Can the Arctic Steal the Show on International Colour Day?

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the Arctic, what would you see? White expanses of driven snow? Grey rock and pale blue ice? Yellow green ribbons of light dancing in the night sky? It’s true that our Northern territories are iconic for their vast, beautifully bleak scenes, but you don’t have to walk very far across the tundra (or through our Arctic Voices exhibition), to discover that the Arctic is anything but grey-scale.

Collage: Flowering plants arranged to form a rainbow of colour.

The flora of the Canadian Arctic spans the rainbow – Arctic summers are an explosion of colour across the tundra. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

March 21 marks International Color Day in nearly 30 countries worldwide—a day set aside to raise awareness and to celebrate the perception of colour. Given the frigid snowy winter that we’ve been having here in Ottawa (and across much of eastern Canada), it’s hard to look out the window and imagine (as one might about the Arctic) anything but a grey and frigid world. But both here and in the Arctic, that chilly white milieu will spring forth with unexpected colours as winter gives way to spring’s thaw.

Ground-level view of flowers with tents in the background.

Blue and orange are complementary to each other— if you keep that in mind you’ll notice that they’re used together everywhere from print advertising to movies. Naturally I couldn’t resist snapping shots of these sea-blue Arctic lupines (Lupinus arcticus) juxtaposed against our high-visibility orange tents. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

True, the Arctic summer is brief, but the hardy plants that live there tend to get straight to the point. Flowers are reproductive organs after all, and if you have only a few short months to get in on, you’d better strut your stuff.

A flowery foreground overlooks a river.

Colourful purple swathes of alpine milkvetch (Hedysarum alpinum) carpet the hillsides along the banks of the Coppermine River, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Bright mauve patches of purple mountain saxifrage herald the arrival of spring across much of the Arctic, oftentimes beginning to bloom while there’s plenty of snow left on the ground. These ephemeral blossoms don’t stick around long, and soon the Arctic will transition to the green lushness of full summer.

Many white flowers seen from the side.

The flowers of the white arctic mountain heather (Cassiope tetragona) protrude from north-facing snow beds like delicate white bells. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Yellow poppies blowing in the breeze, orange lichens plastered over boulders, the delicate pink bells of bog rosemary and curvy purple petals of louseworts. Come autumn, this rainbow will be replaced by fields upon fields of orange red bearberry leaves, just as trees down south change colour before winter’s inevitable return.

A beached boat rests in front of several small white buildings.

The red boat in front of the old Hudson’s Bay trading post is an iconic Iqaluit scene; the White Stripes even filmed a music video here. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of course, plants aren’t the only colour to be found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Walk through any community and you’ll be struck the by multi-coloured houses the beautiful arts and handicrafts. Northern animals, vegetables, minerals—all are a visual treat worthy of celebrating.

A man squats to look at blue stones on the ground.

Museum botanist Jeff Saarela, Ph.D., inspects blue-speckled lapis lazuli along the Soper River, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

So if you’re feeling inspired to seek out the colours of the North, our Arctic Voices exhibition runs until May 3.

In the meantime, Happy International Colour Day!

A flowering plant nestles among rocks.

Even in the bleakest Arctic deserts, pops of colour, like this purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) can be found peeking through the grey. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Jawing about Dinosaurs: What the Herbivore’s Jaws Are Telling Us

One of the great things about working at a museum is having access to the vast collections of fossils that reside behind the scenes. These aren’t regularly seen by the public (our annual Open House excluded), but they nevertheless serve an important role in my research. I recently published just such a study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology with my former Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Jason Anderson, that draws heavily upon specimens in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature and elsewhere.

Panoramic view of shelving ranges containing dinosaur fossils.

A view of our vast fossil collections. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

We were curious to know what role, if any, differences in jaw mechanics may have played to allow plant-eating dinosaurs to co-exist in Alberta 75 million years ago.

We know today, for example, that the high diversity of finch species in the Galápagos Islands is made possible by their diverse jaw arrangements. Species that eat the largest, hardest seeds have larger jaw muscles that are situated further forward on the beak, giving those species the extra leverage needed to crack open such massive seeds. In this way, an ecosystem can support a rich diversity of species because they are not all competing for the same types of food.

We figured that maybe similar principles allowed for the rich diversity of plant-eating dinosaurs in Alberta during the Late Cretaceous Period.

It can be difficult to know about muscle size in the fossil record because these soft tissues do not normally fossilize. We can, however, know something about how the jaw muscles were arranged because they leave distinctive marks on the skull bones where they attach. Therefore, by carefully measuring the attachment sites of the different jaw muscles, we can come up with complex lever models of the lower jaw that allow us to compare bite leverage across numerous species.

