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).

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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.

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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!

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Tough Fishing Spots

There are many places on this Earth that create significant challenges for scientific study—the deep ocean and the polar regions come to mind right away. Even with the massive physical hurdles that come with work in those areas, scientists, including those from the Canadian Museum of Nature, still find ways to explore them on a regular basis.

Brian Coad in front of a table with a microscope and a fish.

Brian Coad examining a fish in the museum’s lab. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But there are some places that push even the bravest person to the limit of what can be done. Conflict areas present the brutal threats of war and violence, and cause vast landscapes to be inaccessible. Think about the border zone between North Korea and South Korea, regions of the Middle East and Asia, and areas of Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa where political turmoil or crime may have a strong presence. There are conflicts in many regions around the globe that are highly risky and limit field research to thoroughly understand the natural history there.

Even in the face of mortal danger, experience suggests that if there is a compelling reason to study natural history, scientists will find a way. This is where Dr. Brian Coad comes into our story. He is an ichthyologist (fish expert) who is about to publish a book on the fishes of Afghanistan. Brian is a world authority on the cyprinids, a family of freshwater fishes referred to as the minnows, and the most diverse fish group on the planet (about 2,400 species). There are plenty of those fish to study in North America (which he does), but he also applies himself to the large number of species in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Profile view of a specimen of Alburnoides holciki

Many of the new and unknown species are small, like this eight cm long specimen of Alburnoides holciki. Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During the early part of his career Brian spent a few years collecting and studying the fishes of Iran. To do that thoroughly, he had to study the fishes of neighbouring countries, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. He has published his fish discoveries from each of those countries and has established himself as the go-to expert. When the recent Afghan war began, nongovernmental organizations and others wanted to understand the risks to the natural environment. As the go-to fish guy for this area, Brian began receiving questions, as well as specimens for identification that were collected by brave souls, both biologists and sometimes keen soldiers.

A soldier holds up a large example of Luciobarbus esocinus that he caught with hook and line at Camp Slayer, Baghdad, Iraq (32-34 kg, 1.32 m, released alive). Known as a Tigris salmon, it is actually a member of the Carp family.

A soldier holds up a large example of Luciobarbus esocinus that he caught with hook and line at Camp Slayer, Baghdad, Iraq (32-34 kg, 1.32 m, released alive). Known as a Tigris salmon, it is actually a member of the Carp family.

Conflict areas are tricky places to conduct field studies, so the work of his colleagues is often sporadic and opportunistic. The Museum maintains a reference collection of fish specimens sent from Afghanistan (173), an important contribution to the modest number of specimens in the other known collection at the Natural History Museum in London (71). Brian made extensive use of our Iranian fishes (2,746) to help identify the Afghan collection and to understand what else might swim across the border between the two countries. His unique position in the science community has allowed an impressive, important, safe, accessible collection to form at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

During his studies, Brian has identified and described many new species (at least ten are still waiting to be described), trained students, and provided advice to aquatic ecologists who might be able to conserve some of these important fishes. After such an impressive track record of research he is now in a position to summarize his findings for Afghanistan. This new book will describe all the 85 fish species of that country (49 are in the minnow family), and provide keys that will allow others to identify the fish for themselves. That book arrives in libraries in mid-2014 from our publisher, Pensoft.

Illustration of two sturgeons.

Examples of highly endangered sturgeons, Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni. Image: N.N. Kondakov © Russian Federal Research Institute of Fishery and Oceanography.

One of the important marks of a museum is the amount of critical attention it provides to its collection in order to conserve and improve its value. At a natural history museum, some of that attention comes from science experts. Like Brian, our science experts spend a lot of their time thinking about the plants, animals, fossils and minerals that are found in Canada. But in most cases their expertise is also applied worldwide, and adds to a community that collaborates regularly, and shares its discoveries freely with everyone. Wishing tight-lines to fish collectors everywhere.

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NatureTalks: Hot Science!

