Why should we get excited about one new species in the ocean?

In my earlier blog, I set up the context for the discovery of a new species of giant file clam in the northwest Atlantic in collaboration with colleagues from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. I want to emphasize that assigning a name to a specimen (one aspect of taxonomy) is a dynamic thing. While we do our best to review the scientific literature and examine as many specimens as possible, it is not rare that a re-examination of or access to more information can lead to a different conclusion.

In the case of our new giant file clam, we needed more specimens from our waters to compare with the European species (that we originally assumed our specimen to be), and we needed more of the latter, too. So, we borrowed material from three European natural history museums (Belgium, Bergen and Copenhagen). We sent a graduate student to the Smithsonian and to the American Museum of Natural History. We obtained new specimens from the Gully Marine Protected Area and the Flemish Cap area (northeast of the Newfoundland Grand Bank, in collaboration with a Spanish expedition).

Close-up of the giant file clam observed in the Gully.

Close-up of the giant file clam observed in the Gully at a depth of about 1200 metres, using the ROPOS ROV. The specimen at the top of the image is a cup coral, Demophyllum sp. Image: Ellen Kenchington © DFO-Dartmouth.

Finally, we had images of 152 specimens for our morphological analysis.

But the problem with most giant file clams is the fact that they do not display many distinguishing morphological characters. They have a fairly oval-shaped shell with a somewhat simple hinge, an oblique V-shape ligament pit (visible in the top right portion of Figure 2), and some faint radial ribs on the external side of the valves. As a result, trying to compare species based on traditional morphometrics (e.g., shell length vs. shell width, hinge length, etc.) was not going to reveal much.

External and internal views of one of the new giant file clam species.

Left valve (external and internal view) of one of the paratypes of the new giant file clam species (catalogue no. CMNML 097159.1), collected just southwest of the Flemish Cap. Image: Lindsay Beazley © DFO-Dartmouth.

So, we resorted to use a relatively recent statistical approach called “Shape Analysis”. With this, we can actually describe the shape (contour) of each shell and quantitatively compare them within and between species.

This analysis—which required months to acquire the images, extract the 2-D shape data and do the comparisons—confirmed that adult (i.e., non-larval) specimens found in the northwest Atlantic are morphologically very similar to those from the northeast Atlantic. With only that data in hand, we would probably conclude that our specimens are at least marginally representative of the European giant file clam and could not be considered a different species. Fortunately, my DFO colleagues were able to extract fresh tissues from some of the newly collected northwest Atlantic specimens to do DNA Barcoding.

A freshly collected specimen of the giant file clam

A freshly collected specimen of the northwest Atlantic giant file clam (catalogue no. CMNML 097157.1), showing the bright orange soft tissue within the two valves. Image: Lynne Anstey © DFO-Dartmouth.

This new data was then compared to published barcodes from the European giant file clam species, two species from the Gulf of Mexico and two species from the northeast Pacific. The result: a significant genetic difference, amply sufficient to place our specimens under a new species. We named it Acesta cryptadelphe, which means the “cryptic sibling”, because of its strong morphological resemblance to the European species.

So, after all of this, we now have a new species. But why should we get excited about one new species? The fact is: we know that there are plenty of species on this planet that have yet to be discovered. In an environment like the deep sea, only a fraction of what lives there has been described. Many of the species names we assign to organisms (that look like they are already known to science) may well be incorrect. The new cryptic species of giant file clam from the northwest Atlantic is a good example of that. And if we want to understand and protect our ocean biodiversity, we really need to know what it is made of. In fact, the Gully received the designation of Marine Protected Area in May 2004 particularly because of its high biodiversity. And this study shows that we are just scratching the surface.

Read Part 1 of Jean-Marc’s story about the giant file clam:

So when do you know you’ve discovered a new species?

Posted in Collections, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So when do you know you’ve discovered a new species?

For most people, the news of a newly-discovered species often relates to something rare or unusual—perhaps a creature found hiding deep in a tropical forest or another dinosaur from the Canadian Badlands. Yet, these represent only a small portion of the estimated 15,000+ new species described every year by scientists around the world.
But once in a while, I think we should make a bit of noise when something out of the ordinary (that is not a dinosaur, a missing link, a primate or some cute deep-sea octopus) gets discovered in a habitat unfamiliar for most people. And through this, I hope that you’ll gain a better appreciation for the effort involved and the importance of continuing to explore and describe our natural world.

So, with this in mind, let me share the story of a new species I was involved in identifying and describing—a new species of deep-water clam found off Canada’s Atlantic coast.