Three diagrams of dinosaur skulls in lateral view; one diagram in lateral view of a lower jaw.

Jaw muscle reconstructions for an ankylosaur (A), a ceratopsid (B) and a hadrosaur (C). The lever model we used is depicted at right (D). Image: © Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

What did we find? It seems that the jaws of the duck-billed hadrosaurs and horned ceratopsids were constructed in such a way as to produce a very high leverage, giving them an especially powerful bite. The armoured ankylosaurs, on the other hand, had comparatively weak jaws.

Within each of these groups, bite forces do not appear to have varied by much; different species of hadrosaurs had jaws that worked in very similar ways, as did different species of ceratopsids. The jaws of different ankylosaur species were slightly more variable, suggesting that there may have been some variability in their diets, too.

The take-home message is that, while there were certainly some differences in jaw mechanics between the major groups of plant-eating dinosaurs, we don’t see the same subtle differences between closely related species within those groups as we see in today’s Galápagos finches.

This tells us that the Albertan plant-eating dinosaur communities operated in a slightly different way, and that perhaps differences in other aspects of their anatomy allowed these animals to exploit different food sources to coexist.

Some of my previous work suggests that this is the case—we do see many differences in skull and beak shapes, feeding heights and tooth wear, even among closely related species. These insights tell us something about what it takes to support a diverse ecosystem over long periods of time—something that concerns conservationists today. It’s amazing what can be learned by plumbing the depths of our vast collections!

Read an abstract of the article:

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Basalt: A Source of Beauty and Wonder

Further adventures of our mineralogists in Cambodia: follow museum scientists Paula Piilonen and Glenn Poirier on their hunt for minerals for their research.

In Ratanakiri province, and many other regions across Cambodia, the land is covered by a dark orange red, iron- and aluminum-rich soil called laterite.

Images: A red dirt country road; a look down at a red-dirt encrusted boot.

Laterite dust covers all the roads in the region! Laterite dust turns all your clothes red. Some days it’s hard to tell if I am tanned or simply dirty! ☺ Images: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Laterites form in tropical climates and are the result of extensive, intense chemical weathering of the underlying rock—in this case, basalt.

Basalt forming a round shape in the ground beside a geologist's hammer.

In situ weathering (spallation) of basalt to form laterite. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

When wet, laterite can be cut into blocks and used for construction of buildings. As it dries, it hardens to a rock-like consistency. The Angkor Wat complex, along with many other temples of Angkorian age (9th and 10th centuries) found throughout both Cambodia and Thailand, have been constructed with laterite bricks as the main foundation, covered with more aesthetic sandstone facing.

Carved stone structures at an ancient temple.

Laterite bricks form the internal foundation of Banteay Srei temple, 23 km north of Angkor Wat (10th century). Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because laterite profiles in this part of the country can be up to 50 metres thick, it is sometimes difficult to find fresh, solid rock outcrop. For this reason, our field work tends to focus on areas that provide the most likely exposure: waterfalls, rivers/creeks, boulder fields at the bottom of slopes, and quarries.

A woman stands near a small waterfall.

Paula Piilonen at the Katieng Waterfall, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. The waterfall goes over a basalt flow. Image: Glenn Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Today we visited one such quarry north of Ban Lung and the Angkor Gold office. Here, they are quarrying basalt, the rock that we are studying, for use as road fill. After poking around the waste-rock piles on the edges of the quarry near the stone crushers, we met one of the workers who, through hand gestures because he didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Khmer, told us that we could enter into the quarry itself.

An uneven landscape with machinery.

Basalt quarry 4 km north in Ban Lung, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the bottom of the quarry, we made a startling discovery. Although the larger blocks are drilled off and pushed to the bottom of the quarry (explosives are not allowed here), the bulk of the work to reduce the boulders to smaller fragments (about 30 cm to 60 cm) was being done BY HAND. Workers (in flip flops) stand in the rock piles and split boulders using only a large sledgehammer. A full shift of this manual labour must be back-breaking.

The smaller fragments are then loaded into a dump truck and fed into the crushers at the top of the quarry, where they are reduced to road fill (15 cm to 30 cm).

Images: A man uses a sledgehammer among piles of rocks; machines make piles of crushed rock.

Left: A quarry worker splits basalt, his only tool a sledgehammer. The fruit of his labour is further crushed by machines, at right. Images: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The quarry itself was an amazing experience for a geologist: a textbook-quality volcanic section consisting of three distinct basalt flows. Having access to the quarry wall to study (and sample) this section adds important information to our study of the basalts in the region. Nowhere else can multiple, fresh flows be observed in a single locality.

