Arctic Field Trip: Studying Flora and Eider Ducks

Summer is upon us, and it is once again time to head to Canada’s Arctic for a month to study plant biodiversity.

This year Roger Bull and I will be working along southern Baffin Island, Nunavut, in and around the community of Cape Dorset, and on numerous small islands in Hudson Strait northeast of Cape Dorset. Hudson Strait links the Atlantic Ocean to Hudson Bay, bordered to the north by Baffin Island and to the south by northern Quebec.

Maps showing the study area.

Inset maps: Nunavut. The black rectangle indicates our general study area on Baffin Island, also shown in the main map.
Main map: Specific areas of study are outlined in red.
Inset map: Algkalv and Dr. Blofeld based on original by Yug. Small inset map: EOZyo. Two maps put together by Ruhrfisch. (Licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0). Modified by J.M. Saarela. Main map: Imagery © 2015, IBCAO, Landsat, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO. Map data © 2015 Google. Modified by J.M. Saarela.

The logistics of this year’s expedition are a bit different than our previous trips. We will be in the field with a small team of Environment Canada researchers engaged in studies of Common and King Eiders. This research programme, led by Grant Gilchrist, Ph.D., from the National Wildlife Research Centre, has been studying eider colonies in the eastern Arctic for nearly 20 years. Their research questions are diverse, and include investigating the effects of polar-bear predation on eider nests as sea ice diminishes and identifying key sea-bird marine habitats.

For the first four days of the trip, Roger and I will explore and document plant biodiversity in and around the hamlet of Cape Dorset. There is a fairly good record of plant diversity in the immediate area. However, most of the existing collections were made in the 1920s and 1930s and have imprecise locality information, and we do not know if the record is complete for the area. I suspect it is not. Our main goal there will be to ensure that all plant species in and around the community are documented by specimens.

View of Cape Dorset in summer.

The hamlet of Cape Dorset. It is on Dorset Island, off the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut. Image: Daniel Christopher © Daniel Christopher (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0)

We will also explore nearby Mallikjuaq Territorial Park (Mallikjuaq means “big wave” in Inuktitut), a small park of some 18 square kilometres, where some collections were gathered in 1970. The park spans Mallik Island and Cape Dorset Island, divided by a narrow inlet that can be crossed on foot at low tide. This will be the third territorial park in Nunavut that we will explore botanically. (Read about our earlier trips at Kugluk/Bloody Falls Territorial Park in 2014 and at Katannilik Territorial Park in 2012).

We will then meet up with the eider team, and together over three weeks will visit about 30 islands in Hudson Strait ranging in size from 0.1 to 5 km2. We will travel by boat from Cape Dorset to the islands, on which we will camp.

Eider ducks prefer to nest on islands with a lot of vegetation, and the eider team hypothesises that these habitats may have been created by the birds over time through nutrient deposition. To test this hypothesis, they will conduct biodiversity surveys of islands with and without eiders, and collect data on insects, soil, pond water, pond sediments and vegetation.

An eider nest with eggs.

Eider duck (Somateria sp.) eggs. Eiders typically make their nests on small islands, close to the water. The nest is a depression in the ground lined with sticks and down. Image: Roger D. Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

That’s where we come in. We will work with the eider team to characterise the vascular plant, bryophyte, fungi and lichen biodiversity at their study sites. We will also conduct broader and comprehensive plant-biodiversity surveys of each island, documenting all species with collections, which will be deposited at the Canadian Museum of Nature in the National Herbarium of Canada.

None of the islands that we plan to visit has been explored previously by botanists, and there is no information about plant diversity in these difficult-to-access and little-known areas. The new information on the vegetation will contribute to both our understanding of eider-duck habitat and the diversity and distribution of the Arctic flora in Hudson Strait.

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Dino-mania is back. Thanks, Jurassic World

It’s June, 1993 and I just graduated from Grade 5. My dad takes me to see Jurassic Park in the theatre as a sort of graduation reward. I’m awed and amazed by the realistic dinosaurs on screen—so much so that I spill my popcorn when the T. rex bursts through the electrified fence. I go home that evening and tell my mom that I’m going to be a palaeontologist when I grow up.

Fast forward 22 years later, and Jurassic World has just been released in theatres. But despite its record breaking debut, the movie isn’t being given an easy ride by many dinosaur enthusiasts. Instead, it’s being heavily criticized for its numerous inaccuracies: raptors without feathers, impossibly large mosasaurs, and galloping horned dinosaurs, among others. These criticisms aren’t unwarranted; we’ve learned a lot about dinosaurs since the original film, and those depicted in the latest offering look woefully out of date. Some have described Jurassic World as a missed opportunity for science outreach, and I think they’re right. Putting proper feathers on Velociraptor at this stage of the franchise could be easily accounted for by the in-universe discovery of more complete genomes. No need to sacrifice continuity for scientific accuracy.

