War Ornithologists

The two great wars that marked the first half of the 20th century saw a substantial number of recruits mobilized and sent to the front. Given that the recruits were from all walks of life, inevitably there were some who were passionate about the natural sciences. Despite harrowing living conditions, some soldiers tried to document the “natural” environment in which they were immersed. The Canadian Museum of Nature holds specimens dating from these difficult times; here are three examples.

rev_CMNAV_13020

Left: a magpie collected in Flanders in March 1917 by Major Allan Brooks. Catalogue number: CMNAV 13020. Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica). Image : Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature Right: Major Allan Brooks. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Public domain.

Allan Brooks (1869–1946) was a wildlife artist living in British Columbia. He had joined the militia even before the start of the First World War, and spent the entire period from 1914 to 1918 in England and France.

In 1917, he was posted at Mont des Cats in Flanders (a place that would be the scene of a significant German offensive). It was there that he was able to collect some bird specimens, and pass them on to his colleague Percy Taverner, the first ornithologist of what is now the Canadian Museum of Nature. It is known that Brooks partly lost his hearing while at the front, to the point where he said he was “no longer able to hear the song of the skylark”

Upon his discharge, Allan Brooks had reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Back home, he contributed illustrations to Percy Taverner’s 1926 Birds of Western Canada. Brooks deposited many of his European specimens with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Birds in the War-Zone, written in October 1916, describes his ornithological observations in Europe. Notably, he wrote that some birds did not seem to be unduly affected by artillery fire, which sometimes lasted for hours.

Ventral view of a quail specimen and a close-up view of one of the tags attached to the bird's feet. Showing the text: Coturnix c. coturnix L .; 29.V.1943; Kasar bei Orel, Russland.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has specimens from both sides of the front. Here, a quail collected in Russia in 1943 by a soldier of the German army. Catalogue number: CMNAV 68810. Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix). Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The young Viennese ornithologist Rudolf Tomek (1913–1943) was an employee of the Provincial Museum of Lower Austria. When Germany annexed Austria, he was conscripted into the army and sent to the front, in Russia, in 1942. The following year, he was killed during a Russian counteroffensive in the Orel region, south of Moscow.

Tomek had managed to send some birds collected in Russia to the Vienna Museum of Natural History. By a singular combination of circumstances, one of these specimens (a Common Quail) was part of a 1979 exchange of specimens between this Austrian museum and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ventral view of a Grey-faced Buzzard specimen and close-up view of the tags attached to the bird's legs. It reads among others: Japan, Okinawa; Butastur indicus; October 13, 1945; A. R. Phillips.

This hawk is among the specimens collected by Corporal Allan R. Phillips as part of research on Japanese encephalitis vectors on Okinawa Island after the US landing in 1945. Catalogue number: CMNAV 96710. Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus). Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Allan R. Phillips (1914–1996) was a biologist best known for his work on the birds of Arizona and Mexico. In 1942, while a doctoral student in ornithology at Cornell University (New York, USA), he was enlisted in the US Army.

After surviving the Normandy landing in 1944, he was dispatched to Japan during the invasion of Okinawa Island in 1945. On the island, he met by chance a Cornell colleague, Sergeant Frank Cassell, who assigned Phillips to medical research

Corporal Phillips thus found himself studying the birds of Okinawa Island as potential vectors of Japanese encephalitis. Some of the specimens collected during this period now belong to the Canadian Museum of Nature which acquired part of Phillips’ collections in 1980.

(Translated from French)

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One Hundred Lichens New to Quebec, Canada, and North America from the Gaspé Peninsula

In 2007, during an alpine ski touring trip in the backcountry of Parc national de la Gaspésie on the Gaspé Peninsula in eastern Quebec, I noticed a surprisingly rich lichen diversity. This discovery inspired me to begin an ongoing study of the park’s lichens.

I was not the first scientist drawn to Gaspé to explore lichens. In the late 1800’s, John Macoun, Canada’s first Dominion Botanist (and a lichenologist), collected specimens in the area that is now the park. In the early 1900’s, Merrit Fernald, a Harvard University professor and botanist, lead several trips to the region to study its plants and lichens.

A group of researchers pose in the field in 1923.