Images: A man stands beside a rock wall; lines demarcating three basalt layers have been applied to a photo (Top: Vesicular columnar 1.5 m, Middle: massive columnar 40 cm wide, Bottom: massive columnar 1.5 m wide).

Glenn Poirier examines a large (1.5 m wide) basalt column at the bottom of the quarry. Three distinct basalt flows can be identified. Images: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

We were able to collect 15 kg of rock and leave the quarry satisfied with an excellent morning of work.

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Walking Across the Arctic—On a Giant Map!

By Jennifer Doubt and Ed Hendrycks

As two museum scientists accustomed to gazing down microscopes at specimens, it’s safe to say that we had no idea what our role would be in developing a giant (11m x 8m) educational floor map of the Canadian Arctic. We knew that Canadian Geographic would produce the map, and we would tap the museum’s extensive expertise about the Arctic to provide content for it. Canadian Geographic would then show our stories in ways that supported the education curriculum in schools, and we would supply real-life examples from our adventures in the field, our scientific discoveries, and the rich legacy of our collections in order to make the stories come to life.

Students walk on the giant Arctic floor map.

Students try out the giant Arctic floor map at its December 16 launch at the museum. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It sounded great, but what does that mean? It meant, as we learned, that we would help to mediate a nine-month discussion between the Canadian Geographic project team and the museum’s science team. We gathered ideas and compiled information from our colleagues, and then coordinated and participated in the review of the resulting educational documents.

Two pages with descriptions of lesson plans based on museum field expeditions.

Two lesson plans drawn from real-life examples of museum field expeditions. Lesson plans and curriculum-based activities are part of the educational kit that accompanies the map. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Students sitting on the Arctic floor map

Students from Ottawa’s St. Gabriel School try out the floor map with the help of educational specimen cards.

Luckily for us, the project sold easily in our office. After all, here was a chance to help tens of thousands of students from coast-to-coast-to-coast explore the Canadian Arctic’s rich and fascinating natural diversity.

It was also a chance to focus the spotlight not only on traditional Arctic icons such as polar bears and diamonds, but also on lesser known natural history species that are missing from many school science lessons—think of amphipods, lichens, camels (yes, camels!) and galena (hint: it’s a shiny mineral), to name a few.

A view of the map’s title panel, with illustrations of 16 plants, animals, fossils and minerals.

The title panel for the map includes illustrations of 16 Arctic plants, animals, fossils and minerals that were selected by the museum’s scientific team. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Research assistants, research associates, research scientists, curators, collection managers, technicians, and volunteers all contributed time, creativity, and knowledge in the name of bringing Arctic natural history research and collections to life for students, visitors, and friends of the museum.

Plant specimens that are part of the educational package for the map.

Plant specimens from the museum’s collections are among the real examples that students can examine during their exploration of the map. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our colleagues are great people, but I’m sure that this common cause is largely what kept their doors open to us—even when we returned to them for a third (or more!) review of a document about their area of expertise, or asked them to find us a tenth (or more!) photo from their research. Sometimes it was hard for all of us to stick with it.

The reward for this effort was clearly seen at the launch of this national educational and outreach project in December 2014. Canadian Geographic Educator Sara Black led a captivated class from St. Gabriel’s School in Ottawa through a magnificent, lightning fast, 180-degree turnaround in their understanding of the Arctic.

Jennifer Doubt is surrounded by eager students as they explore the floor map.

Curator of Botany Jennifer Doubt listens to students from St. Gabriel School describe their impressions of the Arctic at the official launch of the map. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the start, the students used words such as “ice”, “snow”, “cold” and “empty” to describe the focal regions of the map…but 15 minutes later, after an introduction to the map and the learning tools that included real specimens and information cards, terms such as “plants”, “fossils”, “diverse” and “colour” were favourites to describe the Arctic.

Ed Hendrycks talk with students as they explore the map.

Senior Research Assistant Ed Hendrycks, an expert on amphipods (tiny crustaceans) , shares his impressions of the Arctic with students from St. Gabriel School during the official launch of the map.
Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We couldn’t have asked for better proof of the project’s value! The considerable strengths of Canadian Geographic Education and the Canadian Museum of Nature have successfully combined to create a unique, exciting, inviting, portable venue for sharing Arctic nature and knowledge about it.

We invite you to come and check out the map for yourself over the March Break period and walk with our educators and volunteers across the Arctic…in sock feet of course!

A student holds a specimen card while exploring the map.

A student from St. Gabriel School tries to match a specimen card with the Arctic location where the specimen is found. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

NOTE: Teachers can book the map for free for use at their school by contacting Canadian Geographic Education.