But at the same time, the dino-mania that inevitably accompanies the “Jurassic” movies presents a great chance for science outreach; Jurassic World is only a missed opportunity if we let it get away. The original film was likewise panned by dinosaur purists for its spitting Dilophosaurus, giant Velociraptor, and earth shaking T. rex. Yet it inspired a generation of young palaeontologists, myself included, despite these inaccuracies. The wonder of seeing life-like dinosaurs on screen was enough to send us flocking to the libraries and museums (this was a time before the internet) to learn more about them. The new Jurassic World movie is surely compelling enough to do the same. Want to learn more about those cool raptors, mosasaurs, and horned dinos you just saw on the big screen? Come to the fossil gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature and see the real things for yourself!

For what it’s worth, I quite enjoyed the new movie. The special effects were great, and the fan service really hit the spot. I thought there were some interesting moral issues raised concerning genetic engineering and animal rights that could’ve been probed a little deeper, but they’ll make for interesting water cooler talk all the same. I’m especially looking forward to chatting up the young palaeontologists-to-be about their favourite parts of the movie. See you kids this summer at the museum!

Follow Jordan and his fieldwork on Twitter @Jordan_Mallon.

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Hunting for Dinosaurs—You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

In my first year of palaeontology fieldwork along Alberta’s South Saskatchewan River —three seasons ago now—I came across a massive cliff with an interesting dinosaur fossil poking out near the base. There wasn’t much showing; just a flat bone curled at one end, visible in cross section (the rest of the bone had broken away when a piece of the cliff face collapsed long ago).

The fossil embedded in rock.

The fossil as it appeared when I first found it in 2013. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It was hard to tell at the time, but I had an inkling as to what it was (or maybe, what I hoped it would be): the back edge of a horned dinosaur frill. The bone was in solid ironstone, with nine feet of rock above it. I knew I would never get it out with the simple hand tools I had on me at the time, but I couldn’t walk away from such a potentially great find, and planned to return again one day with power tools to extract it.

Jordan Mallon standing by a cliff face that holds the embedded fossil.

Here, I am pointing to the massive amount of rock lying over the bone. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So that’s what I did this year. I had initially and naively planned to jackhammer my way down to the fossil from above—the sheer amount and hardness of the rock prevented that.

Instead, palaeobiology technician Alan McDonald and I opted to cut into the side of the cliff using an angle grinder to extract the specimen. Alan cut a grid pattern into the rock around the fossil, and we chipped the resulting blocks out with a hammer and chisel.

Technician Alan McDonald bends over as he cuts a grid into a wall of rock.

Technician Alan McDonald prepares to cut using the grid-cutting method used to extract the fossil. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The work was long, hot, and very dusty, but after several hours of cutting and chipping, we were finally able to see the fossil in its full glory. And it was…a partial ilium (hip bone) of a duck-billed dinosaur.

Ugh! Certainly not the highlight of my career. Duck-billed dinosaurs are as common as they come in these parts, and another partial hipbone in isolation isn’t likely to teach us much about we don’t already know.

View of the hardrosaur ilium, partially encased in a plaster jacket.

The hadrosaur ilium in all its splendour, partially encased in a plaster jacket. The fossil is just under two feet long. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Still, when it comes to fossils, there’s strength in numbers, as a fellow palaeontologist wrote in his recent blog. Perhaps one day some student will see something significant about the ilium that I might have missed. If so, I hope they’ll appreciate the hard work that went into retrieving it!

Read blogs about Jordan’s previous fieldwork in 2014:

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

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In the Amazing Business: Museum Collections

Science is often the subject of the news. The science that is most often reported is the super-popular, like reports about birds, the mega-sciences like space exploration, health issues like disease outbreaks or cures, the amazing, new technology applications that change our lives, and the reports of species that are bizarre in one way or another.

The museum recently opened Animal Inside Out to show visitors something bizarre— because you just don’t get the chance to see this kind of thing: the actual biological systems that exist beneath a thin cloak of skin. But amazing doesn’t only come in a travelling exhibition; we have natural-history specimens in our collections that will blow your mind, even without dissecting them.

Heads and tusks of several narwhals above the surface of the water.

Narwhals tusking. Image: Glenn Williams, National Institute of Standards and Technology © Public domain

Imagine an animal that has a canine tooth that can be up to 3 metres long, weighs up to 10 kilograms and unlike the other teeth that point into the mouth, grows through the upper lip to point forward. The narwhal has an extensive, northern distribution, and can be found in the eastern part of the Canadian Arctic. When the males are mature, at least one of their canine teeth (usually on the left side), gives them a unicorn-like appearance.

A close-up of a sea star's tube feet.

