Jordan_Mallon (hashtag #CMNPalaeo). I hope this will provide more insight into what we do as palaeontologists. So, join me and our research team in Alberta!

Posted in Collections, Fossils, Research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Good Food Leads to Happy Scientists

In a few days, I will start cooking dinner for 120 people. I am one of four museum scientists heading to the banks of the Coppermine River in western Nunavut for the month of July. And I’m deep into the food-planning phase for this Arctic expedition.

At times, we will also have in camp a helicopter pilot and a wildlife monitor from the town of Kugluktuk. And so this is how the math works out: I need to bring enough food to feed four to six people for 28 days. My detailed spreadsheet calculations tell me that this means bringing 120 individual dinners, lunches and breakfasts.

Barrels and gear sit on shore beside a float plane.

We pack our food into these blue barrels. This protects the food from getting wet and it also reduces the food odours in camp. This is important for preventing unwanted visitors such as foxes and bears. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

All this food has to be as lightweight and compact as possible—so we don’t overload the helicopter!—and it needs to be food that doesn’t require refrigeration. For breakfast, this is easy: granola, pancake mix, oatmeal. Lunches aren’t too tricky either: dry sausage, hard cheese, dense bread and mustard in a tube.

Two photos: A man and a woman sit on the ground eating from their plates.

Despite the mosquitoes during a previous Arctic expedition, fellow botanists Lynn Gillespie and Paul Sokoloff enjoy a meal of chicken tikka with sliced almonds, curried vegetables and rice. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Dinners require more effort and creativity. We end our long days with big appetites from hours of hiking the tundra and collecting plant specimens for the museum. Harsh conditions such as wind, rain (or sometimes snow!) and clouds of mosquitoes also stoke the hunger in our bellies. And so we crave hearty meals.

Baggies of dried food.

Here, the homemade dehydrated food is starting to pile up on my kitchen table. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Dehydration is my solution to providing home-cooked food that is light and non-perishable. After cooking a dish, I spread it onto the trays of a dehydrator. (Stews, curries and chilis dehydrate well). A fan at the back of the dehydrator blows hot air across the trays of food, gently removing the moisture over 10 to 12 hours. The crumbly, dried food that results can be rehydrated and reheated in the field.

Pots of stew on a table.

A batch of chickpea stew ready to be dehydrated. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Serving the same meal night after night would be the easiest approach. But the research team would soon be unhappy, and the cook would be fed to the mosquitoes! So, to keep the team smiling and interested in eating, I make a five-day dinner plan that I repeat for the duration of the trip. The menu for the upcoming season includes chili con carne with couscous; tomato sauce with mushrooms, Italian sausage and parmesan over pasta; and chicken korma and vegetable jalfrezi with rice.

A box-shaped dehydrator whose trays are laden with stew.

The stew is now in the dehydrator and ready to be dried. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

The healthy crunch of a fresh vegetable is a common craving for people in remote field camps. To satisfy this yearning, I serve rehydrated salads a few times a week. Shredded cabbage and grated carrot rehydrate well and make crunchy salads with the addition of bit of oil and vinegar.

The dried mix on a dehydrator tray beside a pot of the dried mix.

After about 10 hours, the moisture is gone from the stew, leaving a dry, crumbly mix. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Chocolate, cookies or dehydrated pineapple (a candy-sweet favourite) usually end the evening meal. Tough days (e.g., nasty, cold, wet weather) or special occasions (e.g., an exciting botanical find) merit something more elaborate, and so I have some surprise desserts up my sleeve such as stove-top camp cake with whiskey sauce.

A pot of dehydrated chickpea stew and a pot of dehydrated curried vegetables on a rock in a landscape of river and hills.

When it’s time to cook in camp, I put pre-measured servings of the mix and hot water into a pot. I let the food rehydrate for 30 minutes before cooking. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Food fuels our field work. It powers our long hikes, our plant-collecting effort and long hours of specimen processing in the work tent. Knowing this—and that good food leads to happy scientists—will keep me going as I tackle the task of feeding 120 people.

Camp Cake

Preparing the Mix at Home
2 cups flour
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. mace
½ teaspoon cloves
2 tbsp. dry milk
¼ cup shortening
1 cup raisins

1) Whisk together the dry ingredients.
2) Cut in the shortening with two knives or a pastry cutter until the mix is in pea-sized chunks.
3) Stir in the raisins.
4) Package the mix with the trail directions.

Trail Directions
butter or margarine to grease pan
flour to dust pan
1 cup water

1) Prepare a frying pan or other baking pan by coating it with butter or margarine and dusting it with flour.
2) Stir 1 cup water into the mix.
3) Using a lid or aluminum foil to cover the pan, cook the cake slowly on your camp stove set to low. If your camp stove doesn’t have a low setting, use an Outback Oven heat diffuser under your pan.
4) Keep an eye on the cake and check it after about 20 minutes. It’s likely to take about 30 minutes in total.

Serves 8.