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Mineralogy Adventure in Cambodia: Looking for Topaz in Takeo Province

Museum mineralogists Paula Piilonen and Glenn Poirier are in Cambodia, looking for minerals relevant to their research. Follow along on their first trip to Takeo province, near Vietnam.

After a few days of acclimatization and overcoming jet lag in Phnom Penh, my colleague Glenn Poirier and I set out on our first mineralogical adventure of this year’s field season in Cambodia. We are planning a day trip to the little-known topaz, aquamarine (beryl) and smokey quartz mines in Takeo province, about 90 km south of Phnom Penh, close to the border with Vietnam.

A person stands on a rocky outcrop with stone stairs.

The top of Phnum Bayong Kao, a 310 metre-tall mountain that is the destination of our first mineralogical adventure of this year’s Cambodia field season. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Populated, forested and agricultural areas seen from elevation.

A view from the top of Phnum Bayong Kao. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our driver, Mr. Sin, was with us last year and invaluable because he was able to translate and communicate to local miners and gem dealers what we were after. The province is not on the main tourist route and English is almost non-existent in the towns and villages. The few tourists who do venture off the beaten path and visit Takeo are often only interested in purchasing the cut gems, whereas we are interested in rough mineral specimens for our collection and research. This requires a slightly more detailed conversation with dealers to convince them that yes, we actually do want the not-so-pretty stuff that no one else wants!

A cut gem and a natural crystal.

It take some discussions to convince the dealers that we are looking for the not-so-pretty stuff that no one else wants, like the rough smokey quartz from Takeo, Cambodia, that you can see here (right) beside a cut specimen. Both specimens are from the museum’s collection. Image: Michael Bainbridge © Michael Bainbridge

Discussions with a gem dealer in the morning market in Kirivong town revealed to us that mining was currently at a standstill from the absence of water in the river—as in Ratanakiri province, water is used to wash the soil and weathered rock in order to expose and concentrate the gem material. No water = no mining. However, this didn’t hinder our plans to explore and collect specimens to shed light on the geology and mineralogy of the deposits.

The mines are located at the base of Phnum Bayong Kao, a 310 metre-tall mountain with an Angkorian-age temple at the top, Wat Bayong Kao. As in other parts of Cambodia, mining in Takeo is done by hand—digging ditches into the soil and stream beds to collect loose minerals. There is no hard-rock mining with explosives and machines here.

A person stands amid stone walls and paving.

Prasat Bayong Kao, an Angkorian-age temple. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man sits in front of statues and offerings.

A monk at Prasat Bayong Kao. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a result, the production of the region has greatly diminished in the last few years as the “easy” deposits are mined out. In order to expose more gem-bearing pockets, mechanical, hard-rock mining methods would have to be employed.

We chose to hike to the top in the relative “cool” of the morning, doing geology on the way down (it’s much easier to carry rocks down a mountain than up!). The mountain itself is a very coarse-grained quartz-and-feldspar granite with cavities containing well-formed smokey quartz and topaz crystals.

A granite outcrop.

Granite containing the topaz, smokey quartz and aquamarine gem deposit. The gem minerals are found in cavities within the granite. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unfortunately, extracting minerals from the rock proved to be a futile effort with the limited equipment that we were carrying (rock hammers and a small chisel). After sampling the granite, our driver took us to a lunch spot at the base of the mountain with a convenient gem market. This gave us the chance to browse the rough and cut smokey quartz, topaz and aquamarine from the deposit, as well as to purchase a number of other hand samples containing additional mineral species (tourmaline) for our research.

Two crystals and a cut gem.

Rough and cut topaz from Takeo, Cambodia, from the museum’s collection. Image: Michael Bainbridge © Michael Bainbridge

It was also a great learning (and shopping!) experience for the three non-geologists who had tagged along with us for the day—everyone came back to Phnom Penh happy. As the saying goes, a bad day in the field is always better than a good day in the office. But this was definitely a good day in the field.

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Whale Saga at the Museum—Salvaging a Scientific Collection

The fate of a great number of species depends on the understanding of their past, their present situation, and the environmental challenges they face. One way to learn more about them is to study museum natural history collections, which provide invaluable sources of raw data for scientists to use in their investigations.

As Curator of Vertebrates at the museum, I oversee national collections that encompass mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Among these are world-class specimens of whales and other marine mammals representing the major species that inhabit Canadian waters.

A technician stands behind shelves holding whale skulls.