Jean-Marc Gagnon makes adjustments to a deep-sea camera in 1985.

Jean-Marc Gagnon in 1985 making final adjustments to the deep-sea camera before the PISCES IV dive. Image: © Roy C. Ficken, Memorial University of Newfoundland

To best describe our journey in achieving this scientific milestone, I need to step back in time to December 10, 1984, as I was starting my Ph.D. at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL. On that day, I discovered a strange single bivalve shell (about 12 cm long) in a bottom grab sample from a deep fjord along the south coast of Newfoundland. It resembled a scallop. At the time, I was working on marine worms and did not pay much attention to it. About six months later, I had the opportunity to dive at the same location onboard the PISCES IV research submersible.

The PISCES IV submersible before it is lowered into the water.

Preparation of the PISCES IV submersible for a dive in the main basin of Bay d’Espoir, Newfoundland, June 26, 1985. Image: © Roy C. Ficken, Memorial University of Newfoundland

There, we discovered many scallop-looking bivalves attached to exposed rocky surfaces from about 400 m all the way to the bottom of the fjord, at about 800 m. We were fortunate to be able to collect one live specimen using the hydraulic arm of the submersible.

Doing some basic morphological comparisons with already described species, we came to the conclusion (Gagnon & Haedrich, 2003) that it was the same species found in Europe, the European giant file clam, Acesta excavata. This conclusion was based on only two specimens from the Newfoundland fjord and a few representatives of the European species. (And by the way, these clams are distant cousins of scallops and have nothing to do with the actual giant clams found in tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef.) But what was most exciting about this discovery is the fact that giant file clams had never been observed in the northwest Atlantic (at least not north of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico).

View of the clams, as well as sponges at the base of the underwater cliff.

View of the hard substrate community at the base of the underwater cliff in the main basin of Bay d’Espoir, at a water depth of 780m. The red arrows indicate the giant file clams. The white masses are sponges and everything else are individual and colonial anemones. Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Jean-Marc Gagnon.

Now, let’s forward to 2007 when Dr. Ellen Kenchington, a colleague from Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, contacted me to tell me that she and her colleagues were finding a lot of similar “scallops”, using the remotely-operated vehicle ROPOS in The Gully, located along the continental slope of the Scotian Shelf. A quick look confirmed that we were dealing with the same group of bivalve; the question was, “Is it the same species”?

To answer this question, we had to wait seven years, using DNA analysis to go along with comparative studies of the clams themselves. My next blog will detail some of the steps required to get to an identification of this new species of giant file clam.

Posted in Collections, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Plants, Fossils, Stories and More: The Students on Ice 2015 Arctic Expedition

by Paul Sokoloff and Kieran Shepherd

The Canadian Museum of Nature and Students on Ice (SOI) have been partners in experiential education in the north from the very first expedition 15 years ago. Museum experts have been accompanying expeditions ever since, serving as educators, mentors, helpers, and occasionally even bear guards.

Collage: Three people and multi-coloured village homes.

Left: The museum contingent on this year’s Students on Ice Arctic expedition, a 15th-anniversary cruise from Kangerlussauq, Greenland, to Resolute, Nunavut, via the Northwest Passage. Paul Sokoloff, research assistant in botany (left), Ailsa Barry, Vice-President of Experience and Engagement at the museum (centre), and Kieran Shepherd, Curator of Palaeobiology at the museum (right).
Right: Students wander through Sisimiut, the second-largest community in Greenland, and our third landing of the expedition. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman, Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

While the expedition starts in Ottawa, where the nearly 200 students and staff began to get to know each other, it wasn’t until we settled into our shipboard life on the Ocean Endeavour that we really got into the full swing of the expedition.

Collage: Flowering plants.

The vivid Greenlandic flora includes harebells (Campanula rotundifolia, left), and flame-tipped louseworts (Pedicularis flammea, right). Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paul: Each glorious Arctic day started out with a cheery tritone sounded over the intercom, followed by the dulcet tones of Geoff Green—SOI’s founder and expedition leader—saying, “Good morning, Students on Ice.”

Several people in a boat in front of an iceberg.

Students cruise past icebergs as we Zodiac through Jakobshavn Isbrae (Sermeq Kujalleq—Jakobshavn Ice Fjord), near Ilulissat, west Greenland. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paul: Following a morning briefing, the students would either find a workshop onboard that suited their interests (Ailsa ran workshops on digital storytelling, while Kieran, Lucie Metras—a botany volunteer with the museum—and I could often be found in the lab). However, if we had dropped anchor near an interesting shore (and as long as there weren’t any polar bears blocking the route), we’d file to the Zodiacs to make landfall.