A sea-star arm. The tube feet that can open prey are clearly visible. Image: Mokele © Mokele (licensed: CC BY 3.0)

Live clams, mussels and scallops are impossible to open unless you have a hammer or a knife. Some animals are specially adapted to prying them open with their feet. Sea stars have hundreds of tube-feet that apply a small amount of suction and act together to create an unbeatable force. Once the shellfish weakens and is open the slightest crack, the sea-star slowly pushes its stomach outside its body and into its prey to begin digesting and absorbing its meal. (Watch a video).

Some photosynthetic organisms are as small as the red blood cells that course through your veins. Diatoms are protists (not true plants or animals) and distinguish themselves by living in an intricate glass covering. Each species has a unique design that gives protection, allows it to grow, and permits enough light and nutrients to pass to it so it can produce energy and thrive.

A diatom seen through magnification.

Amphora copulata is a freshwater diatom found in the Arctic. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

When you visit the High Arctic, there are a couple obvious features. First, where are all the trees? The second is the wind. But if you look closely toward your feet, there are woody plants all around. The Arctic willow is one of the most northerly, hugging the ground, often with a network of branches, avoiding the worst of the strong, steady wind above. These remarkable trees are also adapted to reproduce and grow in an extremely short summer season, and to survive severe cold.

A ground-level view of woody branches and leaves growing along the ground.

A network of willows (Salix sp.) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in the High Arctic. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history makes it into our lexicon in many ways. For now, let’s focus on “rock-solid”. But in nature there are lots of exceptions, flexible sandstone (itacolumite) being one of them. Itacolumite is a rock named after Itacolumi, Brazil, where it was first discovered. Hollow spaces between the quartz grains of this sedimentary rock give it flexibility. If you hold a long, thin section of itacolumite at its middle point and move it sideways back and forth, the rock will wriggle like a fish tail swimming through the water. (Video).

Collage that shows a long, thin slice of rock bent one way and the other.

A sample of itacolumite that is bendable. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Pterosaurs existed 66 million to 228 million years ago. These reptiles were remarkable because they could fly—a feature not common then or now. (Pterosaur means “winged lizards”). Flight was possible with wings made of a membrane that stretched across the forearm to the tip of a greatly extended 4th digit and down to the ankle of the hind limb. Some pterosaur species were the largest flying creatures ever.

A pterosaur with wings extended.

This illustration of a pterosaur (Sordes sp.) shows the membranous wing structure. Image: Dmitry Bogdanov © Dmitry Bogdanov (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0)

These are examples of the more that 10 million specimens that have been collected and studied at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I could have easily mentioned the parts of a camel that we found in the Arctic, or the new species of crustaceans found in the deep sea, or the micro-algae found in polar sea ice, or the new tourmaline mineral that we just described.

The truth is, when you hang out with natural-history experts, you find that just about everything they study has an amazing story attached to it. Species discovery is a big part of what natural-history museums do, and our findings are shared with our science colleagues and the general public.

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Plastination and Taxidermy: Which is Best for a Museum?

In a previous blog, I had the chance to give my general impressions on the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition currently being shown at the Museum. I was particularly entranced by the technique used for this exhibition: plastination.

The dried skin, skeleton and jar with internal organs of a green frog.

This green frog (Lithobates clamitans, CMNAR 16855), along with almost one million other vertebrates, is preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature in three different forms: dried, flattened skin; complete skeleton; and formalin-fixed internal organs preserved in alcohol. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Specimen of a Canada Jay.

A close examination of the inner skin of this Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and many other birds preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature makes it possible to describe the original structural layout of bird skins, thus creating an anatomical characterization of the taxon. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are several methods in existence for preserving animal tissues. One technique akin to plastination, called paraffinization, is in use since the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of injecting paraffin into soft, fresh tissues from which water has been extracted. But the results in terms of handling and long-term conservation can hardly be compared to plastination. Just how widespread is the use of this plastination technique, particularly in natural history museums?

The digestive organs of a river otter in a large glass jar.

These digestive organs of a river otter (Lutra canadensis, CMNMA 55582) are preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature in large glass jars containing alcohol, for anatomical comparison purposes. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history collection curators have a battery of different conservation methods that can be adapted to various uses and specific goals. For example, the Canadian Museum of Nature vertebrate collections that I manage as curator include tens of thousands of complete or partial skeletons. There are almost just as many skins preserved in various forms: round, flat, naturalized, dried, preserved in liquid, refrigerated, and frozen. Over one million complete fish, amphibians and reptiles are preserved in 70% ethanol or 10% formalin. We also have internal organs, though they generally make up a small portion of our collections.

The museum’s freeze dryer.

This freeze dryer at the Museum is used to extract water from an organism. Our phycologists most often use it to dry sediments that contaminate field samples. Once the operation is completed, they can more easily separate the two, just like separating the wheat from the chaff. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Canadian Museum of Nature also owns a freeze dryer for extracting all the water contained in an organism. This produces a dry specimen that keeps its natural appearance and is supposedly easy to preserve. About forty years ago, tests were done to use freeze-drying techniques as a less costly alternative to taxidermy. Our phycologists also prepare diatoms in this manner to reveal their inner structure—similar to what plastination is seeking to achieve.