Technician Alan McDonald stands among some of the whale bones stored in the museum’s Large Skeleton Room. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Included in this collection is an assemblage of specimens that had come from the Arctic Biological Station of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which had closed down in 1992. An estimated 21,000 samples, many of them undocumented, had been stored in large barrels at our collections facility for over three decades.

Large metal barrels on shelves.

The whale samples were sitting in over 130 large, sealed barrels and had never been made accessible to the scientific community until the salvage project began. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The collection can provide invaluable information on topics ranging from historical records of whale occurrences and migration, impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, cetacean changes in growth and development, to historical records of pollution. And since it’s been almost 30 years since Canada joined the international moratorium on whale hunting in 1986, the value of these collections becomes even more significant.

With this mind, I was determined, after I joined the museum in December 2006, to add to the scientific knowledge by salvaging this amazing collection.

I readily acknowledged its exceptional value after I was made aware of its existence. It was the only collection of its kind in the world from the time period and the place the samples were collected. Vertebrate collections staff had worked to inventory the samples in 1993 and 1998 but several reasons impeded attempts to properly deal with the samples and make the data more accessible. The reasons included potential harm in handling large volumes of carcinogenetic preservative without appropriate equipment, incomplete data records (i.e., what was in each barrel), and limited resources.

A close-up of whale ovaries in a storage barrel.

A large barrel containing ovaries was opened in the lab for transfer to other containers. The samples were still in good condition despite being unchecked for a long time and having a dangerously low concentration of preservative. Image: Philippe Ste-Marie © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic Biological Station, established in 1948, was originally part of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada and served to expand oceanographic investigations in the Eastern Arctic. Over 44 years, thousands of marine mammal specimens were collected from most of the Canadian Arctic. Over this time, the scientists took advantage of whaling activities to assemble collections for research. The samples donated to our museum were collected mostly in the 1960s and 1970s in the northern Atlantic and the Arctic.

I spent a few years pondering how to complete the documentation and access to the samples, striving to identify all the issues that could prevent me from completing what had been pending for over two decades. Over that time, I learned a lot about this collection, the people behind it, the ebbs and flows it went through, and the less-than-glorious fate that was reserved to it.

The final step in breaking new ground to manage this collection and make it more accessible led me in October 2012 to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There I met James (Jim) Mead, a researcher who had worked at the Arctic Biological Station in the 1970s and had collected many of the samples. Jim willingly offered to share the data he kept in his field notes. Charles Potter, the manager of the Smithsonian’s marine mammal collections, also shared very exciting stories about this collection. With this information, and some funding now in place, I was ready to finally oversee the sorting, documentation and curation of the prized samples.

Two staff, wearing masks and protective gear, lean over steel tanks containing specimens.

Vertebrate zoology staff confirm inventories and transfer whale samples into easily manageable 25-gallon stainless steel tanks and 5-gallon jars with updated alcohol concentration. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Now that holding confirmed data was no longer an issue, the desired samples were to be transferred into smaller containers to be eventually made accessible to scientists. I was only hoping they still were in good condition in the barrels. They were! Selected skeletal and anatomical parts were eventually pulled together by the thousands.

So far, four major subsets of parts have been consolidated : 1) auditory system parts consisting of earplugs removed from 2,942 whales, and ear bones and ear blocks from 1,357 individuals; 2) an assemblage of foetuses representing various whale species and different development stages; 3) a series of anatomical organs comprising ovaries, brains, hearts, and eyes and 4) miscellaneous parts, including skin clips with scars, flippers and flukes.

A few whale foetuses resting in a stainless steel storage tank.

Among the stunning samples, a collection of foetuses was eventually assembled and organized in compliance with museum standards. Image: Philippe Ste-Marie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Many marine mammal species are represented in the collection, including seven whale species, as well as many seals and dolphins. The blue whale displayed in the museum’s RBC Blue Water gallery is also part of the collection that came from the Arctic Biological Station.

The job is not done yet. More work is needed to bring this unique collection to a world-class rank. More specimens still need to be pulled out of the barrels to be placed in appropriate containers and fluid preservatives, and the information associated with the specimens must be published in data portals.

Rows of shoeboxes on shelves containing whale eardrums.

A collection of whale earbones lie stored in boxes in the vertebrate collections, after being reorganized and having their data confirmed. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Much of the collection, nonetheless, can now be used for research, teaching, and education. It can be combined with other samples from not only the museum’s vertebrate collection but also the palaeontology section, where staff are processing approximately 1,000 other skeletal parts of whales (most representing bowhead whales that lived some 4,000-5,000 years ago in various parts of the Arctic.) Thus, the diversity of species and samples, as well as the scope of the time period that characterize the Canadian Museum of Nature’s whale collections, make them truly stunning.