Floating ice on the water in a snowy, mountainous landscape.

If you look carefully, you’ll spot the polar bear swimming in between the ice on Navy Board Inlet, between Baffin Island and Bylot Island, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Indeed, many of our expedition highlights were out on the land, where we would interpret the Arctic environment, past and present.

People walk among low plants next to water.

Kieran Shepherd leads students on a fossil-prospecting expedition on Bylot Island, Nunavut. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Paul: I really enjoyed the interactive nature of the botany workshops I held—where else could you search out fascinating Arctic plants while students and staff from the North shared their knowledge and perspective, all the while munching down on tangy, delicious mountain sorrel (qungulit in Inuktitut—Oxyria digyna is its scientific name)?

Museum biologist Paul Sokoloff explains the importance of the expedition and Arctic research to the advancement of science and the future of youth. Video: © Student on Ice Foundation

Kieran: I ran a workshop on prospecting for fossils but one of my best workshops happened by accident.

We landed in a place where there was no hope of finding fossils. I decided to run an “ology” workshop. As a group, we attempted to identify as many scientific disciplines as possible in the area. By the end of the workshop, we had covered mineralogy, bryology (moss), lichenology (lichens), archaeology, palaeontology, zoology and osteology (bones). The zoology, botany and geology of the Arctic are so unique.

Collage: Several buildings. A man looks through a magnifying glass at a fossil.

Right: The abandoned RCMP outpost at Dundas Harbour, Devon Island, Nunavut, stands silent watch over the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. Left: Kieran Shepherd examines a beach fossil out on the shores of Beechey Island, Nunavut. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Paul: Kieran’s “ology” workshop was a smashing success, and indeed highlighted the extraordinary interdisciplinary possibilities made real by being on expedition. Ailsa’s digital storytelling workshop was equally awesome: what better way to share this trip than with a compelling first-hand account!

Collage: Moss and bones.

Bones provide the nutrients and shelter necessary to allow small moss communities to spring up in the otherwise hostile polar desert. Image: Kieran Shepherd © Canadian Museum of Nature

For us, the highlight was certainly getting to know our fellow expeditioners. While we hope we inspired at least one future scientist (fingers crossed), I know that the future of the North will be bright if these inspiring young minds are the driving force behind it, wherever they choose to make a difference.

Collage: People stand on shore, a ship in the background. A rock with fossils.

The last major landing of our expedition, Beechey Island provided students with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of the Arctic, from the ruins of Northumberland House, dating back to the days of Franklin (left), and even further back to the Ordovician era, when the island was underwater—as the coral fossils (right) attest to. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Fieldwork | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Arctic Field Trip: Ice in July Makes for Resourceful Researchers

In the Arctic, weather rules everything. Every Arctic researcher could tell you a story of how their Arctic field plans had to be changed—sometimes dramatically—because of uncooperative weather. This was certainly the case with our Arctic botany field trip in July.

Working with a team of researchers from Environment Canada, we had planned to visit numerous small islands along the north shore of Hudson Strait to study eider ducks and plants. We were to leave Cape Dorset (the community on Dorset Island closest to the study area) in early July and travel by boat to the islands. However, an excessive amount of sea ice around Dorset Island and all along northern Hudson Strait made it impossible to travel anywhere in the area by boat for most of July.

A motorboat and snowmobile sit on the ice.

A freighter canoe and snow machine sit on the sea ice in Cape Dorset Harbour on Dorset Island, Nunavut. A cold spring and summer resulted in persistent ice, preventing locals and researchers from getting out to their coastal summer camps. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because there are plants to study wherever one happens to be in the Arctic, we are usually able to be productive in our research, even when delayed. Indeed, on most of our previous trips, we have taken advantage of weather delays to make collections in the communities from which we travel to more-remote areas, and that is exactly what we did this year. Part of our goal was to document the vascular plants of Dorset Island and adjacent Mallik Island, and it turned out that we had more than enough time to do this while we waited for the ice to clear.

See the landscape of Dorset Island and southern Baffin Island, where we also collected plants this summer. The cool spring and summer delayed the melting of the ice and the re-appearance of plants. By the end of our July collecting season, some flowers started to appear. Still images in the video: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

We spent 13 days exploring and collecting the botanical diversity in and around the community under very un-summery conditions. The maximum temperatures rarely exceeded 5°C, a lot of snow remained in some areas, and on most days there was dense fog and rain.