Merritt Fernald (furthest left) and his 1923 expedition team to the Gaspé Peninsula. Image: © Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University.

These pioneering collectors were the first of more than 40 researchers who have studied the park’s lichens. When I began my study, almost 300 lichen species were known in the park. There are now over 600 species, ranking the park among North America’s richest lichen locales.

Many of the new discoveries were made with the help of my colleagues during our annual gathering of lichenologists, the Tuckerman Workshop. We found 100 lichens in the park that had never been reported from Quebec. Twelve of these species are new to Canada and six of those are new to North America.

A yellow lichen, alongside the map of known specimens in North America.

The North American distribution of the limestone sunshine lichen, Vulpicida juniperinus. The population in Parc national de la Gaspésie is marked with a red triangle. Image: R. Troy McMullin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The rich lichen biota in Parc national de la Gaspésie is due to its diverse habitats, including old-growth woodlands, different forest types, lush river valleys, and a coastal influence. The mountain summits also have arctic-alpine environments and contain species that otherwise only grow in the western mountains and the Arctic. For example, the limestone sunshine lichen Vulpicida juniperinus is at its southern range limit in eastern North America in the park. The closest population occurs over 1000 km to the north.

A view of lush forested park from the peak of a hill.

Parc national de la Gaspésie from the summit of Mount Albert. Image: R. Troy McMullin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

My lichen study in the park will continue until all corners have been explored and the discovery of new species becomes infrequent.

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Solving the mystery of a metal-oxide coating threatening to cover Mi’kmaq Petroglyphs in Nova Scotia

Laboriously carved into the rocky shores of lakes and rivers in central Nova Scotia are approximately 400 historic petroglyphs created by the people of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. These beautiful and elaborate images record intricate aspects of daily life, such as hunting and fishing, as well as the arrival of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The preservation of these petroglyphs is under constant threat, whether from natural erosion, vandalism, or changing water levels caused by hydroelectric dams.

Since the 1990’s another threat has emerged: several of the petroglyphs on the shores of Kejimkujik Lake, in Kejimkujik National Park, have been overgrown by an unusual metal-oxide rock coating.

Now, Parks Canada conservation scientist Despoina Kavousanaki, Ph.D. and I are using some of the most advanced analytical techniques to determine the origin of this mysterious coating, and hopefully find ways to prevent it.

Our research began with using a state-of-the-art field-emission scanning electron microscope to map the distribution of metal elements on the surface of a small subsample of metal-oxide covered rock.

In a scanning electron microscope, electrons are bounced-off the surface of a sample to construct an image that provides data about the sample’s shape and chemical composition. The rock images revealed a distribution of the metals manganese and iron on the rock’s surface.

Did these elements originate from inside the rock, the lake water, or elsewhere?

A collage of four images showing rock samples as described in the caption.

Images taken of a sample of rock cut from near one of the Kejimkujuk Lake petroglyphs. (a) The original rock type (light colour) and the metal-oxide coating (dark colour). The average thickness of the coating is less than 1 mm. (b) A scanning electron micrograph of the coated region. Brighter colours reveal metal-rich regions. (c-d) A series of chemical maps showing the distribution of the elements on the rock surface, iron (Fe, blue) and manganese (Mn, green). More intensely-coloured regions are those with the highest metal concentration. Image: Aaron Lussier, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

To answer this question, we used a focused ion beam to remove a tiny section of the metallic coating so that we could image it with a transmission electron microscope. The focused ion beam uses a beam of gallium ions to cut a slice of rock just 65-nanometers thick, approximately 1,500 times thinner than the width of a human hair. In a transmission electron microscope, a powerful electron beam is shot right through the sample material and then used to construct an image, similar to how a normal microscope uses light waves. The transmission electron microscope is so powerful it can magnify objects more than one million times, almost imaging single atoms.

The images we collected in this way show an intricate array of extremely small mineral fragments. The shapes and textures of these hold important clues about the complex processes, whether natural or human, that may have instigated the movement and deposition of metal oxides on the rock surface. The shape and aggregation of the mineral fragments suggest the involvement of bacterial processes.

