Whale composting: Letting bacteria do the hard work of specimen defleshing

Bones and skeletons are key parts of a natural history collection, used by researchers from archaeologists to zoologists. Usually, preparing these osteological specimens starts with removing the flesh. No big deal for small animals.

But, a couple of years ago, Canadian Museum of Nature collections staff faced a whale-sized specimen preparation challenge.

We wanted to deflesh hundreds of kilograms of preserved whale specimens. They had been collected during commercial whaling off the coast of Newfoundland from the late 1960s until 1972, when commercial whaling in Canada was ended.

These specimens weren’t just big (up to 25 kilograms) they had also been changed by the preservation process.

Before being transferred into ethanol in the late 1990s, the whale parts had been stored in formalin which hardens animal tissues. This meant they’d require additional preparation, such as ammonia soaks or peroxide treatments, to break down the tissues so that they could be physically removed.

We calculated that manually removing the skin, blubber and muscle to preserve the bones would take years.

Our short-cut alternative? Compost the whale pieces and let bacteria and fungi do the hard work of defleshing.

Whale pieces in a compost bin

Whale specimens in the museum’s special compost bin prior to being covered with sawdust and manure. Image: Shalini Chaudhary © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, in the summer of 2017 we created a compost station on the grounds of the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau.

Efficiently composting large whale pieces requires creating a compost pile with the right mix of carbon (sawdust) and nitrogen (manure) to achieve the ideal temperature for microorganisms, and then giving it time.

During the summer, we did five 18-day composting cycles. During each cycle, we adjusted the sawdust to manure ratio to try and achieve the ideal temperature, which varied between 27°C and 43°C. Sometimes we added water to optimize the humidity levels for the microorganisms. After the last cycle, we removed the largely defleshed whale pieces from the compost pile and moved them into the collections lab.

The compost-based defleshing process did not go as quickly, or work as completely, as we’d anticipated. This was in part because we’d struggled at times to reach optimal composting temperatures. So, to get rid of the remaining flesh we simmered the bones in almost-boiling water, a technique called hot macerating. Then, residual oil was removed by soaking in ammonia. Finally, a peroxide soak bleached the bones which had darkened in the composting process.

A chart with two jagged lines, one well separated from the other.

A chart of ambient air temperature vs. the internal compost temperatures over three months during whale specimen composting. The most efficient composting occurred when there was the largest gap between the two temperatures. Image: Marie-Hélène Hubert © Canadian Museum of Nature

This combination of multiple preparation techniques worked well and saved the museum time, money and effort. Osteological, or bone, specimens are important components of natural history collections. They are used by many researchers, from archaeologists and palaeontologists to comparative anatomists and zoologists. So, there will always be work preparing these specimens.

Our whale composting experiment has led us to think that we might well be heading back to the compost heap for the preparation of future zoological specimens.

On the left, a large dark-coloured mass of tissue. On the right, a smaller light-coloured piece of bone.

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) skull bones before (left) and after (right) composting. The initial weight was 25 kg; after composting and cleaning, 18.7 kg. Image: Marie-Hélène Hubert © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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Dendrites in rock: Getting a microscopic view

Last summer, I had my first research job: a geology summer student at the Canadian Museum of Nature as part of its Scientific Training Program. It was an incredible experience. At first, though, I was very nervous. Thankfully, the work environment was very student friendly which took away my fear of messing up.

Throughout the summer I was given lots of opportunities for hands-on tasks. My favourite was learning how to operate the museum’s Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). With this technology, I looked at minerals 20-times smaller than the width of a human hair. It was fascinating to see how crystal structures stay the same, whether it’s a mineral 0.002mm small or one 20m tall.


A magnesium oxide dendrite in a specimen from the Pilbara Region of Western Australia. Field of view 0.44mm. Image: Ann Presley © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During my SEM work with museum researcher Aaron Lussier I had the opportunity to examine rock samples from around the world. However, my research mainly involved samples of chalcedony, a variety of quartz, from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The focus of my summer research was studying how elements, such as iron, move through this rock. For example, why only certain elements are incorporated into the rock’s structure.

Similarly, another question I explored is why the minerals grow the way they do, including the interesting behaviour of dendrites in chalcedony. A dendrite is a natural tree-like or moss-like formation on, or in, a piece of rock or mineral. A dendritic pattern forms when an element or mineral, starting from a point of origin, migrates and branches outward. A single dendritic branch extends until the mineral reaches a point where growing various new branches is, for some unknown reason, more favourable.