Mount of an American Robin.

This American Robin (Turdus migratorius), with its naturalized look, was in fact preserved in its integrity, including skin, skeleton and all internal organs. Only the water contained in the body was extracted by freeze-drying. It was unfortunately the only surviving specimen from a series prepared at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, unlike the ease of handling associated with plastinated specimens, museum specimens prepared or preserved using the above techniques have a few drawbacks. Mammals and birds prepared using freeze-drying techniques are now too fragile and brittle to be handled extensively. In addition, body fats seep through the skin and damage the fur or feathers, making the specimens more prone to insect attacks. From the specimens in our bird collection prepared in this way, only the American Robin was saved from these destructive agents. Specimens kept in alcohol or formalin pose some challenges because of the dangerous nature of these chemical preservatives, likely to cause serious health problems in humans.

Plastination would be of great value in exhibitions because it produces realistic specimens. Museums would greatly benefit from it because specimens no longer need any maintenance. Why isn’t it being used? Is it because this technique is too costly that museums are so reluctant? Note that preparing the giraffe for the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition required almost 30,000 person-hours of work. An elephant not shown at the museum in Ottawa required 65,000 person-hours. In other words, if I set out to prepare this elephant by myself, I would need 33 years of full-time work to complete the project. It would then be the only project I would complete in my entire career! That’s much too long for a single specimen.

The giraffe specimen in Animal Inside Out.

The giraffe in the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Amy Zambonin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Plastination is better adapted to the needs of teaching general anatomy. It is not used in natural history museums. There is however one point in common between plastination and taxidermy in a museum setting. While in the first case the skin is removed to show the original structural configuration of the body’s internal organs, the animals are reconstituted at the museum with the skin back on, in an artistic and often theatrical fashion to exhibit them as naturalized specimens. In this way, specimens in both cases are no longer simply corpses, but creatures that come to life. They are shown in all their splendour to foster an appreciation of, and profound respect for, living things.

(Translated from French)

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Species Discoveries in 2014 at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Bob Anderson in a hilly landscape, holding collecting equipment.

The author in Venezuela on a field trip to collect new species of weevils for identification. Image: Steve Ashe © Canadian Museum of Nature

When I was a child, one of the first books I received was one on farm animals: how to recognize them, what they were called and, of course, what sounds they made. In fact, if you think about it, you probably spend the first three years of your life learning what the various things around you are called, and often, by trial and error, which of them you can eat. Some things tasted bad, most things your mother took away before you could get a good bite of it, and a few tasted good. In everyday life, it’s important that all those things have names.

From the scientific side of things, it’s not much different. One of the most important research activities at the Canadian Museum of Nature is describing and naming species: the science of taxonomy. Rather than give simple, common names to species, we use a system implemented in 1758 by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. This is a binomial system that uses two names: one is the genus, or group, to which the species belongs, and the second is the actual species name itself.

A portrait of Carolus Linnaeus.

Carolus Linnaeus. The scientific naming system that he developed has stood the test of time for 257 years. Image: © Public domain

The key to the system is that there is only one valid combination of a genus name with a species name. Consequently, there is no ambiguity in knowing what that species is, and from there, where it lives and what it does. If, for example, I say “Acer saccharum“, one knows that this can only be the sugar-maple tree, a species of maple that is native to eastern North America and best known for its bright autumn foliage and for being the primary source of maple syrup. And so it goes for all species: one name, one species. Once you know the scientific name for something, you can access all known information about it.

Each year, museum scientists carry out research activities worldwide in their quest to find and name new species. These new species can be animals, plants, minerals or fossils.

The year 2014 saw museum scientists involved in the naming of

  • 33 new weevils
  • 1 new amphipod
  • 1 new diatom
  • 1 new mineral
  • 3 new fossil reptiles.
A diatom specimen.

The strangely sculptured marine diatom Entomoneis calixasini. Image: Michel Poulin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Michel Poulin and colleagues discovered Entomoneis calixasini, a very unusual and curiously architectured marine diatom recovered from deep sediment cores in the Mamara Sea, Turkey.

Ed Hendrycks described Ptilohyale brevicrus, a marine amphipod collected in the intertidal zone amongst algae, cobble and sand off the coast of South Korea.

Joel Grice described a new species of mineral, Telluromandarinoite, which occurs in Coquimbo Province in the Chilean Andes, about 640 km north of Santiago.

A prepared weevil specimen.

Tylodinus rufus, one of the 32 new species of Tylodinus weevils from Chiapas, Mexico. Image: Robert S. Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Aside from a single species, Sphenophorus spangleri, that I named from Sinaloa, Mexico, I teamed up with Mexican Ph.D. student, Jesus Luna Cozar, to describe 32 new species in the weevil genus Tylodinus in the Mexican state of Chiapas that we collected there over the past number of years. Most of these were from leaf litter, but some were found on black, crusty fungus living on the undersides of large rotting logs. Luna Cozar carried out the naming part of the project and chose to name one of the species after me.