Samples of electron microscope data

Transmission electron microscope data collected on a subsample of the metal-oxide coating found on a Kejimkujuk petroglyph. Note the very small scale. General overview of the sample showing (a) the mineralogical/textural and (b) compositional complexity of coating. Each colour corresponds to a different mineral composition. (c) A high-resolution transmission electron microscope (TEM) image of a single grain of clay found in the sample, the observed parallel lines (e) result from the underlying atomic structure in the sample. (d) A higher-resolution TEM image of manganese-oxide nanoparticles. Image: Aaron Lussier, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our next step will be to make a detailed geological map of the areas of interest in order to assess the extent of the coating and correlate it with rock composition.

These analyses will enable us to better understand how the coating-related metals move in the local environment and how to make the best possible choices to ensure the preservation of this important First Nations heritage. Stay tuned!

 

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Fossil solved great dinosaur cheek debate

When I was recently asked to pick a significant fossil from the museum’s collection to profile in a video, I had a difficult time making up my mind – we have thousands of remarkable specimens. In the end my choice came down to an intriguing question: Did dinosaurs have cheeks?

As a museum paleontologist, much of my research focuses on the animals that lived in western North America during the Late Cretaceous epoch, about 80 to 70 million years ago, the end of the reign of the dinosaurs as the dominant group on the planet. So, it was a safe bet that my pick would be a Cretaceous dinosaur.

Then the skull of the armoured dinosaur Panoplosaurus mirus jumped to mind as definitely meriting some discussion.

Collected in 1917 from what’s now Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, it’s the holotype, the specimen on which the species has been defined.

And, this well-preserved Panoplosaurus skull helped decide the debate about whether dinosaurs had cheeks.

Watch the video to learn the answer.

Want to meet Panoplosaurus mirus in person? Join me at our annual Open House at the Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau on October 13, 2018, the behind-the-scenes event at the Museum’s research and collections facility.

I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have, and rest assured, I’ll refrain from any cheeky tones in my responses, even if we’re talking about Panoplosaurus!

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Undiscovered backyard biodiversity: New lichen species discovered in Guelph, Canada

You might think that the discovery of new species requires travel to distant and less explored parts of the world. In fact, they can still be found in our own backyards.

During a recent survey for lichens in The Arboretum at the University of Guelph, my colleagues and I discovered a new species of lichen, Chaenotheca selvae (McMullin et al. 2018).

A close up image of a stubble lichen species.

Chaenotheca selvae, a new species of lichen discovered in Guelph, Canada. Troy McMullin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We named the species in honour of emeritus University of Maine professor, Dr. Steven Selva, for his more than three decades of important contributions to the study of stubble lichens and fungi, or calicioids, the group to which C. selvae belongs.

Stubble lichens and fungi are small (0.1 to 2 millimetres tall) stalked species that resemble facial stubble on the tree trunks and branches on which they live. They’re so small that they are often difficult to find, which might explain why the new species was overlooked until now.

We discovered 111 species of lichens and allied fungi in The Arboretum, including a new species to Canada, Caloplaca soralifera, and more than a dozen rare species, such as Bacidina egenula, which is only the third record of this species in Ontario (McMullin et al. 2014).

Bacidina_egenula

Bacidina egenula, known to occur at only three locales in Ontario. Troy McMullin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our research highlights the importance of protecting old-growth forests, particularly in areas where few remain, such as southern Ontario, as sources of rare and undiscovered biodiversity.

Chaenotheca selvae is also a tiny but powerful reminder that when we look carefully, new species await discovery right in our own backyards.

References

McMullin, R.T., J. Maloles, C. Earley, and S.G. Newmaster. 2014. The Arboretum at the University of Guelph, Ontario: An urban refuge for lichen biodiversity. North American Fungi 9: 1-16.

McMullin, R.T., J. Maloles, S. Selva, and S.G. Newmaster. 2018. A synopsis of the genus Chaenotheca in North America, including a new species from southern Ontario, C. selvae. Botany 96: 547–553.

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Finnish moth species is asexual with benefits

In central Finland there is a group of moths whose common name is bagworm moths because the larvae, or caterpillars, live in bags that they make from leaves and twigs. What’s even more noteworthy about these moths is that for many species males are unnecessary.