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Learning about Life from a Molecule

A few months ago, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA research lab was moved into a new and expanded space and renamed the Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity.

View of the lab.

Lab users work at these benches to determine the DNA codes of plants and animals. The multi-step process starts by isolating DNA from cells of the study organism. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

What does molecular biodiversity mean? And why does a museum need a lab dedicated to studying DNA? To shed some light on these questions, we’ll start by considering your very own DNA molecules.

You can think of your DNA as an instruction book on how to make you, organ by organ, from head to toe: hair, eyeballs, nose, kidneys, knee joints, feet and all.

Instead of the instructions being spelled out with letters like in a normal book, DNA instructions are spelled out using four molecules: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).

The letters A, C, G and T and a model of DNA are displayed in the lab.

Your complete DNA instructions are about 3 billion molecules long: a giant string of As, Cs, Gs and Ts that is all packed into each nucleus of the cells that make up your body! Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

And this applies not just to you but to all living things: from a microscopic single-celled alga to a tall pine tree, from a honey bee to a bowhead whale. The diversity of living things (or biodiversity) on planet Earth is spelled out in the four-molecule code of DNA.

The molecular biodiversity—simply the variety in the DNA codes in living organisms—that we see today is a result of a long history of change since the start of life on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. DNA codes are passed from one generation to the next and through time they have changed due to several forces such as mutation and selection, the separation and extinction of populations, and a good dose of random chance. This has resulted in the species that are alive today and signals from this evolutionary journey remain in the DNA codes of today’s organisms.

Pipettes and other instruments on a work surface in the lab.

The biochemical reactions used in the lab are on a micro scale. These pipettes are used to precisely measure very small liquid volumes. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Given what it can tell us about the diversity of life and the process of evolution, DNA is an important tool in understanding nature. Because of this, a laboratory dedicated to studying DNA fits right in at the Canadian Museum of Nature, a research institution with the goal of increasing knowledge of the natural world.

In our Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity, staff, students and volunteers use the tools and techniques of molecular biology to reach into the cells of plants and animals and read the DNA codes within.

A man poses at a lab counter.

Michel Paradis, a volunteer who has worked in the lab for 15 years, stands beside a thermal cycler. Thermal cyclers control the temperature of reactions that replicate DNA. This is an important step in determining the DNA code. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

By determining the DNA codes for many different organisms and then comparing them through computer analyses, we can answer questions such as

  • Which groups of organisms should be considered unique species?
  • How are different species related to one another?
  • Which populations are on a path towards evolving into new species?
  • What evolutionary paths have led to Earth’s current species diversity?
Computer screens showing DNA data.

Once the lab work is done, the computer work begins. Analysis of DNA data is complex and requires computers and specialized statistical software to rigorously compare the DNA codes of multiple individuals and species. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

With the expansion of our molecular biodiversity lab, we’ve increased our ability to answer questions such as these which are fundamental to understanding the patterns of life on Earth. And all of this simply by figuring out the order of As, Cs, Gs and Ts in the DNA molecules of living things.

Letters to colour: I [heart] My DNA.

Valentine’s Day is coming up: celebrate the day and your DNA by printing out this “I Love My DNA” colouring page. Without your DNA, there would be no you! Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Returning Home

By Mark Graham and Jennifer Doubt

Even though we try to use our museum powers for good, there are times when things go wrong. Collectors—both amateur and professional—are dedicated and extremely passionate about what they do. That enthusiasm for collecting can sometimes lead to problems, like one that started in the Arctic in the late 1950s.

A river landscape.

The Mackenzie River near Tuktoyaktuk, in the Arctic. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

At that time, a young botanist working for the federal government was conducting field studies in the High Arctic. Many of these early northern studies were proactive components of Canada’s Cold War effort, in case we needed to send troops to the North. Others helped to prepare for oil and gas pipelines leading south, and expanded southern understanding of large-scale wildlife issues. Common goals for these investigations were to document the land cover and the plants and wildlife that inhabited it. Examples of plants and animals were intensely collected and saved as evidence of their work. Among the samples: a lichen, growing, unfortunately, on a human skull.

We can’t know the circumstances, considerations or discussions that surrounded this find, but we do know that the 1950s were not a proud time for Canada’s treatment of Inuit people. In this case, the lichen’s specimen value was given priority, and it was taken from the resting place of the bones to which it was permanently attached. Thus began a decades-long ethical challenge.

The collector delivered the sample to the museum, which employed a lichen specialist. To this day, we receive many specimens each year and consider carefully which donations are appropriate for the national collection. We believe that there was discomfort with keeping the skull—the scientific collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature does not include human remains—but there was also discomfort with the possible approaches to not keeping it, now that it was in Ottawa. This particular lichen specimen was never taken into the national collection, but was set aside in a secure cabinet and left. Time passed, and times changed.