A man carrying a rifle stands with a bay and Cape Dorset in the background.

Jeff Saarela in Mallikjuaq Territorial Park across from Cape Dorset. Members of the botany research team carry shotguns for protection when working in areas inhabited by polar bears. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because of that, plant growth was very late, even for this middle Arctic area. Many of the earliest-flowering Arctic species, like purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) and the multiple species of Arctic willows (Salix spp.), had not yet started or were just beginning to flower, a good two or so weeks later than their average appearance for that area, according to community members.

A plant in bloom.

Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), the territorial flower of Nunavut, is one of the first plants to flower in the Arctic. On Dorset Island this year, it bloomed in mid-July—about two weeks later than usual—because of a cold spring and summer. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Most of the plants that we collected during the first week or so of the trip were at stages of growth that are not normally collected or even observed by field botanists. Many collections comprised winter-green leaves, last summers’ flowering stems and fruits, and small pre-formed buds at the bases of the plants that were initiated last summer and will develop into this season’s shoots and flowers.

These pre-formed buds are an adaptation to the extreme Arctic environment, allowing the plants to quickly develop once the snow melts and temperatures increase. By the end of two weeks, temperatures had increased slightly and the vegetation was showing more life, particularly on the warmest south-facing slopes that receive the most sunlight.

Two views of a plant in bloom.

The snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis) is an early-blooming plant that favours moist, disturbed habitats such as stream banks and roadsides. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Plant collections have been done on Dorset Island over the past century, as early as the 1920s by Arctic explorer Dewey Soper. However, the flora of the island has never been analysed or reported on in detail in the scientific literature. As such, we did not know if the record of plant diversity for the island was complete. Based on our field work, it is now clear the collections made by our botanical predecessors represent a comprehensive inventory of the plants of the area.

A man crouches to collect a plant.

Jeff Saarela collects plant specimens in Mallikjuaq Territorial Park. The park is located on Mallik Island, adjacent to Dorset Island, Nunavut, where the team was staying. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our 310 new collections add to that record, and among them are several species not previously recorded for Dorset Island. These include some sedge species (Carex rupestris, C. rariflora and C. supina), mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), diapensia (Diapensia lapponica) and Arctic thrift (Armeria maritima).

The precise number of plant species known in the area awaits the careful study of our new collections and the re-examination of all the existing ones made in the area.

Several stems on a piece of paper.

Snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis) specimens ready to be pressed and dried. All plants collected are processed in this way. The result is flat, dry specimens that will be housed in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

A synthesis of all the floristic information for the area brought together in a single scientific paper will provide a new baseline for understanding the vascular plant diversity of Dorset Island, on which future explorations can be based. And our new collections will contribute to our ongoing Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska project.

Although our original field plans didn’t work out, we made the best of the situation we found ourselves in, and we had a productive research trip. There is one upside to collecting plants in miserable, sub-five-degree temperatures: no mosquitoes.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Plants to Papers

For botanists, summer is field season, and each July we fill our social-media accounts with our plans for Arctic expeditions, dispatches from the field and just-in reports of new discoveries. There’s romance and adventure in fieldwork, no doubt about that. It’s hard work too, as any field researcher can attest. But the time in between trips is when we make each one of those expeditions really count.

A man stands at a table piled with herbarium sheets.

Before they are mounted and filed into the National Herbarium of Canada, the thousands of plants collected on any given trip have to be sorted to species level for identification. Image: Micheline Beaulieu-Bouchard © Canadian Museum of Nature

Floristics (the science of documenting the plant species of a given area) is one of the main aims of each of these expeditions. The first step is to comprehensively collect all the plant species in a given area, southern Baffin Island where Jeff and Roger are now, for example. Step two is to come home, sort the plants out for identification and catch up on some much needed sleep. The longest step, number three, is to get down to our microscopes, and to start identifying and writing.

Collage: A man sits at a microscope, an open herbarium cabinet.

Long hours in the field are matched with even longer hours in the herbarium, examining and identifying hundreds of specimens for each floristic paper. Fortunately Dr. Jeff Saarela (left) considers this a lot of fun! Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Rather than simply report on our new collections, a proper floristics paper includes an account of all of the collections previously made in the area and synthesizes these distribution records into a new contribution to knowledge about the species and the area we’re studying.

Therefore, we spend a lot of time looking through various floras and previously published papers, consulting with experts on various challenging species and poring over herbarium specimens—loans from other institutions and our own. Good thing our National Herbarium of Canada has one of the biggest collections of Canadian Arctic plants anywhere on the planet.

Collage: Three plants in situ.