Bagworms belong to the family Psychidae which includes species living side-by-side in Finland that reproduce either sexually or asexually. This make these moths ideal for studying the ecological and evolutionary benefits of parthenogenesis—when a female’s eggs develop without being fertilized by a male, or asexually.

A brown moth larva next to a case made of forest debris

A wingless female bagworm moth (Dahlica fennicella) and its homemade case. Right, pupal remains. Image: Veronica Chevasco, © Veronica Chevasco

Sexual reproduction increases genetic variation and is thus central in evolution. However, what the parthenogenic bagworms are revealing is that asexuality may not be as limiting to a species’ survival as some have thought.

In fact, my research with bagworms shows that asexuality can be an adaptive advantage rather than an evolutionary dead end.

For example, by being parthenogenetic it appears that the bagworm species Dahlica fennicella is less vulnerable to wasp parasitism than related sexually reproducing moths.

It could be that behavioural differences between sexual and parthenogenetic species help D. fennicella avoid parasite attacks. It’s also possible that D. fennicella is successful because its offspring are not genetically identical clones, and with four sets of chromosomes, the multiple gene copies might overcome harmful mutations and even some parasitism.

A small brown moth seen from above.

Male bagworm moth (Dahlica fennicella). Image: Veronica Chevasco, © Veronica Chevasco.

Sexual and parthenogenetically reproducing moths look remarkably alike and so species must be identified using molecular methods, such as DNA barcoding. This molecular identification of sexual species shows that the parthenogenetic D. fennicella moth is a truly an asexual species, not a hybrid produced through the cross-breeding of two species of sexually reproducing bagmoths.

Four side-by-side images. A brown larva next to a brown case. An adult female moth. Two moth larvae. A wasp with long antennae and a long ovipositor.

(A) Bagworm larvae and their cases made from leaves and twigs. (B) A wingless, sessile female rests on her pupal case waiting for a mate. (C) A sessile, parthenogenetic bagworm moth. (D) A wasp that parasitizes bagworm moths. Image: Veronica Chevasco, © Veronica Chevasco

These bagworm moth findings don’t minimize the importance of sexual reproduction; parthenogenetic species generally evolve from sexual species and inherit diversity from their ancestral forms.

But the results do show that, among bagworm moths, parthenogenetic species appear to avoid the costs of sex while getting benefits from an asexual life.

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Collecting diatoms in sunny Italy: Citizen scientist brings specimens for museum’s collection

Last autumn I went on vacation with my brother to sunny Italy. Along with marvelling at St. Peter’s Basilica and eating great food, I did what any other keen museum volunteer would do: collect Italian freshwater diatoms for the museum’s collection.

A collage of various locations in Italy and the author.

Clockwise from top-left: St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City; gondolas in Venice; Pompeii with looming Mt. Vesuvius; Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily; citizen scientist Joe Holmes beside the Silvestri Crater, Mt Etna, Sicily; Isle of Capri and Tyrrhenian Sea. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Diatoms are fascinating, microscopic, one-celled algae, with a thin silica shell, measuring just five to 150 microns, or millionths of a meter.

A collage including a bridge over a river and several phytoplankton samples

Rome’s Tiber River looking toward the Sisto Bridge and St Peter’s Basilica. Two samples were taken here. The collected diatoms indicate alkaline pH, some brackishness, and moderate levels of organic nutrients. Left: Tryblionella constricta (36 µm x 6 µm). Second: Ulnaria acus (68 µm x 5 µm). Third: Frustulia vulgaris (44 µm x 10 µm). Right: Gyrosigma acuminatum (145 µm x 17 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These free-floating phytoplankton are the foundation of the aquatic food web, converting sunshine into stored chemical energy, and carbon dioxide into oxygen. Diatoms are found in all fresh and marine waters. Biologists use them for water quality analysis and climate change research.

A collage including a tower along a canal and several phytoplankton samples.