In the past three years, with the efforts of excellent archaeologists and museum colleagues, the history and location of the collection site were traced, and a few small clues were gleaned about the person to whom the skull belonged—an Inuit woman—who had lived so far away. Equipped with this information, we could approach the Elders’ Committee in Tuktoyaktuk (the nearest settlement to the collection site at Toker Point), to seek guidance and to arrange to return her remains to the North.

A row of seats with a knapsack and a rigid carrying case.

In the Inuvik Airport with the small, secure box that was used to transport the object back to Tuktoyaktuk. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

In August 2014, on a modern-day expedition to this town in the farthest northwest corner of the Northwest Territories, the skull, with its lichen, were returned to the Arctic, exactly 57 years from the time they were taken. We are deeply grateful to everyone who helped us on this return path, from its first uneasy steps to its long northward journey.

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Arctic Change 2014: Sharing Our New Knowledge with the World

In December, Canadian Museum of Nature scientists took part in Arctic Change 2014, an international scientific conference that took place in Ottawa about all fields of Arctic research.

There, we joined over 1200 delegates representing a diversity of disciplines, perspectives, nationalities and cultures. Hundreds of presentations were delivered that reported the latest research findings on diverse aspects of Arctic science and policy.

A blooming plant grows in rocky ground near water.

At Arctic Change 2014, museum researchers shared their new knowledge about plants, algae, diatoms and Arctic phytoplankton. Here, we see purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Several blooming plants mingle in rocky ground.

Small-flowered anemone (Anemone parviflora) and mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna). Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of the goals of the Canadian Museum of Nature is to advance understanding of Canada’s Arctic and its relationship with Canada. We achieve this through research, both in the field and in our laboratories, and have recently created a new Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration to increase our capacity in that domain.

We also achieve our goal by sharing our new knowledge widely. One of the ways that scientists share new information is through participation in scientific conferences such as Arctic Change 2014, where new findings are presented formally and informally to others.

A man digs an ice core.

Researcher Michel Poulin extracts an ice sample near Resolute, Nunavut, during Arctic fieldwork. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the conference, Michel Poulin, Ph.D., an expert on Canada’s marine diatoms, phytoplankton and ice algae, was a co-author on two poster presentations. One poster reported changes in phytoplankton taxonomic composition over time in the Canadian Arctic Ocean. The other assessed the ability of sea-ice algal communities to produce compounds for protection again UV radiation. These compounds may be important for photoprotection—like a sunscreen—as the Arctic marine ecosystem responds to a changing climate.

I delivered a presentation on floristic discoveries and biodiversity of the Canadian Arctic vascular plant flora, based on ongoing research with my museum colleagues Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., Paul Sokoloff and Roger Bull. The main points of my talk were that the plant diversity of many Arctic areas is poorly known and that each of our field expeditions results in substantial new knowledge about plant distributions.

A man stands among willows.

Botanist Jeff Saarela and his colleagues have made several Arctic research expeditions in recent years. Here, he takes notes among one of the Soper River’s large tea-leaved willow (Salix planifolia) stands on Baffin Island, Nunavut, in 2012. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

This new knowledge is documented by collections—the hard evidence of a species occurring in a time and place—that are housed in our National Herbarium of Canada and are part of the permanent scientific record. I also presented a poster, reporting our work on the Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska project.

Three Arctic plants.

Some Arctic plants observed by museum researchers during their expeditions. Top left: Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodia). Top right: Marsh cinqufoil (Comarum palustre). Bottom: lance-leaved mare’s-tail (Hippuris lanceolata). Images : Laurie Consaul, Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Scientific meetings are often organized around a particular group of organisms or subject areas, like plants, animals or fossils. But Arctic Change 2014 was focused on all issues related to the Arctic, a region that is undergoing major transformation. This interdisciplinary meeting allowed policy makers to interact with biological scientists, zoologists to interact with botanists, and social scientists to interact with physical scientists.

These sorts of interactions do not occur frequently, though it is increasingly recognized that broad, interdisciplinary approaches are needed to address some of the planet’s most difficult challenges.

Understanding and responding to the effects of climate change on Canada’s Arctic certainly qualifies as a “difficult challenge”.

A key message at the meeting, delivered by Scott Vaughan (International Institute for Sustainable Development), was that “almost all the indicators related to a global ecological crisis are going in the wrong direction”.

View from the audience.