Xiao-Chun Wu described three new fossil reptiles, perhaps the most interesting of these being Atopodentatus unicus, a new marine genus and species from the Triassic Period of China, with a highly specialized filter-feeding adaptation not seen before.

Prepared cranial and post-cranial fossils.

The fossil reptile Atopodentatus unicus. Note the highly specialized fine, elongate teeth for filter feeding. Image: Xiao-chun Wu © Canadian Museum of Nature

Scientists have named about 1.5 million species already, but there are many more to be found. Sometimes these can be found in the large collections of our museum or in one of the many other museum collections around the world, but the most exciting way to discover these new things is to be out there in the field finding them ourselves. Past blog articles will tell you lots about our field work; please read them.

And remember, cows go moo, an apple tastes good, and you should not eat dirt.

Species Discoveries at the Museum in 2014

Crustaceans
Ptilohyale brevicrus

Diatoms
Entomoneis calixasini

Fossil Reptiles
Atopodentatus unicus
Funlusaurus luanchuanensis
Largocephalosaurus qianensis

Minerals
Telluromandarinoite

Weevils
Sphenophorus spangleri
Tylodinus andersoni
Tylodinus branstetteri
Tylodinus buchanani
Tylodinus coapillensis
Tylodinus complicatus
Tylodinus dominicus
Tylodinus elongatus
Tylodinus exiguus
Tylodinus gibbosus
Tylodinus immundus
Tylodinus intzin
Tylodinus ixchel
Tylodinus jonesi
Tylodinus kissingeri
Tylodinus kuscheli
Tylodinus leoncortesi
Tylodinus lum
Tylodinus mutabilis
Tylodinus noctis
Tylodinus pappi
Tylodinus parvus
Tylodinus pinguis
Tylodinus porvenirensis
Tylodinus pseudocavicrus
Tylodinus pusillus
Tylodinus rufus
Tylodinus rugosus
Tylodinus sepulturaensis
Tylodinus spiniventris
Tylodinus triumforium
Tylodinus variabilis
Tylodinus wibmeri

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Cabinets, Cabinets Everywhere: Getting Ready to Welcome New Collections From Geological Survey of Canada

I’m standing in Warehouse 2 in the museum’s research and collections facility looking at 225 stacked metal cabinets. Lane cabinets, to be exact. It took five trucks to haul them up from the US. The warehouse, which looked so huge when it was empty, is now so tightly packed, I can barely see the walls!

A man stands beside towering ranges of stacked boxes.

Warehouse Manager Stephane Gratton organized the transfer of the 225 cabinets from the trucks to our warehouse. Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lane cabinets are heavy-duty cabinets that are each 74 × 76 × 81 cm (29″ × 30″ × 32″) with 10 shelves. They are made specifically for storing natural-history specimens.

These cabinets will potentially be home to tens of thousands of fossil specimens and minerals at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Where did these specimens come from and why? To answer this, we need to take a trip back in time.

A portrait of a man sitting in a chair.

William Logan, 1856
Artist: George Theodore Berthon
Gift of the Geological Survey of Canada
Canadian Museum of History, 2007.171.223, IMG2008-0209-0057-Dm

Back in 1842, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC)—Canada’s first scientific agency—came into being. William Logan, its first director, had the ambitious goal of the GSC undertaking a geological assessment of the complete Canadian landmass. Not long after, several geologists—including Logan—were scattered throughout Canada, mapping geological formations and collecting rocks, minerals and fossils.

During this Age of Exploration, so many minerals and fossils were collected that Logan established the Geological Museum in Montréal, Quebec, for their storage and display to the public.

Eventually, the GSC headquarters and museum collections moved to Ottawa, and in 1911 the museum collections found a “permanent” home in a newly constructed building, known as the Victoria Memorial Museum Building (VMMB). Here, their spectacular collections could be displayed to a large audience.

A fossil exposed in a flat rock.

A trilobite (Olenoides serratus) from the Late Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park, British Columbia. Specimen at Geological Survey of Canada (W.E. Logan Hall, 601 Booth Street, Ottawa). Image: Jean Dougherty © Geological Survey of Canada

The VMMB and its collections were an instant success with the public. Continued success resulted in expanding collections, but increasingly less space. In 1959, the GSC moved its collections and staff to its present location on Booth Street in Ottawa. The National Museum of Natural Sciences, having been separated from the GSC in 1927, remained in the building. (The National Museum of Natural Sciences is a precursor to the Canadian Museum of Nature).