Florence’s Arno River Dam where a sample was taken at lower left. Top: Aulacoseira granulata (40 µm x 6 µm). Bottom-left: Gomphonema pala (23 µm x 10 µm). Middle: Diatoma vulgare (53 µm x 13 µm). Right: Encyonema prostratum (44 µm x 18 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Whenever I had free time during the trip, I collected various types of diatom samples, amassing a total of 41 from lakes, rivers, fountains and ponds across Italy, including Rome, Florence, Venice, and Sicily.

A collage including the author and several phytoplankton samples.

An irrigation canal near Pomposa on the Po River Delta. The diatoms were sampled using a mud retriever. They reveal the presence of higher levels of organic nutrients, likely from agricultural runoff. Left: Bacillaria paxillifera (55 µm x 4 µm). Second: Gomphonema insigne (57 µm x 11 µm). Top: Tryblionella levidensis (30 µm x 15 µm). Bottom: Cyclotella meneghiniana (12 µm x 12 µm). Image: Joe Holmes, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Back at the lab in the museum’s collections facility, samples were processed, and specimens photographed and identified using an online Italian government diatom guide. Interestingly, the diatoms reveal a lot about Italian water quality and terrain at the sampled sites.

A collage including a pond in a garden and several phytoplankton samples.

The Aquarium pond in the Orto Botanico di Palermo, Palermo, Sicily. Left: Navicula radiosa (70 µm x 10 µm). Top: Pseudostaurosira brevistriata (30 µm x 15 µm). Middle: Cocconeis placentula (22 µm x 14 µm). Bottom: Rhoicosphenia abbreviata (32 µm x 9 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

For example, most diatoms at sample sites indicate a preference for alkaline pH reflective of the limestone, volcanic and carbonate rocks that make up most of the Italian Peninsula. Some species are indicators of water with moderate to high levels of organic nutrients, likely from nearby farms. Lastly, some specimens indicate traces of brackish water, perhaps due to salt in the Italian soil or proximity to the Mediterranean Sea.

A collage including a river estuary and several phytoplankton samples.

Girgenti River Estuary, San Leone, Sicily. This is tidal water, with the Mediterranean Sea at left, so all the collected diatoms are marine species. Top: Achnanthes brevipes (27 µm x 8 µm) Second: Navicula ramosissima (43 µm x 7 µm) Third: Navicula longa var irregularis (48 µm x 9 µm) Bottom: Synedra fasciculata (31 µm x 6 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The trip yielded many of the same species of diatoms I’ve collected in Canada, Ireland and the Middle East.

A collage including a beach and several phytoplankton samples.

Torrente Santa Venera, Giardini Naxos, Sicily, looking southeast toward the Ionian Sea. Top: Nitzschia sigma (61 µm x 7 µm). Second: Nitzschia communis (29 µm x 4 µm). Third: Nitzschia recta (69 µm x 7 µm). Bottom: Navicula apiculata (34 µm x 9 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

For museum diatom researchers and students these new Italian specimens are proof that some scientific souvenirs can provide a lot more than just good memories!

A collage including a beach and several phytoplankton samples.

Vigna di Valle, Bracciano Lake, the source of Rome’s water. The collected diatoms indicate that the water is relatively clean, with low nutrient levels. Top: Aneumastus tuscula (32 µm x 12 µm). Bottom-Left: Cocconeis neodiminuta (21 µm x 13 µm).  Middle: Raphoneis surirella (30 µm x 8 µm). Right: Cavinula pseudoscutiformis (12 µm x 9 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Women in Science: What’s Your Impression?

What percentage of 24-to-35-year-old Canadian women have a university degree in the following programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (STEM)?

That’s one of the questions we asked Museum visitors earlier this year at a Science by Night event in anticipation of the Museum’s exciting new exhibition Courage and Passion: Canadian Women in Natural Sciences which opened in July. (Keep reading for the answer!)