I am passionate about the importance of cultural organizations in life and learning for people of all ages. That’s why, as a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa majoring in Arts Administration, I chose to complete two consecutive work terms at the Canadian Museum of Nature. In this capacity, I completed all five months at the museum in the educational services department; the second work term was focused on assisting with the NatureTalks programme.

Working in that department, the main objective is to provide knowledge on interesting topics to the general public. I was lucky enough to get to work towards this objective in a way that was fun and exciting: events coordination for public programming, specifically, overseeing the successful completion of the wine bar associated with each NatureTalks. What better way to learn than through engaging discussions over a glass of wine?

A NatureTalks audience.

The captivated audience during the recording of a NatureTalks interview. Onstage in the red chair is journalist Ivan Semeniuk, host of the English-language interviews. Image: Cynthia Iburg © Canadian Museum of Nature

NatureTalks is an exciting exploration of science and its role in our lives. Our experts explore the fact, fiction and future of scientific research by discussing topics on the forefront of invention—things that most people might believe to be science fiction.

Each even starts with a 20-minute, on-stage conversation between one of our scientists and a well-known broadcast journalist in which they explore one of these exciting topics. From de-extinction to parasites, each of these topics provided very interesting ethical dilemmas to debate that got everyone in the audience talking. Following the interview, the audience, scientist, journalist and staff were able to participate in a wine bar event to discuss the issues presented.

Watch the on-stage conversations below (four videos, about 20 minutes each):

The series began by imagining a world where Jurassic Park is a real possibility and Passenger Pigeons darken the skies once again. In Jordan Mallon’s talk about de-extinction, the idea of resurrecting extinct species was presented. Although we learned that the technology is close and certain revitalizations have been successful in the past, the ethical questions presented in the talk made us wonder: just because we can do something, should we?

Kamal Khidas continued these ethical debates in his conversation about hybridization. What happens when two distinct species breed and produce a hybrid? Does this mean the end for the parent species? Is human activity making this possible? With these sorts of questions being considered, the discussion largely investigated our role in nature.

In the discussion on plant intelligence with Paul Sokoloff, we discussed the fact that, as far as we know, plants aren’t self-aware. But does that mean they’re not intelligent? Can they react, think, communicate, play and even learn? And if so, does this change the relationship you have with plants?

Finally, last night, we ended the inaugural season of the NatureTalks series. Perhaps the most provoking topic, the talk on parasites with Judith Price definitely left some (including myself!) rather squeamish. Of course, these talks were designed to turn people’s beliefs on their head, and the looming question we considered in this talk was whether or not the traditional idea of “the cleaner, the better” is always true.

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

There’s a serious effort under way to bring back the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. But given the hundreds of individuals necessary to propagate the species, does the work seem worthwhile? Image: Cynthia Iburg © Canadian Museum of Nature

At each event, I was able to gauge people’s reaction—and the moral dilemmas they felt in relation to these topics—through personal interviews. It was very interesting to see how many different opinions there were on each topic and also to see how learning new information in this way really created thought-provoking discussions. Although the video documenting people’s reactions is just a short snippet on the NatureTalks website, the discussions that continued throughout the night were intense.

The ability to shadow Cynthia through the development and execution of this programme has been an eye-opening experience into the museum world. As a student with particular interest in the cultural sector, institutions that provide innovative and creative opportunities for the future are of particular interest. Because museums, art galleries and arts centres are constantly looking for ways to increase funding and attendance, the work Cynthia does to create interest amongst many people has not gone unnoticed! I hope to bring this sort of forward thinking to my work because I would love to continue my work within the cultural sector.

Now before I go, I would like to send a huge shout out to everyone in education services for making my time and projects so meaningful. This was a great introduction to museum life and I can’t wait to be back!

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Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Piloting is a fun tool we use to develop exhibitions. What is piloting? It’s building and testing ideas out in a “quick and dirty” fashion. We want to know, are visitors interested in this idea? We also learn a lot by seeing how they interact with what we’ve made.

Three women work on crafts at a table.