A presentation at the Arctic Change 2014 conference. Image: Daniel Lamhonwah © Daniel Lamhonwah

The museum’s Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration is contributing to our growing understanding of the Arctic, its ecosystems and species—all part of the natural heritage of the country we call home.

Check out the excellent short videos summarizing each day of activities at Arctic Change 2014:

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Water from a stone?

There’s an old saying that’s often used to describe something that is difficult. It goes along the lines of “it’s like squeezing water from a stone”.

In most cases, this is true.

Unless we mimic pressure and temperature conditions that exist deep in the Earth, here on the surface, squeezing a rock and having water come out is a bit laughable.

But when it really happens…when you crack open a rock and get splashed? That is cause for some excitement in the lab!

Hand holding a rock with a cavity.

Finding water in a rock is an extremely rare occurrence. This photo shows the Aris phonolite that was broken open to expose a fluid-filled miarolitic cavity. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

A vial with a small amount of clear liquid next to pieces of split rock.

Once broken open, the fluid within the cavities was collected with a syringe and deposited in a vial for future chemical analyses. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

There is a famous mineral locality in Namibia, the Aris quarry, known for the wide range of rare minerals found in the small cavities or pockets within the phonolite (an alkaline rock). The rocks there are 34 million years old.

One mineral collector casually mentioned that when they break open the rocks at the Aris quarry, they get splashed by water. I was both amused and confused at the same time.

Splashed? By water coming out of a rock? Surely this only happens after it has rained, correct?



Apparently this phenomenon is common—the water seems to be coming from the cavities in the phonolite, some of which can be up to 10 cm in diameter.

Water that has been trapped within the cavities for 34 million years? I was intrigued, to say the least!

First, let’s talk about magma. Magma is a mixture of a number of things: molten rock (liquid), small crystals (solids) and a variety of gases (water vapour, carbon dioxide, sulphur). When magma cools, minerals start to form out of the molten rock as well as crystallizing on top of the existing mineral crystals.

Minerals are formed from chemical components called elements. When magma cools, certain compatible elements tend to enter into the first minerals that are formed. Examples of compatible elements are silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum, potassium and calcium. They bond together and create rock-forming minerals such as quartz, feldspars, pyroxene, amphibole, olivine and micas. These garden-variety minerals account for 99% of the Earth’s crust.

Collage: Close-up views of three mineral specimens.

Left: Arisite from the Aris quarry in Namibia. This new mineral species was described by museum scientists and named for the quarry where it was discovered. Top right: Makatite from the Aris quarry. Bottom right: Tuperssuatsiaite from the Aris quarry. Images: B. Lechner © B. Lechner


As the magma cools further, there are elements that do NOT want to enter the rock, remaining in the magma until the very end, along with the gases. We call these “incompatible” elements—strange elements such as zirconium, niobium, uranium, cesium, lithium, and the rare-earth elements.

Water, carbon dioxide and other gases also act as incompatible components. Incompatible elements are left behind in the magma, rejected by rock-forming minerals due to their size and/or charge. They form minerals only at the very last stages of crystallization.

Mineralogists LOVE incompatible elements! Why? Because they form rare mineral species—the <1% of the Earth’s crust that are the most interesting, for collectors and scientists alike.

When the magma that formed the phonolite at the Aris quarry started to cool, nepheline, aegirine (pyroxene) and feldspar crystallized first. As the magma cooled and solidified, the gases that were in the magma were allowed to escape and form gas + liquid bubbles. Minerals then crystallized within the bubble, or cavity.

In most cases, the gas and liquids within the cavity are all used up and the cavity is dry when cracked open millions of years later. In the phonolite samples we have from the Aris quarry, it appears that not all the liquid in the cavity was used up when the magma cooled.

Using a large rock splitter, we were able to crack a number of rocks open to reveal their liquid-filled cavities. Not often will you see mineralogists dancing in their lab, but if anyone had come near the prep lab on this day, they would have thought a party was happening. Actually opening up a cavity to find water is EXTREMELY rare—more rare than the proverbial needle in a haystack, and is certainly cause for celebration!

A man and a woman use a large rock splitter to break open rock pieces.

Mineralogists Paula Piilonen and Ralph Rowe using a rock splitter to break open pieces of Aris phonolite in order expose the fluid-filled cavities. Image: Glenn Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

By inserting a syringe into the cavity, we were able to capture the liquid and put it into glass vials for further analyses.

Is this original, 34 million year old “water” left over from the magma? Or is it water from the surface that leaked through the rock and filled the cavities? Here is where the real work begins—analyzing the chemistry of the liquid and discovering its origins. If it truly is 34 million years old, the resultant publication will certainly be a historic breakthrough. Results to follow!

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