At Science by Night, several female colleagues in the Palaeobiology section of the Museum – myself included – featured a Women in Science kiosk, a mini-version of the current exhibition, where we profiled inspiring, trailblazing female Canadian researchers, including Alice Wilson, Madeleine Fritz and Francis Wagner. Some of the interesting facts we shared are profiled in the images and captions below.

portrait of Alice Wilson

Alice Wilson (1881-1964) was the first female geologist employed by the Geological Survey of Canada, hired in 1909. Despite the many barriers of being a woman in science in the early 1900s, Wilson persisted and became the first woman elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Image: Natural Resources Canada photo number 112040. Licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada

Portrait of Madeleine Fritz

Madeleine Fritz (1896-1990) studied at McGill and the University of Toronto and became the Associate Director of Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. She was a leader in the study of Ordovician bryozoa (ancient, aquatic moss-like organisms) in North America, paving the way for many female scientists after her. Image: Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Image-3-Frances-Wagner

Frances Wagner (1927-2016) was the first woman to work extensively in the field alongside male colleagues collecting mineral core samples in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories and the Arctic Islands. She was a pioneer in micropaleontology, the study of microscopic fossils, and led this discipline when it was a breakthrough field. Image: Courtesy Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

We also wondered: how do museum visitors perceive the role of women in scientific fields today?

To find an answer and to spark discussion we asked visitors questions, including to estimate the percentages of young Canadian women today with a university degree in the following programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (STEM).

 Although our paper-and-pencil survey may not be a scientifically valid study, the results were definitely interesting. In general, participants thought that the number of young women with a degree in a science-related university program is lower than is actually the case. Interestingly, the average responses from male and female participants were almost identical.

For example, on average, participants guessed that women comprise 38-percent of degree holders in science and technology programs. However, based on 2011 Statistics Canada data on degree holders among 25-to-34-year-old, women hold 59-percent of these science-related degrees.

Participants’ estimates for mathematics and computer science were closer, with participants guessing that women hold 25-percent of these degrees, while the actual number is 30-percent. Only for engineering were participants’ estimates very close to reality, with participants’ guessing 24-percent and while the Statistics Canada data reveal that it’s 23-percent.

A wall with many hand-written post-it notes.

At the Women in Science kiosk at the Museum’s Science by Night event the wall was lined with Post-it notes with participants’ responses to the question: “Why is it important to have all genders equally represented in the field of science?” Most of the responses touched upon the idea that it is especially important to have equal representation to maximize scientific innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A number of possible interpretations could be made from these results, but I think it serves to highlight the accurate perception that the study of science remains male-dominated in universities. Men still do have greater representation in the field of science, and this has been the case historically for all the sciences.

But the situation is slowly changing. Based on the 2017 NSERC Women in Science and Engineering Summary, from 1992 to 2014 the number of women earning a Bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and engineering in Canada, as a percentage of all students, increased by 7.1-percent (from 31.6 to 38.7 percent). The increase for women achieving a Master’s science-related degree was 8.5-percent (from 27.4 to 35.9-percent) and at the Doctoral level the number of women earning science-related Ph.D.’s increased 11.1-percent (from 20.2 to 31.3-percent) in that 22-year period.

A child’s drawing.

At the Women in Science kiosk at the Museum’s Science by Night event children got involved by drawing what they think a scientist looks like. A five-year-old boy drew this picture of a scientist holding a microscope and a magnifying glass.

Though these may seem like small changes, they are positive ones. My hope is that by continuing to highlight these changes and by celebrating admirable and inspiring historical female scientists, who often don’t receive enough recognition, we can help prompt more girls and young women to enter the exciting world of science!

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Living on the edge: the voles of Svalbard

In northern Norway, on an island well within the Arctic Ocean, there is a very special population of voles.

These small rodents live on Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard archipelago. They were introduced between 1920 and 1960, possibly from Russian mining-supply ships.

The species was first identified as the field vole (Microtus agrestis) found throughout Europe and Russia. However, genetic analysis and a recent taxonomic update have identified this species as the sibling vole (Microtus levis) which lives mainly in eastern Europe and western Russia.

A sibling vole (Microtus levis) on the ground.

A sibling vole (Microtus levis). Image: Dominique Fauteux © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Although they are not a species native to the Arctic, these voles have still found a suitable site to settle and thrive in a unique way.

Landscape showing a long slope that ends in the ocean. A less rugged portion of the slope is green.