We use cardboard, duct tape, markers and other craft supplies to rapidly build our pilots for testing. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

An adult and a child investigate a cardboard mock-up of an interactive.

Piloting is an iterative process. We observe visitors, gather feedback and tweak the pilot till we get answers to our questions. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

A cardboard mock-up of an interactive.

In this pilot, we’re trying out an idea that illustrates how a cougar’s tail can help with balance. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

A cardboard sign leans against a wall.

Here, we want to know what kind of questions visitors have for our animal keepers. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

The caribou (Rangifer tarandus) diorama with video projected on the back wall, and signs and a mobile computer taped to the front glass.

In this pilot, we were curious to see if visitors would be willing to record some personal stories about caribou. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Recently, we had lots of fun developing pilots for an upcoming temporary exhibition that we’re all really excited about. Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence gave us a perfect excuse to play with light.

Two people are reflected in a mirror in a dark room; many objects glow in the dark. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of our Glow Stations as a pilot project. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

You can now see the results of these pilots in the numerous Glow Stations that we’ve placed around the museum. In them, you can become a “glow” graffiti artist, dress up in our glow-in-the-dark booth, and even observe real, live, bioluminescent creatures.

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Can Dirty Mean Healthy?

I must preface this by paraphrasing Star Trek and saying, “Damn it, Jim; I’m a collection manager, not a doctor.” Ask a real one for further guidance.

In the 1950s, scientists noticed a relationship between our North American increasingly cleanliness-obsessed urban lifestyle and a rise in diseases such as asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes, as well as allergies such as hay fever, most almost unheard of 100 years before. These are known as auto-immune disorders, caused when something triggers our immune system to attack an organ or function inside us as if it were an invading enemy. People living in areas with childhood exposure to a broader range of microbes don’t suffer the same incidence of these syndromes in adulthood. One common thread appeared to be the presence or absence of intestinal worms.

This observation developed into the Hygiene Hypothesis, also known as the Old Friends Theory. I had the opportunity to present the subject and discuss it with the audience at a recent NatureTalks evening, held at the museum on April 16, 2014.

We are learning that the experiment we have been running in the developed world by eradicating many of our “pest” species is not altogether successful. The very species we have tried so hard to avoid may have been conferring a healthy reward for their room and board.

Over millions of years of evolution together with our parasites, by the grace of the much faster generation time of a short-lived worm and the trial-and-error system of natural selection, parasites have refined ways to avoid, evade or alter our immune systems. Early childhood exposure to contagion, through farm animals, pets (interestingly, dogs but not cats) or even older siblings, leads to a dampening down of immune response. We may have “contracted out” this service to our parasites and biologically assumed they would always be with us to perform this function.

An interior view of an intestine.

An interior view of the intestine in a patient with the human whip worm (Trichuris trichiura), a possible future treatment for multiple sclerosis. Image: CDC/Dr. Trenton Ruebush © Public domain; made available by CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

Ongoing trials are testing whether intestinal worms can alter the symptoms of several of these auto-immune syndromes, with impressive results. In early studies, using worms from pigs that don’t live long in humans, nearly 80% of patients with Crohn’s disease reported significant reduction of their symptoms after 24 weeks of treatment. Further tests are determining which species of worms can help patients with other autoimmune problems such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and asthma.

Pharmaceutical companies would dearly like to find out why and precisely how this works so they can isolate a specific molecule for market, but the mechanism is so complex that scientists still aren’t entirely sure about the human immune system pathways and worm chemicals involved.

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The human hookworm (Necator americanus) is being investigated as a treatment of inflammatory bowel disorders in humans. Image: Jay Reimer © Jay Reimer (shared under licence CC 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0)

Not only have we eradicated our worms, but we have also greatly reduced the number of species of bacteria and fungi which live on and in us. Lower diversity in any ecology is dangerous and can lead to imbalances, sometimes with alarming speed and consequences.

