Blackflies, begone! Studying the plants of northern Ontario’s peatlands.

As I reported in emails home to my “muddah” and “faddah”, Muketei Camp, with its clouds of voracious black flies, might seem to have some things in common with the infamous Camp Granada from the 1963 novelty song. However, going home early from the drill camp, which was two flights (float plane, then helicopter) past the end of the road, never crossed my mind.

A float place beside a dock. A helicopter taking off from a dock.

(top) The float plane we took from Nakina to Koper Lake, the closest landing lake to our camp. (bottom) The helicopter leaving from the Koper Lake pad (which is connected with the Koper float plane dock) with the first load of scientists and gear bound for Muketei Camp, just a few minutes’ flight away. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A Pitcher plant.

This Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), like most of the bog vascular plants we encountered, is rooted in a carpet of Rusty bog moss (Sphagnum fuscum). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I mean “drill camp” in the mining sense—many of the visitors who make Muketei their temporary home are drillers, exploring the region’s mineral resources. Different treasure—specimens and data—brought me to this camp in remote northern Ontario, located about 75 km southeast of the Ojibway community of Webequie.

Potential changes in the nature of human activity in Ontario’s Ring of Fire make it prime time to capture a snapshot of the current state of the environment, including the terrestrial vegetation.

A Bog laurel in bloom.

Flowering season in the North: one of many perks to our peatland work! Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) bloomed profusely at some of our sites. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Accordingly, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change assembled a crew consisting of Ministry team lead Murray Dixon and three botany specialists—one for each of three organisms that grow most abundantly in the vast, soggy far north of the province: mosses (that’s me), lichens (Dr. Troy McMullin, University of Guelph), and sedges (Dr. Tyler Smith, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).

Our job was to scrutinize (identify and, in several ways, measure) these plants and lichens within carefully defined squares and strips of land. By faithfully recording our observations and methodology, we hope to equip future researchers to detect environmental change when they visit the same sites.

Two scientists put metal stakes in ground at a sampling site.

After documenting each plot with photos, measurements, and species names, metal stakes marking the corners of our sites remained to guide the next researchers to visit this plot. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Thrillingly, this chance to contribute to a valuable project also put us botany nerds right in the middle of a big, juicy gap in many distribution maps for plants and lichens.  Accessing these kinds of areas not only allows us to learn what’s in those tantalizing blank patches, but it also gives us a chance to place the hard evidence of our findings in our herbarium collections, to be drawn on by projects that have been stymied by the same perplexing gaps.

Mosses on the floor of a bog.

A bog floor garden. The further north one travels, the more the competitive advantage shifts toward tough lichens and bryophytes, as compared with vascular plants. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Other crews were at Muketei Camp too, studying the ground and surface waters that define the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Eighty-five percent of the land from northwest Quebec to northeast Manitoba consists of muskeg—bogs and fens—saturated with this water. Between our camp and field sites, we flew over astoundingly beautiful water-signature patterns that are only apparent from the air. Wherever we landed, we found ourselves in urgently blooming, northern peatland gardens, which make the most of brief access to liquid water between long, frozen winters.

Practically speaking, all that water also meant that I wore rubber boots for 11 days straight…even on the plane, as it turned out, since strict weight restrictions limited our total gear to 40 pounds (about 18 kg) *including* carry-on luggage!  After removing more than half of what I originally intended to pack, I could still meet this criterion only by wearing my rubber boots for the flight.

View of the peatland landscape.

Incredible patterns develop in northern peatlands, according to factors such as the flow of water and the distribution of permafrost. Finding a place to land was sometimes a challenge in this water-dominated landscape! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Botanist Troy McMullin wears bug protection clothing as blackflies swarm around.

University of Guelph lichenologist Troy McMullin demonstrates the Hudson’s Bay Lowland dress code, while blackflies demonstrate why it is a good idea to suit up in this way, regardless of high temperatures. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

And it was worth every minute! This being my second year at Muketei, I have an idea of the value the specimens we brought back will score for the project and for the National Herbarium when the winter’s lab work is done. Under the guise of mudslinging between devotees of “higher” vs. “lower” plants, or of plants vs. lichens, I also secretly pilfered skills, knowledge and ideas from my esteemed colleagues, and absconded with awesome fluorescent lichens to share with museum visitors. More on those another time…there’s no end to the cool stuff around here to write home about!

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

Nature Campers Really STAND OUT!

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

Pages of open notebooks glow under UV light.

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

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

A boy shows his trilobite model.

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

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

Two girls dissect owl pellets at a table.

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

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

A handmade card, open to the message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nine Days on Top of the World

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

That was before I went to Resolute.

A map showing relevant locations.

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

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

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

A barren, hilly landscape.

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

A sign that is almost invisible in fog.

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

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

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

People stand near warehouse shelving.

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

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

Dozens of fuel drums in a pile.

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

An Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice floes in the water, up to the shoreline.

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

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Searching for ‘White Gold’ in southern Greenland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of old mine building and water-filled pit.

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

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

Paula Piilonen talks to student as they sit near microscope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People in zodiacs in Arsuk Fjord.

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

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

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

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

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.

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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.

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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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