The abandoned settlement of Grumant, on the island of Spitzberg in Svalbard. You can see much more green vegetation under the cliff that is occupied by a colony of Thick-billed Murres. Image: Dominique Fauteux © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In the region of Grumant, a former Russian mining settlement, there is a cliff where hundreds of Thick-billed Murres breed each year. The droppings produced by this colony of seabirds have progressively flowed down the cliff for hundreds of years or more, greatly enriching the soil below. Where the slope is softer, nutrient-rich soil allows the growth of a very rich flora. These grasses are an important source of food for voles when they come out of their burrows found in the nearby rocky outcrops.

Despite low predation because of their recent introduction, the vole population fluctuates irregularly and dramatically from about 200 voles per hectare to an almost total absence of voles.

Researchers from the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway and the Canadian Museum of Nature are working together to try to explain these fluctuations. Various hypotheses have been studied.

Early observations suggest that competition is so fierce during periods of high abundance that the resulting social effects (fighting, stress, changes in reproductive behaviour, etc.) reduce the survival and reproduction of voles. In addition, some voles do not reach maturity during periods of high density, which hinders the reproduction of the population. Finally, during two winters when ice crusts formed on the ground, the populations were almost decimated. This shows the importance of meteorological factors on the population dynamics of voles on Spitsbergen.

An arctic fox in summer.

Arctic foxes prowl near the recently-introduced voles, but the foxes are unaccustomed to hunting them. Image: Dominique Fauteux © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Spitsbergen is inhabited by nearly 3000 people. Its economic past included whaling, hunting fur animals and coal mining.

Although located in the High Arctic, the island is affected by the North Atlantic Drift, a marine current originating from the Gulf Stream. The average temperature of Spitsbergen varies between –14° C in winter and 6° C in summer. There is a rich fauna including a few thousand polar bears, a reindeer subspecies, thousands of Dovekies, Thick-billed Murres, and many other seabirds. Because of this rich biodiversity, two-thirds of the island is now protected and Spitsbergen is now a very popular tourist destination.

(Translated from French)

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Botanist reveals his favourite grass

When I tell people that I study grasses, the first response I get is generally a wisecrack about the “grass” people smoke.

After a laugh, I explain that it’s not that kind of grass, and that grasses are about more than pretty lawns: humanity relies on grasses for our survival. Indeed, civilization arose in concert with the domestication of grasses, including wheat, rice and corn.

And, there’s still a lot to learn about the grass family (Poaceae), which includes about 11,000 species, of which only about ten have been domesticated for human consumption.

A scientist collects plants on the bank of a river.

Museum researcher Jeff Saarela, Ph.D. collecting grasses along the banks of the Coppermine River near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The next question I often get is “What’s your favourite grass?”

That’s a tough one. I find all species unique and interesting in their own ways, so I have a different favourite at different times. My current favourite grass species is the Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus).

This species is at the intersection of my research program’s two major themes. The first is the global systematics of grasses: characterizing grass biodiversity and evolutionary history.

The second theme focuses specifically on the biodiversity of Arctic vascular plants. Grasses are one of the most diverse and widespread groups of Arctic plants, with some species growing as far north as Canada’s northernmost point of land near Cape Columbia, Nunavut.

A close-up of a grass growing in front of a lake.

The Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus) is museum researcher Jeff Saarela’s current favourite grass. Image: Paul Sokoloff, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus) is part of a worldwide genus (Bromus) of about 160 species. This genus is interesting because it’s closely related to the group of grasses that includes wheat (Triticum aestivum) and other cereals. My goal is to use DNA to better understand the origin of this genus, how its various species are related to one other (and how they evolved), and how they came to live where we can find them now.

Arctic Brome Grass is the only native North American member of a primarily Eurasian group of closely-related species within Bromus. It occurs in western Canada, and its range extends beyond the treeline into the southern Arctic, as far north as the Arctic coast, and as far west as Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut. As the climate changes, this grass may migrate northwards to adjacent Victoria Island.

Check out the video to learn more.

A pressed and dried plant specimen mounted on a herbarium sheet.

This herbarium specimen of Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus) is one of thousands that museum researcher Jeff Saarela has examined for his research on the biodiversity of Arctic grasses. Catalogue number: CAN 595172. Image: Shan Leung © Canadian Museum of Nature.

What’s your favorite grass? (No wisecrack responses, please.)

 

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