Rum or Whiskey Sauce

1 cup brown sugar
½ cup water
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 ounce rum or whiskey

1) In a small pot, combine the sugar, water and butter or margarine.
2) Heat until the sugar is dissolved.
3) Remove from the heat and add the spirits.
4) Serve the camp cake and spoon the hot sauce over it.

(Recipes from The Hungry Hiker’s Book of Good Cooking, by Gretchen McHugh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995. 263–265).

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

What’s new at the fossil prep station

In November of last year, a mobile fossil preparation station was put in place in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery, manned every Saturday afternoon by palaeobiology research assistant Scott Rufolo.

A man looks at a plaster jacket containing dinosaur bones.

Palaeobiologist research assistant Scott Rufolo readies the new fossil jacket for preparation. Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

Among the first fossils to be prepped was a large ankylosaur (armoured dinosaur) tail club. Many hours were spent painstakingly removing the encasing rock from the fossil using pneumatic drills. Now the time has come to return the specimen back to our dedicated fossil prep lab in Gatineau for the finishing touches. In the meantime, we’ve been left to wonder: what’s next?

A man uses tools at a work station to extract a dinosaur fossil from its rock matrix.

Carefully extracting an ankylosaur tail club from its rock matrix is a project that has taken several months. C.W. Clark © C.W. Clark

There are nearly 200 unprepared fossils in the museum collections, still protected in their original plaster and burlap jackets. Not all of these make for ideal prep station projects, though. For one, many of the fossils are far too big to fit in the limited space available in the gallery, not to mention the excessive time it would take to prepare them before the public. For another, we know from the original field notes that some of the fossils are encased in very hard or friable rock, in which case it is best to prepare them using the full complement of resources available at our Gatineau location. Finally, some of the fossils are… well… just plain old boring and don’t merit a public demonstration. It’s hard to get people worked up about another hadrosaur fibula.

Two boys carefully dusting a fossil with paintbrushes.

The kids’ fossil prep station is popular for young dinosaur enthusiasts. C.W. Clark © C.W. Clark

With these thoughts in mind, we’ve selected a new fossil to be opened in public on May 31. It’s small (fits under your arm), is thought to be encased in a workable sandstone, and promises to be interesting. I can’t say what it is just yet because, if truth be told, I don’t know! The label suggests that it’s part of another ankylosaur skeleton, but we have good reason to believe that the fossil was once mislabelled (long story). In fact, we suspect that it’s the jaw of a carnivorous dinosaur, but there’s no way to be sure until the jacket is finally opened.

Why not pop by the mobile prep station on May 31 for the big reveal? You might catch a glimpse of a toothy maw.

Posted in Collections, Fossils, Research | Leave a comment

It all must glow…even the food!

Hosting Creatures of Light, an exhibition all about bioluminescence at the Canadian Museum of Nature, has inspired some very interesting conversations in our Education division. When developing creative programming based on a “glow” theme, most of our conversations boil down to two basic questions: “does it glow?” and “can we get it?”

One of the areas in which I have been able to explore these questions has been food and drink. And I have to say, it’s been the most fun. As coordinator of the popular Nature Nocturne events, I am working with one of our chefs, Karly Ireland, to plan a menu for our series finale that will really glow. While bioluminescence is about organisms that create their own light, these food items will only fluoresce under special light (still a very cool experience!).

A beverage glowing under UV light.

Vitamin C infused lemonade, vodka and tonic water under UV light. Image: Richard Lussier © Gourmet Cuisine

So, what food and drink will glow under black light? Turns out Karly has been doing some experimenting. And a note for those of you eager to try this out at home, not all black lights are the same wavelength, so results will vary depending upon the light you have.

A beverage glowing under UV light.

Vitamin C infused lemonade, vodka and tonic water under UV light. Image: Richard Lussier © Gourmet Cuisine

Our discussions started with the easy one—tonic water. One of the elements in tonic water, quinine, glows bright blue under black light. So drinks made with tonic water will glow. Cool! What else can we use?

It turns out that certain vitamins glow under black light as well. Vitamin A and some B vitamins (thiamine, niacin and riboflavin) glow bright yellow. This means sports drinks and some fruit juices are options, too.

And then the big surprise: Chlorophyll glows bright red under black light! So all those yummy salad greens will turn red, depending upon how many other elements are in the vegetable.

So how does this all work? Well, black light emits light in the ultraviolet (UV) range. This light has short wavelengths and high energy, which means it easily penetrates surfaces. This is how sunburns happen, but that’s another story. In some materials, the energy from UV light excites their molecules to a point where they emit their own wavelength of energy as light. The colour of the glow has to do with the wavelength, or amount of energy, that the returning light has.

Food glowing under UV light.

Asian noodles and sushi under UV light. Image: Richard Lussier © Gourmet Cuisine

So glowing food, in this case, is not toxic or dangerous as Hollywood might have us believe. It is only food showing off its talent for absorbing and re-emitting light.

Be sure to join us on Friday, May 23 for Nature Nocturne (the best party “glowing on” in the nation’s capital). Enjoy the rare opportunity to sample a fun selection of food and beverages that will light up your taste buds!

Posted in Education, Events, Exhibitions | Tagged , , | Leave a comment