The move meant that big decisions needed to be made on dividing the geological and fossil collections between the GSC and the museum. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall for those discussions! In the end, most of the rock, mineral, fossil invertebrate and plant collections went with the GSC. The botany, zoology, fossil vertebrates and cultural collections remained with the museum at the VMMB.

Three mollusc fossils and a leaf fossil.

Plant and mollusc fossils collected by G.M. Dawson in the 1880s. Image: Jean Dougherty © Geological Survey of Canada

Today, the GSC collections remain at the Booth Street complex, under the umbrella of National Resources Canada (NRCan). Recently, for various reasons, it has been decided that these buildings will be vacated. In late 2013, the NRCan Assistant Deputy Minister expressed NRCan’s interest in having the Canadian Museum of Nature curate their fossil invertebrate and mineral collections. A Memorandum of Agreement was drafted, stating in part that NRCan and the museum would collaborate to “ensure that the geological national collections are curated and managed to modern standards”.

A group of people pose for the camera.

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC)–Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) Collections Transfer Working Group.
Back row, left to right: Kathy Stewart (Research Scientist and Section Head, Palaeobiology, CMN), Ann Therriault (Manager, Earth Materials Collections, GSC), Scott Ercit (Research Scientist and Section Head, Mineralogy, CMN), Kieran Shepherd (Curator, Palaeobiology Collection, CMN).
Front row, left to right: Cathryn Bjerkelund (Sub-Division Head, Geology and Metallogeny, Central Canada Division, GSC), Michelle Coyne (Curator, Organic Materials, GSC), Shannon Asencio (Head, Collections Services and Information Management, CMN). Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

From there, the ball started rolling quickly. A working group was set up. From the first meeting it was clear that the GSC staff loved their collections and were reluctant to see them leave the GSC. But, it was also clear that the building that housed these collections had deficiencies that put the collections at risk. The Canadian Museum of Nature, with its much newer collections facilities, could provide a better standard of care for the collections. The idea of transferring at least some of the GSC collections to the museum—as a loan or permanently—took shape.

The working group has met frequently, hammering out the steps to be taken in the transfer. This is not a job for the faint of heart! The total fossil invertebrate and mineral collection occupies something like a whopping 2600 cabinets at GSC, far more than can be accommodated at the museum’s collection facility. The working group has chosen for now to focus on a more workable number of 500 cabinets. These would include the type collections and several smaller orphan or at-risk collections.

A large room filled with stacks of boxes.

The receipt of 225 empty cabinets is the first step in the transfer. Next, we will move the first specimens, the equivalent of 35 cabinets, and carefully store them here at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

Right now, we are celebrating the first step in the actual transfer: the receipt of the new cabinets, mentioned above. Our next challenge will be to carry out a preliminary dry run of packing, transporting and unpacking about 35 cabinets of specimens, some highly fragile, and then moving them into the new cabinets. The number of people and the amount of time and resources involved in this pilot project will allow us to estimate what is needed for the much larger project.

We’ll keep you posted how things go…

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Creating a Better Future for the Arctic: The Role of Natural-History Museums

May 8 to 10: Meeting of the Arctic Natural History Museums Alliance

A few years ago, during Sweden’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the director of its national natural-history museum and I met in South Korea during the IUCN World Conservation Congress. We decided that the national natural-history museums need to step up and actively share our knowledge of the Arctic regions and to be more ambitious in our sharing of that knowledge with scientific colleagues, public-policy decision-makers and the general public.

We did a call out to the directors of the national natural-history museums of the eight Arctic Council states to get things started. We met in April 2013 and again in May 2014. Our focus was determined to be collections access, research collaboration and public outreach.

Three people pose together, one holding a narwhal tusk.

Left to right: Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Natural History Museum; Meg Beckel, CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature, holding the Narwhal Mace; Jan Olov Westerberg, Director General of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Image: Kirk Johnson © Kirk Johnson

For the May 2015 meeting, our plan was to meet with all eight national natural-history museums from the Arctic Council states. And then the reality of changing leaders and conflicting schedules kicked in. The willing and available carried on with reports from our colleagues and spent three days in Washington with other national natural-history museums of the Arctic Council states. Our focus during this meeting was on collections digitization, research contribution and collaboration, and impactful public programming and outreach.

The first day began with a tour of the Smithsonian natural-history museum’s off-site collection facility. Mark Graham, Ph.D., our VP of Research and Collections, was available for this part of our gathering. I was mid-air at the time, making my way from Ottawa to Washington. Following an informal lunch that included a front-row view of the World War airplane fly-by, our meeting opened with a panel discussion about the need for a human perspective when speaking about the Arctic.

The panellists and moderator during the presentation.

The meeting began with an expert-panel presentation on the need for a human perspective in discussions about the Arctic. Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

The panel presentation included speakers from science, public policy, indigenous governance, the Arctic Council and natural-history museums (yours truly). The panel was followed by a magical dinner for major donors (and museum colleagues) in the atrium of the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum.

Tables set up in the atrium.