New and noteworthy records in our Phytokeys paper include the northern bog orchid (Platanthera obtusata, left), bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia, upper right) and foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum, lower right). Images: Roger Bull, Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over the past few months, two such floristic papers written by our team have been published. New vascular plant records for the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (published in the online journal PhytoKeys) is filled with new records, taxonomic changes and range extensions for species and locations across the Canadian Arctic Islands.

It serves to update the museum’s previously published Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Collage: Three plants in situ.

Colourful High Arctic species documented in our Canadian Field-Naturalist paper include Arctic willow (Salix arctica, upper left), flat-top draba (Draba corymbosa, lower left) and spider saxifrage (Saxifraga flagellaris subsp. platysepala, right). Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The other paper (in The Canadian Field-Naturalist), The Flora of Cunningham Inlet, is a summary of all the plant species known from the paper’s namesake on northern Somerset Island, Nunavut, and represents the scientific outcome of the 2013 Arctic Watch Lodge youth expedition. In the future, this publication may serve as a handy reference for monitoring floristic change in Canada’s High Arctic polar deserts.

Three men stand around a full plant press.

Our next floristic paper will likely be on the plants of the Coppermine River valley in Nunavut, where we collected in the summer of 2014. The (many) plants inside this massive press will form the backbone of that work. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

As we continue to collect, we’ll continue to write these floristic papers because, as the old saying goes, “Science not published is science not finished.”

And under the auspices of the new Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration, each one of these smaller works also feed into our larger floristic goal: the publication of the new Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Fieldwork Matters

Before almost every trip to Central America that I take I get the usual questions from people thinking I am going to a tropical paradise of endless sun and beaches. I’m not, and I love it! Generally my destinations are high elevation, cold, wet, cloud-shrouded forests that by 2:00 in the afternoon are usually drenched by heavy rains. It may not be for everyone, but it’s my kind of paradise!

Three men standing in front of house on hillside.

Accommodations at Vega Del Volcan, on the slopes of Volcan Tacana, surrounded by forests. San Marcos, Guatemala, 2600m elevation. Photo: © Jose Monzon

On June 1, I departed Ottawa for Guatemala. This was my fifth trip to this diverse Central American country and I thought perhaps my last. I was beginning to think that maybe I had collected specimens in all of the major areas of the country, and had the diversity of the weevil fauna (beetles) well enough represented in our collections, that no more trips would be necessary. Alas, it was not to be so. Let me illustrate with three examples of discoveries of new species made on this last trip.

1. Nemonychids in Guatemala
Nemonychidae refer to a primitive group of weevils commonly known as pine flower snout beetles. There are two main groups: one in North America associated with pines, and one in South America associated with monkey puzzle trees (genus Araucaria). In the last few years a few specimens of the genus Atopomacer have been collected in Mexico on pines, and in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, on a strange conifer genus called Podocarpus. No Nemonychidae were known from Guatemala; that is, until my most recent trip. At two places we noticed some Podocarpus trees and were wondering if we might get some nemonychids from leaf litter underneath the trees. Sure enough we got specimens of Atopomacer at both places. It’s unknown right now if these new specimens represent an already named species or something new. Dissections of the internal structures, especially male genitalia, should provide these answers.

An extreme close-up of a beige-looking beetle.

A possible new species of the nemonychid genus Atopomacer. This is a male as can be seen by the y-shaped projection coming from between the front legs. Near Zacapa, Guatemala. Photo: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

2. Cylindrocopturus on cactus
The cacti are a group of spiny succulent plants limited in their native distribution to North, Central and South America. One of the strangest is a tree-like cactus placed in the genus Pereskia. I knew of no weevils associated with Pereskia outside of South America, but when we discovered some Pereskia trees outside of the town of Zacapa in southern Guatemala, we started searching them for weevils. Within a few minutes we had collected a number of specimens of a relatively large weevil in the genus Cylindrocopturus, a group generally associated with many other plant families. We continued looking and ended up with a good number. I’m pretty sure the species is new and represents the first Pereskia-associated weevil discovered in Central America.

An extreme close-up of a beetle with light and dark colours.