This has become more evident with the rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria such as Clostridium difficile. Until recently most infections were picked up in hospitals where their durable spores linger in the air or on surfaces but many people now have a small number of “C. diff” bacteria in their gut. Antibiotics taken for an infection wipe out not only the sinus inflammation or bladder infection they meant to treat, but also all the good gut bacteria, freeing C. difficile to run rampant causing painful and persistent diarrhoea.

A bacterium.

The bacterium Clostridium difficile produces toxins that induce painful intestinal symptoms when it infects the human intestine. Image: Jennifer Hulsey © Public domain; made available by CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

Although some people can be cured with more antibiotics, the rate of reoccurrence is very high (20% to 35%), causing long periods of suffering and loss of strength, often fatal in the elderly. The best way of treating C. difficile turns out to be transplantation. Not of body parts, but of body content! The poop from a healthy donor is mixed with water and inserted via a nasal-gastric tube or enema into the infected person, restoring a normal intestinal ecosystem. The success rate is about 90% and patients feel better often within hours. It may sound gruesome, but it works.

There are other experiments underway to help us deal with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some proposals are as mundane as adding probiotic bacteria to our water supply to increase our interior diversity. Others are looking at new targets on bacteria and viruses at which we can aim vaccines, and naturally occurring antibacterial agents like host defense peptides and bacteriophages.

In the meantime, the best thing you can do is wash your hands well and often with plain soap and water. Antibacterial chemicals in cleaning products will only select and allow to thrive those bacteria that are resistant to their effects, and often continue to kill good bacteria in the environment after flowing down the drain. Consider buying locally pastured meat raised without antibiotics. Ask your doctor if you really need a prescription for antibiotics or if rest and fluids will help you ride out an infection. Stay home from work or school while sick to help your colleagues avoid contagion. Take advantage of the herd-immunity principle by keeping your vaccinations up to date. Let your kids get good and dirty.

Read more about other NatureTalks events:
Deliberating De-extinction
Hybridization in the Living World
My Thoughts on Thinking Plants

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Who Glows There?

They’re here! The live specimens for our upcoming exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence (which will open on May 3) have arrived. Among these curiosities is a shipment of live Splitfin Flashlightfish (Anomalops katoptron).

A fish in an aquarium.

Splitfin Flashlightfish (Anomalops katoptron). Image: © FMNH\L. Smith and AMNH\J. Sparks

Flashlight fish are unique. They are a small, salt-water fish that—you guessed it—produce their own light source. Located just under their eyes are bioluminescent organs (the size of a small jelly bean) that contain symbiotic bacteria that glow in the dark of their native habitat, the dark ocean.

An aquarium without water.

An early stage in preparing the aquarium for its future occupants. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

Two clown fish in an aquarium.

Clown fish. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

To begin welcoming the new specimens, we set up a 380 litre (100 gallon) salt-water tank several weeks in advance. We added “living” rocks (pieces of coral on which micro marine organisms live), snails and a couple of clown fish to help speed up the growth of “good” bacteria and algae.

Once we put in an order for the flashlight fish, it was a long wait. Flashlight fish are collected only during a new moon, off the coast of Japan, when large numbers congregate closer to the surface. Being strategic about the timing increased the chances of collecting the 30-some specimens we needed.

Once collected, the fish were sent by plane to Los Angeles, California, where they were kept in tanks for a few days to acclimatize, and they could be monitored for signs of stress or illness. The specimens were then placed in individual plastic black-out bags (to keep them in darkness) filled with fresh salt water. From there, they travelled by plane to the Ottawa International Airport.

Boxes on a platform dolly.

Boxes of our newly arrived live fish specimens. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

Flashlight fish are extremely sensitive to light. Any exposure can stress the fish, which can cause the bioluminescent bacteria to stop glowing and die off. We must keep the tank and storage room as dark as possible to prevent problems, and use a black light (ultraviolet light) when we need to get around.

A man holds a bag of fish in water.