The atrium of the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum set up for the donor evening. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Saturday morning we were back to business. The morning’s focus was collections access. Like other museums around the world, we are challenged to prioritize which collections to digitize with our scarce resources so that we make the data that are most needed available in a form that is useful.

Also, we need to determine which data management sites are most used, and are thus a place for our data. From Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) to Scientific Collections International (Scicoll), we have many existing tools that we can continue to post our data to, and some new ones are being discussed.

We are suggesting an Arctic portal be created for both EOL and GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) so that visitors to those sites know that Arctic data are available and that new data are welcome. With the challenges to the environment in the Arctic, we must step up and play our part in creating and sharing knowledge about the Arctic so that better and more-informed decisions are made in the future.

Collage: Visitors in an activity room.

Q?rious at the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum, where organizations presented their perspectives on the Arctic during the meeting. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

During our discussions, we took a break to visit Q?rious, the Smithsonian’s discovery centre. Arctic organizations were stationed throughout to share their perspectives with visitors, while the education team tested an Arctic board game on visitors.

Arctic research is another area of focus for our group. The questions we asked were “Which research forums are the most relevant to our work? And where can our research add the most value?”

At this stage, we have decided to focus on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW) and the Arctic Council working groups. Most of the Arctic natural-history museums are already involved in one or all of these, so it makes sense to build on what we are already doing and where we already have some presence.

People looking at the floor map.

Our first project for engaging the public will be the creation of a giant floor map that shows the circumpolar region. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Outreach, public programming and visitor engagement are areas where we can support each other, share content, share learnings and collaborate to contain costs.

Our first project will be the collaborative production of a giant round floor map of the circumpolar region.

Second will be some form of web-based outreach from each other’s scientists to our school visitors, building on what we are each already doing within our own museums.

Third is a collaborative photo-based exhibition that we hope to inspire the Arctic Council to invest in, given the US chairmanship’s focus on public outreach and awareness of the challenges, opportunities and shared responsibilities in the Arctic.

All in all, it was a productive and inspiring gathering of fellow museum leaders committed to creating a better natural future for the Arctic. Kirk Johnson said, “Natural history museum can save the world.” I agree, so let’s get at it.

Lots ahead and more news to come.

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Odyssey under the Skin

The automatic door opens as I sweep into the special exhibitions hall on the fourth floor of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Inside, a giant squid kicks off the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition. Complete sea animals and skeletons stand waiting in the first section of the hall.

As I enter the second section, I am immediately taken up by magical scenes of dissected bodies. I see a bull with all its muscles hanging out in full splendour, followed by a galloping giraffe showing off its slender cervical muscles like a five-meter tall headdress. Just beside it stands a camel, half of its body exposed, nodding its head in a frozen gesture. Further down, the complex blood vessel system of an ostrich is on display with stunning accuracy.

The plastinated bodies of camels in the exhibition.

Many of the plastinated bodies showcased in Animal Inside Out reveal an organism’s constitution in a unique way. You can distinguish the internal organs in detail. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Organs belonging to the ten body systems are shown in eloquent detail. In particular, this includes astonishing insights into the cardiovascular and muscular systems. These fabulous bodies are undressed to show off their true nature!

View of a bull specimen from the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

On this bull, as with many of the specimens exhibited in Animal Inside Out, you can study the muscles that make up an organism with the help of an anatomical atlas. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

I have taught many subjects ranging from biology and genetics to animal behaviour. When I was teaching comparative anatomy, I made use of textbooks and anatomical atlases to show the structures that make up the body, but observing these phenomena on real animal corpses was much more convincing for the students. The word anatomy comes from the Greek word anatemnein which indeed means to dissect or cut up. Today, I am in charge of the Vertebrate Collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature, which include millions of various anatomical parts. This has allowed me to see and examine living organisms from all angles. Even so, this exhibit taught me a unique way of revealing the true nature of living beings.

An ostrich specimen, showing the capillary network.

Even the capillary network (very fine blood vessels) of an ostrich can be seen in Animal Inside Out in its original three-dimensional form…as if the rest of the body’s building blocks had been blown away to leave only this network in place. This feat would be impossible to do otherwise. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

My anatomical teachings would have been even more successful if I had been able to use plastination—a technique used to prepare the specimens shown in this exhibition. Among the 600 skeletal muscles that make up the body, only some were readily identifiable on the previously frozen skinned specimens that I was using; in this exhibition, they are almost all there. The spatial configuration of internal organs is true to life, making it easy to figure out the interrelations between body systems.

Cross-section view of an elephant.

One of the advantages of the technique used in Animal Inside Out is that once the bodies are plastinated, they can be cut up into very fine slices to reveal anatomical details that are otherwise invisible. Indeed, you can see the detailed internal structures in this cross-section of an elephant, right down to the histological level. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The introduction of plastination goes back to 1977 when an anatomist from the University of Heidelberg, Gunther von Hagens, came up with a more practical method of observing human internal organs in situ. The somewhat painstaking technique consists in replacing all the water and fat in the organism (up to 70% in fact) by injecting an epoxy/silicone polymer that hardens afterwards; this produces a dry, odourless specimen that can be handled easily and lasts a long time.