A possible new species of the weevil genus Cylindrocopturus from the primitive cactus genus Pereskia. Found in Zacapa, Guatemala. Photo: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

3. New species of Theognete (which is also my Twitter handle)
The weevil fauna of the leaf litter in tropical forests appears to be endless; at least that is what I am beginning to think after this trip. Back in the early 1900s a British weevil expert George Champion described a genus he called Theognete. He had two specimens of Theognete, and even though they were from distant localities—one in Mexico and one in Guatemala—he considered them one species that he called Theognete laevis. Based largely upon my fieldwork over the past 25 years at the Canadian Museum of Nature, we now know that Theognete is much more diverse with over 90 new species recently described by me and another 15 or so new ones being readied for formal description and naming. What was once thought to be but one rare species turns out to be one of the most common and diverse members of the leaf litter community in Central American cloud forests. So, had we reached the end? No. This most recent trip did not disappoint, adding at least four more new species to the seemingly endless list. It seems that every new forest we sample, even if only a few kilometres from the last, continues to reveal new species of this genus.

An extreme close-up of a dark beetle.

Another new species of the leaf litter weevil genus Theognete. There are now over 100 species of this genus known. Quiche, Guatemala. Photo: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Newly collected specimens can represent new species, adding to the long list of diversity on earth. They can test hypotheses of relationships by seeing how well they fit into existing classifications, add new host plant or habitat associations, or augment our knowledge of geographic distribution and of character evolution. Out of the thousands of specimens we collected on this trip, these are just three examples of groups that illustrate why fieldwork matters. I could have recounted the details of many others. It’s these exciting species discoveries that reinforce my love of fieldwork and encourage me to continue to head out to “my paradise” every chance I get.

Moss-covered tall oak trees.

The fantastic moss-laden oak forest at Las Majadas. Bob and his colleagues were the first people to collect specimens of leaf litter insects here. Huehuetenango, Guatemala, 3000m elevation. Photo: © Jose Monzon

A scientist and his Guatemalan guide posing in the mountains.

Bob Anderson and Esteban Matías, our local guide from Todos Santos at the highest non-volcanic place in Guatemala, La Torre, Aldea Xemal, 3900m elevation. Photo: © Jose Monzon

During this trip to Guatemala, Bob was accompanied by Zack Falin, Collection Manager of Insects at the University of Kansas and Jose Monzon, a superb Guatemalan photographer, naturalist and guide.

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

An Exceptional Antarctic Scientist

Being a scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature means many things: discovering nature, publishing your research, mentoring students, talking to the media, giving peer reviews, and the list goes on. It is a diverse and fulfilling career.

A person stands beside an immense iceberg.

Iceberg lodged in the sea ice in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Image: Kathy Conlan © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the “peer review category”, I recently had the honour of serving on the selection committee for the prestigious Martha T. Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. This is a US $100 000 prize funded by the Tinker Foundation and is a legacy of the International Polar Year. The prize is for a mid-career scientist and is unrestricted. It could be used to help students, go to Antarctica, put on a workshop or pay your mortgage. Your choice.

A mass of ice hangs just above the sea bed.

The same iceberg viewed from underwater. The dropstones frozen in the iceberg give a record of its movements as they drop off. Image: Kathy Conlan © Canadian Museum of Nature

We were a group of six judges from diverse Antarctic backgrounds with 12 distinguished candidates to review. Each candidate had been nominated by a peer who provided us with a thorough review of their career and letters of support from other peers. The nominees had incredible Antarctic careers and glowing reviews. To choose one who was just that much more incredible was our task. We were guided by the expertise of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, which administers the prize.

After much deliberation, we chose Dr. Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a French scientist who has dedicated her career to understanding past changes in the climate of Antarctica and how they may predict future climate locally and worldwide.

A woman stands in front of a snowy landscape.

Valérie Masson-Delmotte, the 2015 Martha T. Muse Prize winner. Image: Marc Delmotte © Marc Delmotte

Valérie studies glacier ice cores using various clues, such as changes in stable isotopes, to determine what the climate was and how it varied. Among her significant findings are that the last Antarctic deglaciation happened in synchrony with increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, just like is happening today. Valérie is a prominent leader in her field, mentors many students, gives popular talks and writes books for school children. She is a well-known scientific leader in France and was awarded the 2013 Prix Irène Joliot Curie (website In French) for Scientific Woman of the Year.

It was indeed an honour to be part of the judging team and to think that the Canadian Museum of Nature’s expertise reaches so far. Congratulations, Dr. Masson-Delmotte!

Posted in Arctic, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Nature Inside and Out

The latest exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature is a provocative look at the inside of animal bodies. A technique called plastination gives durable, graphic and artistic results that allow curious viewers to see and compare biological systems of many different species.

For centuries before this innovative plastination approach, scientists dissected plants and animals to compare anatomical features in an effort to answer their questions. As well as telling us about how the various animals live, the comparison of physical features is also the foundation of taxonomy—the naming and classification of species. Comparative anatomy is a primary tool of species discovery.