A piece of limestone with a darker tree-like dendrite pattern

A magnesium oxide dendrite in a limestone specimen from Solnhofen, Germany. Catalogue number CMNMC 34359. © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Dendritic branching is just one of the many natural phenomena scientists like myself hope to explain in the future. My museum internship was such a fun, amazing and memorable learning experience — one for which I am very grateful as I branch-out on my research career.


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Bees and Wasps: Providing Ecosystem Services with a Point

With spring finally on the way, many of us are excited about patio season. So are some wasps. It’s an almost sure bet that in late summer yellowjackets of the genus Vespula will be unwanted visitors at our outdoor picnics and barbecues. Even though I’m a hymenopterist – someone who studies bees and wasps, currently the museum’s Beaty Postdoctoral Fellow for Species Discovery – I too can be bothered by yellowjackets as they relentlessly hover around my plate and drink.

But while there’s lots of buzz about bees’ ecological and economic importance, it’s unfortunate that our appreciation of wasps’ enormous ecological role is overshadowed by a few species that disrupt our outdoor dining.

What are wasps? They include more than 100 000 members of the insect order Hymenoptera with a narrow “waist” that are not bees or ants.

A pinned wasp specimen

A female baldfaced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, a widely distributed and commonly encountered species of North American wasp. Image: François Génier, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Wasps are essential for ecosystem functioning and indirectly responsible for increased food production. Most wasp species prey on other insects, including agricultural pests (the ones hovering over your drink are adults in search of a sugar fix to fuel their flight). Some wasps are parasitoids, laying eggs in other insects. After hatching, the offspring feed on those insects. These wasps in particular are a desirable and effective alternative to pesticides as they go after specific insect targets without any risk of environmental contamination.

Many wasps are also essential pollinators. Figs, for example, are pollinated by minute, specialized wasps.

A bee sitting on a leaf.

Although very wasp-like, this is a female cuckoo bee (Nomada sp.). Cuckoo bees invade the nests of foraging bee species, stealing their pollen. The absence of long pollen-collecting hairs is due to their cleptoparasitic lifestyle. Image: Thomas Onuferko, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Bees are effectively vegetarian wasps and include more than 20 000 species. Unlike wasps, bees have small, branched featherlike hairs which help to pick up flower pollen, the protein-rich food source on which their brood is reared, and in turn pollinate flowers.

However, not all bee species are important pollinators. About 15% of bees are “cuckoos” — they invade the nests of other bee species stealing pollen for their own offspring.

Two bright red flowers in the foreground, many red flowers in the background. A bee is flying toward the flowers.

The flowers of the scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) attract many kinds of bees. Image: Thomas Onuferko, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, what about the fear of getting stung by a wasp? Yes, female yellowjackets can inflict a painful sting (the males don’t have stings). But the majority of wasp species don’t sting.

Many female bees and some ants also have stings, but they generally do not elicit strong negative feelings. We see bees as seemingly docile compared to wasps, even though social bees can be quite dangerous when defending a nest.

Bees and wasps both play vital roles in the production of much of the food we eat. The pollination of plants by bees enhances fruit production. Wasps help keep pests away, reducing competition for our food.

So, the next time that wasps are bugging you, it might help to recall that without them, your meal might look very different.

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Herbarium Sheet Mounting: Adhesives Recommendations That Really Stick

In the summer of 2018 Jennifer Doubt, the museum’s botany curator, presented me with a challenge: find a better adhesive for mounting the museum’s botany specimens on herbarium sheets.

I was working in the museum’s Conservation lab as part of the Scientific Training Program, but my background is in fine arts, and conservation training with materials including metal, wood, textile, and paper conservation—not conserving ferns and flowers. Natural history conservation is specialized and rarely taught in conservation programs in Canada. So, I was excited for the opportunity to challenge myself in something new.

Having the best possible adhesive is critical because every year the botany team adds more than 5,000 specimens to the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada which includes more than 650,000 herbarium sheets in the vascular plant collection. At present, new specimens are attached to herbarium sheets using linen tape, a process that’s effective, but very time consuming. My task was to find a conservation glue that’s easy and quick to apply and keep specimens stuck for a long time.

Closeup image of a herbarium sheet with a spreading wood fern specimen that has a section missing.