Live Specimen Technician Stuart Baatnes examines a bag of flashlight fish illuminated by black (ultraviolet) light. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

Upon their arrival to the museum, we eagerly opened the boxes to find that all 30 specimens were alive and healthy. To acclimatize to their new home, the fish were left in their bags, and the bags floated in the aquarium water for 10 minutes. Then, we slowly added aquarium water into the bags for the next 10 minutes. At that point the fish were ready to explore the tank on their own.

The flashlight fish have settled happily into their new home, eagerly eating brine shrimp (and other small tasty treats) as many as four times a day.

Museum visitors will soon be able to see our flashlight fish starting on May 3 in Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence. Other glowing live specimens, including bioluminescent scorpions, mushrooms, coral and more, can be found in our Glow Moment booths around the museum!


Watch Splitfin Flashlightfish swoop and dive as we feed them in darkness. Video: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Arctic Science Summit Week 2014, Helsinki, Finland

As I wait for my flight at the Helsinki airport lounge, I reflect on the last three days of discussion with colleagues from around the world who are dedicated to a better understanding of the Arctic. There is endless opportunity for the Canadian Museum of Nature to contribute to the knowledge base and to the discussion. Actually, there is little involvement of natural-history museums in these Arctic-science discussions and I feel that needs to change. Natural-history museums have much to offer and I hope will get more engaged in these types of summits.

Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki and its Lutheran cathedral. Image: Mikko Paananen © Mikko Paananen (used under license CC 3.0)

The Arctic Science Summit is a gathering of many Arctic-science networks, organizations, alliances and consortia. The groups include government, universities, NGOs, indigenous groups, research institutes, museums (us) and industry. What is heartening is the level of consensus on the importance of the Arctic now and in the future. All agree that we must get it right. All agree that none of us can deal with the challenges and opportunities in the Arctic on our own.

There were many recommendations coming out of the summit; a few immediately relate to our museum. First, there is a need for better coordination and sharing of data about the Arctic environment. Here is where natural-history museums can and should get in the game. We already digitize and share our data online and through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Since GBIF was not mentioned once as a source of data, we clearly have some work to do to ensure it is known and accessed.

Collage: A man collects plants on the Arctic tundra, and a man presses plants inside a tent.

Natural-history museums can make and important contribution to our knowledge of the Arctic. Above, two members of a botanical field team from the Canadian Museum of Nature during an Arctic expedition in 2012. On left: Jeff Saarela collects plants. On right: Paul Sokoloff prepares specimens for preservation. Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Second, Arctic observing needs to include traditional knowledge. We know very well the value that indigenous people bring to our understanding of the natural environment of the North and its relation to the people who live, work and play there. Third, industry wants to be involved in the future of the Arctic from an environmental and economic point of view. Fourth, there are new funding opportunities being created to stimulate multi-disciplinary and multi-national research collaborations. Fifth, the next decade of Arctic research planning is being discussed through the Third International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP III). We have been invited to participate in ICARP as the Canadian Museum of Nature and as a member of the Arctic Natural History Museums Alliance.

While in Helsinki, I had the pleasure of meeting the Director of the Finnish Natural History Museum and his team of dedicated professionals. They too operate in an older building that was recently completely renovated. Their approach to experience design and profiling their research (and researchers) has inspired some ideas for the Canadian Museum of Nature. This museum is one of the new members of the Arctic Natural History Museum Alliance that will have its first official meeting early May in Oslo. Our first public presentation opportunity is at the Arctic Biodiversity Congress hosted by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) in December of this year.

Collage: The Natural History Museum of Finland, and a life-sized cut-out of a man inside the museum.

The Natural History Museum of Finland, and a photo of Arto Luttinen, Ph.D. and conservator in geology, in one of the exhibitions. Images: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

At that event, the Alliance has been invited to outline its purpose, introduce its members and summarize its objectives and linkages with CAFF. We also plan to present the Canadian Museum of Nature’s giant floor map of the plants, animals, fossils and minerals of the Canadian Arctic. This will be the first pilot for the animation elements proposed for the map when it travels to schools across Canada.

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