A room full of mounted skeletons.

Part of the skeleton collection in the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, National Museum of Natural History, in Paris. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

The size of an anatomical feature (for example, the length of a jaw), or the number of body parts (for example, the number of spines in a fish’s fin), are part of the list of characteristics that can help to distinguish one species from another.

Sometimes, scientists have to dig much deeper to find those critical markers of identity. For example, researchers working with insects often have to dissect and study the shape of the reproductive system to establish the identity of a species. And in most cases, a full diagnosis requires a long list of characteristics.

Illustration of the bones in a human arm, dog leg, bird wing, whale flipper.

A comparison of the upper limbs of vertebrates; colours indicate similar structures for each. Image: Volkov Vladislav Petrovich © Volkov Vladislav Petrovich (licensed: CC BY-SA 4.0)

One thing that all biologists know is that nature offers a great deal of variability in all living things. To fully understand those variations for each species, an extensive collection is ideal. Such a collection is amassed across a wide range of geography and over time. A large collection provides for understandings about the variety of shapes and sizes, differences between males and females, and how a species responds to different environmental conditions.

Collage: Drawings of two fishes.

Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Left: Adult male colouration when it is living in the ocean. Right: Adult males live in freshwater when in reproductive condition, as seen here. Images: Jmabel, United States Government, and Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service © Public domain

Recently, new tools have emerged to assist in the detailed task of identifying species. The use of genetic material such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) can be fast and powerful in differentiating and comparing species. Molecular techniques are especially useful for comparing species that are closely related and difficult or impossible to separate based on just anatomical parts, or for identifying species in their larval stages before they reach the more identifiable adult stage. Because of these new methods and tools, museums are now storing tissues and genetic material for future scientific research in addition to collecting entire plants and animals.

Collage: Drawings of two plants.

Two species of Arctic grasses that are difficult to tell apart by their physical appearance alone (left: Puccinellia banksiensis; right: P. phryganodes). Museum scientists have established a DNA procedure to distinguish hundreds of Arctic plants (read the article). Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history collections come together through field work and in exchanges with an extensive network of collaborators. Museums’ species-discovery programmes include the preservation and sharing of the specimens and data they collect for scientific questions now, and for centuries to come. The Canadian Museum of Nature forges scientific collaborations amongst the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada, with the Alliance of Natural History Museums of the Arctic, and with colleagues at universities, government labs, and other museums around the globe. As we continue our adventures in species discovery, we take a careful look at nature inside and out.

An X-ray of three fish.

An X-ray of three Arctic sculpin species. Top to bottom: Polar Sculpin (Cottunculus microps), Longhorn Sculpin (Myoxocephalus octodecemspinosis) and Fourhorn Sculpin (M. quadricornis). See this X-ray and others at the museum in Beneath the Surface: X-rays of Arctic Fish. Image: Noel Alfonso, Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Collections, Research, Tools of the trade | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tiny Clams That Thrive in Dry Ponds

by Shan Leung and James Darling

The Herrington’s fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale) is one of the smallest bivalves in Canada. At only 7 mm long, it is smaller than—you guessed it—a fingernail!

It is also the only bivalve in Canada that lives exclusively in vernal pools: small, temporary bodies of water that form in the spring and dry out by mid- or late summer. While they last, vernal pools harbour a number of amphibious and dry-resistant species, including tadpoles, salamanders, insect larvae, fairy shrimp and water fleas.

This pool forms every spring and disappears every fall.

This pool forms every spring and disappears every fall. It is located on the museum’s property in Gatineau, Quebec, in the sector of Aylmer. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

This year, as summer students, we are putting on our rubber boots and bug jackets to collect these tiny clams. We’re working at the museum’s research and collections facility, on the 76 hectare property. Joining us are Noel Alfonso, an ichthyologist and head of the Environmental Monitoring Program at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and André Martel, a leading Canadian malacologist.

By sectioning the vernal pools into quadrats from which to sample, the team will estimate population density on the property. Preliminary results suggest there may be as many as 200 of these tiny animals per square metre of pond!

Noel Alfonso (left), Shan Leung (middle), and James Darling (right) take a look at their collection.

Noel Alfonso (left), Shan Leung (middle), and James Darling (right) take a look at their collection. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Living in vernal pools presents significant challenges for the Herrington’s fingernail clam.

First, it must survive when its habitat dries out each year. To this end, the Herrington’s fingernail clam is the most amphibious bivalve in Canada, spending most of the year locked in dry land (although the mud in which it buries itself may remain damp for the rest of the summer).