Notice the missing section of this spreading wood fern (Dryopteris expansa). Over time the adhesive holding the specimen to the herbarium sheet aged and failed, resulting in the loss. Specimen collected in 1895. Catalogue number CAN 10005210. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Close-up image of a herbarium sheet with an alpine hedysarum specimen attached to the sheet with thin strips of white linen tape.

This alpine hedysarum (Hedysarum americanum) is attached to its herbarium sheet with linen tape. This technique allows the plant to bend with the sheet, decreasing the risk of breakage and loss. But applying linen tape is a time-consuming process, with each piece of tape carefully cut and placed by hand. Specimens collected in 2016. Catalogue number CAN 10042881. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

My core challenge was that in the conservation literature there’s no single recommended adhesive for herbarium collections. So, in my search for the best adhesive I considered the museum’s needs while exploring new research in adhesives.

Three of the key herbarium conservation needs are strength, flexibility, and neutral pH. Herbarium specimens must be conserved for decades, if not centuries. So an adhesive must have enduring strength to hold a specimen on its sheet and also flexibility to keep it held while the sheet’s handled by researchers.

A neutral pH keeps the surrounding substrate from becoming acidic, turning yellow, and prematurely aging.

Close-up image of a herbarium sheet with a subalpine fir specimen that has some acidic, yellowed adhesive masking some of the specimen from view.

This closeup image of a subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) herbarium sheet shows that the adhesive has browned with age masking some of the specimen from view. The browning also indicates that the adhesive’s become acidic, which could cause damage to the area over time. Specimen collected in 1975. Catalogue number CAN 10005767. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In addition to these archival requirements, the adhesive I was looking for also needed to have other practical properties. It needed to be water-based, high tack, and clear when dry.

The Canadian Conservation Institute’s long-term study of commercially available adhesives, Adhesive Compendium for Conservation was an invaluable resource.

My research led me to recommend three neutral pH polyvinyl acetate (PVA) adhesives or “white” glue.  These adhesives have both great workability properties in the lab and long-term preservation qualities. They have stood the test of time while remaining strong, flexible, neutral, and exhibiting minimal yellowing.

My adhesive research truly stuck with me. It enabled me to more deeply appreciate how in the selection of conservation materials every small detail must be considered to ensure the preservation of collections.

Understanding material characteristics and their deterioration was a core concept in my conservation training. I’m proud to know that what I contributed to the museum’s herbarium will increase the chance that in the 22nd century a museum botanist will hold a herbarium sheet prepared today—with its specimen still firmly attached.

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In Jassa mating: A thumb matters

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my Ph.D.-related publications about tiny, shrimp-like animals called Jassa. I set out to discover a way to tell the species apart based on their appearance. But soon I asked why they looked that way.


Blog author and museum scientist Kathy Conlan in 1980 searching for Jassa in a sample collected in southeastern Alaska. Image: Ron Long, © Canadian Museum of Nature

First, a little about Jassa. It’s a genus of 20 species of marine, colonial amphipods, in which each male or female lives in a self-made tube that it attaches to almost anything hard, from rocks and docks to boat hulls. Species of Jassa live on most rocky shores and harbours around the world from Newfoundland to the Antarctic (not yet in the Arctic, but see Cruising the Globe Undetected). Anchored in their tubes, they extend into the water to capture passing plants and animals or scrape up bits of dead organic material called detritus. Being without a tube could be a death sentence as Jassa is easy prey to fishes.

A crustacean, top view, with small black eyes and four large antennae; its body enclosed in a tube

A female Jassa marmorata in her tube. Her four antennae are outstretched to capture passing phytoplankton, zooplankton and detritus. Image: Kathy Conlan, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Yes, it’s mostly a sedentary life, but things get interesting when it comes time to mate.

Inside its tube, Jassa grows in stages, splitting its old outer “skin”, or cuticle, after it has grown a new, slightly larger one inside, a process called molting. For a mature female, this is the only time that her cuticle is flexible enough to allow the release of her unfertilized eggs into her external brood pouch. For a mature male, this is the only time that he can fertilize her eggs.

This opportunity to mate is very short, only a couple of hours long. So there is fierce competition among adult males to find a female that is receptive to mating. The females broadcast their receptiveness by releasing attractive chemicals. The adult males abandon their tubes, roving to find the receptive females. But the females are choosy. They will only accept males with the right look. These males have to have a thumb (an enlargement on a gnathopod, or pincer). The thumb signals an intent to mate. Thumbless males are intent on evicting the female from her tube, and so she drives them off.