The giraffe presented in the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

Animals are presented in many forms. Here a skinned giraffe stands beside another life-size specimen that has been reassembled from a series of fine cross-sections. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The word plastination is derived from the Greek “plassein” which means to give form. A bargain for anatomists! Plastination has opened interesting perspectives in several disciplines, in particular teaching. In fact, human anatomy professors have greatly benefited from it. It was well received by the scientific community, as witnessed by the many scientific papers on the subject to date. The technique even broke into the public arena in 1995 with BodyWorlds, an exhibition on the human body.

Two caribou specimens.

Bodies exhibited in Animal Inside Out were mounted to reflect natural postures that show movement, such as these two caribou, or reveal a behaviour trait. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Animal Inside Out is a fascinating anatomy lesson! I see it as a mix of science, technology and art, not just pure and simple anatomy. Nature has so many wonders and there are so few opportunities to contemplate them! This exhibition is a must-see.

A human body in the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

The presence of a human body is an unhoped-for opportunity to make detailed comparisons between our own bodies and those of the various animals on display.
Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Text translated from the French.

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My Visit to a New York City Basement

Popping your leftovers into the freezer is your best bet for saving them for later. Keeping things cold is also the best method for preserving DNA molecules. To learn about the tools and techniques for the world-class care of tissue samples used for DNA research, I travelled to a basement in New York City.

The American Museum of Natural History looms large over the west side of New York’s Central Park. Behind its grand granite façade, creatures of all kinds are on public display. Walking through this museum—one of the world’s largest—is a rich experience of our planet’s animals, plants and minerals.

Exterior view of the museum entrance.

The American Museum of Natural History’s grand entrance on Central Park West in New York City, USA. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A mounted dinosaur skull, a mounted elephant, mounted mammal skeletons.

Dinosaurs, and elephants, and primates! Oh my! Just a few of the creatures on public display at the American Museum of Natural History. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Behind the scenes, however, there is much more to the museum than its impressive exhibits. Just like the Canadian Museum of Nature, the American Museum of Natural History (or simply “the AMNH”) houses large collections of animal, plant, fossil and mineral specimens. The museum’s research scientists—and researchers from around the world—use these collections to better understand the diversity of life on Earth.

Increasingly, scientists use information stored in DNA molecules to study biodiversity. Ideally, these DNA molecules are extracted from tissue samples specifically collected for this purpose. These tissue samples need special care and storage conditions to preserve the valuable molecular information. The key is cold temperature—MUCH colder than your home freezer can provide.

On the hunt for supercold freezers, I walked past the AMNH exhibits, through an inconspicuous brown door, and down a flight of stairs. Now in the basement, a maze of utilitarian hallways and workshops led me to the Ambrose Monell Cryogenic Collection.

Julie Feinstein, the manager of the collection, keeps careful watch over the large insulated stainless steel vats that house roughly 100 000 tissue samples. Eight inches of liquid nitrogen in the bottom of each vat keeps the samples at a seriously chilly −160°C. At this temperature, most molecular movement stops, which prevents the degradation of the samples. The information of DNA is preserved in perpetuity.

A row of metal tanks lines a wall.

These cryovats are used to store tissue samples at −160°C. At this temperature, the DNA in tissues is preserved. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: Two people at work in the collection.

Left: A technician at the Ambrose Monell Collection retrieves samples to send out to a researcher. Right: Julie Feinstein holding a very cold freezer rack. Julie is the manager of AMNH’s cryogenic collection. Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature, © AMNH/R. Mickens

This cryogenic collection, like other museum collections, is not a static assemblage of objects locked away for eternity. Specimens come and go, arriving with researchers back from the field or sent out to curious scientists anywhere in the world.

Keeping track of incoming and outgoing samples and the data associated with them requires meticulous care. I spent two days observing this careful work as I peered over the shoulders of Svetlana and Nisa, the collection’s technicians and frontline workers. They deftly handled the traffic of samples, which are stored in small, barcode-labelled, polypropylene tubes.

Collage: Hands manipulate tissue vials.

Tissue samples are stored in small, barcode-labelled tubes. These are stored in boxes that are then loaded into freezer racks. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Cold is the key for a good tissue collection, but so too is organization. This is one of many important lessons learned during my time in the New York City basement.

My visit was part of a knowledge-gathering process that is just getting started. The Canadian Museum of Nature would be a natural home for a cryogenic tissue collection.

Before we roll cryovats into our research and collections facility, we need to be well versed in the best way to establish and manage such a collection. If all goes well though, we will have the coldest and best organized freezers in the country.

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