Second of all, new generations of the clam must somehow disperse if it is to colonize new pools. How the clam does this is something of a mystery. Here’s a possible explanation: it takes to the skies.

The Herrington’s fingernail clam may not have wings but its tiny larvae are able to hitch a ride on passing Wood Ducks, other waterfowl, or even large flying insects to new pools where they can colonize. Once there, a single larva can mature and, once an adult, reproduce clonally (a process called parthenogenesis) to colonize the entire pool.

Herrington's fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale) at five different ages. Individuals can live up to a few years, overwintering several times during this period.

Herrington’s fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale) at five different ages. Individuals can live up to a few years, overwintering several times during this period. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Despite the challenges presented by life in vernal pools, such a lifestyle also presents one momentous advantage. Temporary bodies of water in temperate areas do not sustain fish populations, which are the major predators of these bivalve molluscs. By spending their entire lives in vernal pools, fingernail clams have found a special kind of sanctuary, safe from their erstwhile predators.

Our team is looking forward to uncovering more about these tiny clams over the summer!

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Need Inspiration? Come See Our Collections!

Did you know that our 10 million specimens are a source of artistic inspiration?

Visual artist Mary Baranowski-Lowden routinely visits our collections at our research and collections facility to make drawings.

Mary’s main medium of expression is etching. She moved from the very urban city of Toronto, Ontario, and now lives in a pastoral setting along the Gatineau River in Wakefield, Quebec. She finds the nature that surrounds her inspired her work. Its complexity presents its own challenges.

It all began with a bird’s nest. The sculpture-like construction intrigued her. Driven by the desire to understand, be inspired by this “work of art”, and do justice to Mother Nature’s model in her drawings, Mary decided she wanted to learn more about the nest and the species of bird that created it.

Collage of nest, bird and plant images

Top left: Copper engraving of the first nest, drawn below. Right: Prized collage (Natural Elements II) containing the same nest. Images: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

In the spring of 2014, Mary made a visit to the museum. She met with Michel Gosselin, head of the Bird Collection. His scientific expertise and explanations helped Mary base her creations on a better understanding of nature.

This way, our collections have become a precious resource for her as well! By observing her subjects in minute detail, the artist discovers anatomical details that would otherwise not be detectable. These observations eventually become part of the larger picture in her personal interpretations specific to her surroundings.

A beaver's head.

A beaver’s muzzle is hairy! See how short the hairs are near the nostrils, growing longer and longer and changing colour as you move further away. This type of detail fascinates Mary Baranowski-Lowden and is almost impossible to capture in a natural setting. Image: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over time, Mary has diversified and enriched her exploration of nature. The inspiration she derives from nature seems infinite. After birds, the artist is now taking an interest in the mammals in our collections. Her studies provide material for her River Diaries.

Illustration: A heron, flowers and insects.

River Diaries III, multi-plate etching with Chine collé and watercolour. Mary starts her work by drawing her subject. Using an etching tool on the copper plate, she exposes the area of fine lines that defines the image to an acid bath. The lines are engraved into the copper by the acid. Finally, the artist prints and arranges her works in much the same way as a patchwork. This process takes time to develop—much like nature itself. Image: © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

Since Mary’s childhood, a time when she loved drawing nature in the company of her mother, much water has run under the bridge. After a fulfilling artistic career teaching art to children, and after travelling to various countries, particularly in Asia, she has come back to her sources.

This is also an opportunity for her to reconcile science and art. Unlike her two sisters who both pursued scientific careers, Mary struggled with scientific concepts in school. Today, she uses chemistry in her work on copper plates. Her fascination with anatomical details can be likened to the scientific accuracy that informs biology.

That’s a good example of how art and science come together to make nature shine!

Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa recently awarded Mary the Gordon J. Wood Print Purchase Prize for two of her works: Natural Elements I and II. Jean-Claude Bergeron, one of the jurors and director of the gallery, commented on the quality of her works, stressing that Mary Baranowski-Lowden’s compositions are a witness to her love and understanding of nature.

Collage with a bird, feathers and plants.

Natural Elements I. Art and nature are bound together in the artist work. Image: © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

Natural Element II is showing in Ottawa at the Carleton University Art Gallery until August 23.

Also, on October 24, 2015, the Canadian Museum of Nature will opens the doors of its research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec. Visitors will be able to go behind the scenes and meet the experts who curate and study the collections. Admission is free.

Translated from French.

Posted in Art, Collections | Tagged | 2 Comments