The thumbed males fight to guard the receptive female until she is ready to molt and release her eggs. Once fertilized, the embryos grow inside the eggs until hatching as miniature Jassas.

Two small dark crustaceans facing each other closely and fighting.

Confrontation between two large-thumbed male Jassa marmorata. Image: Kathy Conlan, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In my doctoral research, I discovered that not all Jassa thumbs are alike. In every species, big males had big thumbs but some little males had smaller thumbs than would be expected for their body size. Some also had ornaments that the big males did not have. I thought this might indicate that the little males behaved differently and follow-up studies by other scientists have confirmed this for Jassa marmorata.

The little males appear when there has been not much protein from phytoplankton and zooplankton to feed on, so they had to depend on a less healthy diet of bits of detritus. But what little thumbed males lack in size, they sometimes make up for in behaviour.

A line drawing of an adult male amphipod with a large prominent claw below its body.

A male Jassa marmorata with a major thumb on its gnathopod (below and to the right of its head). The size of the adult male’s thumb seems to depend on its diet. A well-fed big “major” male produces a big thumb. Nutrient poor environments result in small “minor” males with smaller thumbs than expected for their body size. Image: Susan Laurie-Bourque, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Faced with a big male with an over-sized thumb, the little males seemingly don’t stand a chance. But in fact, they do. They are quick to mature and their small thumbs are big enough to signal the female not to reject them. When they outnumber the big males, they win the mating. And females will accept more than one male to mate with, increasing the odds that little guys can succeed too.

So, different strategies work for different situations. The fascinating Jassa mating ritual dances to the rhythm of how a male presents his thumb.


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A possible new species almost found — but lost

Several years ago a colleague sent me two specimens of blind cave fish collected in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran. I was intrigued. The specimens were small, just 2.5 centimetres long, and in very bad condition. But I could tell they belonged to the cyprinid genus Garra — and there were hints they are probably a new species to science. But, we’ll probably never know, and to explain why requires some background context.

Cave fishes are fascinating creatures whose habitat is usually the water in limestone caves, including tiny cracks between rock layers, and often occurring over very wide areas. Blind cave fish are related to species living in nearby streams and rivers. But, in the absence of light deep underground, there’s no advantage in maintaining eyes and sight. They’ve also lost skin pigmentation, appearing pink, a result of blood visible through their unpigmented skin. The blind cave fishes are thus different species, clearly defined by their DNA.

Two pinkish fishes with pale fins and no visible eyes.

The Iranian cave barbs Garra lorestanensis and G. typhlops are blind cave fishes similar to the unidentified specimens sent to museum fish expert Brian Coad. Image : Ruhollah Mehrani, © Lorestan Research Centre of Natural Resources and Animal Science, Khorramabad, Iran.

Four species of blind cave fishes are known to exist in the Loven and Tashan caves in Iran, including three members of the Cyprinidae family (carps) and one of the Nemacheilidae family (loaches). However, these sites are respectively about 130 and 270 km away from where the new specimens were collected, heightening the possibility the specimens represented a new species.

A man leaning over and using a net at a cave mouth with deep blue water visible.

Dip netting for fish at the Loven cave in Iran. Image: Brian Coad, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Since the specimens were in poor condition, the only way to solve the mystery was to collect more. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible. They were collected from a shallow pool formed from water seeping from a rock face when a tunnel was drilled through a mountain during construction of the Simareh dam in 2005. The tunnel where they were collected in now buried, encased in concrete.

Faced with this dead-end, we thought we might be able to solve the question by examining the DNA of the specimens and comparing it to that of known Iranian cave fishes DNA available in an online database. Despite the valiant efforts of the museum’s DNA specialist Roger Bull, this route also failed. The fishes’ genetic material was damaged beyond recognition by time and its initial preservation in formalin.

Thus, it appears that this possible new species of blind cave fish may have been lost to science before it was truly found.

Yet, ironically, currently buried under hundreds of metres of rock and concrete, it may now be safe from any further ravages, whether natural or human-caused.

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Champsosaurus: CT scanning reveals its ear openings really were on the bottom of its skull

At Ottawa’s Alta Vista Animal Hospital, when an animal gets a CT scan it’s usually a cat or dog and the vet is looking for broken bones or tumours.

But I brought a Champsosaurus, and I wanted a CT scan to look for its ears.

Let me explain. The up to two-meter long Champsosaurus was a genus of aquatic reptile that lived from 90 to 55 million years ago. Champsosaurus resembled modern crocodiles, but is only distantly related to them, and has no descendants alive today.

A mounted skeleton of Champsosaurus natator.

A large specimen of Champsosaurus natator, a species that lived in western North America from about 70 to 66 million years ago. On display in the Fossil Gallery at the museum. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8919. Image: Thomas Dudgeon, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, what we know about Champsosaurus comes from its fossil remains, and this leads to the ear problem.

Champsosaurus had a relatively delicate skull, with a long and slender snout and large arches of bone at the back of the skull that anchored jaw muscles. The skull was so fragile that few are well preserved, and thus little is known about the finer internal structures such as the braincase and the inner ear.

The skull of Champsosaurus

Top view of a well-preserved Champsosaurus skull in the Canadian Museum of Nature collection. Fun fact: Scientists call heart-shaped objects cordiform. Tilt your head to the right and see how the long snout and large arches of bone give Champsosaurus a heart-shaped skull. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8920. Image: Thomas Dudgeon, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

However, in the 1950s, museum palaeontologist L.S. Russell suggested that holes on the bottom surface of the Champsosaurus skulls were the ear openings. As you can imagine, this is a strange place for ear openings to be, and not all palaeontologists were convinced. Although some animals, like a few salamander species, have ear openings on the bottom of their skulls, most animals, including humans of course, have ears on the sides of their skulls.

So, as part of my Master’s thesis in Carleton University’s Department of Earth Sciences, I decided to tackle the mystery of whether the Champsosaurus’ ears really were on the bottom of its skull.

Fortunately, there are two well-preserved skulls of Champsosaurus in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s palaeo collection.

A Champsosaurus skull on the bed of a large CT scanner.

A Champsosaurus skull ready to go through a CT scanner at Ottawa’s Alta Vista Animal Hospital. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8919. Image: Thomas Dudgeon, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I carefully transported one skull to the Alta Vista Animal Hospital for a much overdue check-up, and the other was sent to the University of Texas CT facility for scanning. CT scanning is a medical technique that uses X-rays to create hundreds of thin cross-sectional images, providing a detailed view of the internal structures.

When I examined the CT scans of the Champsosaurus skulls, to my surprise and excitement, I discovered that the openings on the bottom of the skull do indeed lead to the inner ear.

Schematic drawing of a Champsosaurus skull

A line drawing of a Champsosaurus skull in bottom-view, ear openings highlighted in blue. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8920. Image: Thomas Dudgeon, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This of course raises the question of why Champsosaurus’ ear openings were on the bottom of its skull. It may have been due to the fact that the large arches of bone at the back of the skull were so prominent they displaced the ear openings from the side to the bottom.

To explore other possibilities, and how this influenced its hearing, I’m now comparing Champsosaurus ear anatomy to that of modern reptiles and amphibians.

I hope it will give me a sense of what this intriguing Cretaceous creature could hear with ears on the bottom of its skull.

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Zeroing in on Inuit origins through archaeology and ethnography

This past summer, after years of fieldwork mostly in the Middle East, I began my first archaeological research in the Arctic.

This represents quite a change for me, and not just because I was used to seeing camels rather than walrus.

Compared with the Middle East, archaeological sites in the Arctic are generally smaller, were occupied for relatively brief periods of time, and are more widely scattered across the landscape. This makes finding sites and interpreting the broader picture of the human story in the Arctic more difficult.

Two photos of an archaeologist in the field in Egypt and Nunavut

Museum archaeologist Scott Rufolo touring the Giza Plateau in Egypt, and (right) excavating the remains of a prehistoric house on an island near Igloolik, Nunavut. Images: © S. Rufolo (left); © S. P. A. Desjardins (right).

And it’s why my new research project, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Groningen’s Arctic Centre, is so interesting and valuable.

Map of northeastern Canada

The Foxe Basin is rich in wildlife in part because local areas of ocean remain ice-free even during the depths of winter. This enables numerous species of birds and marine mammals, including walrus, to maintain relatively large year-round populations, ones that sustain human communities. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature

The project is documenting a rare grouping of several densely concentrated archaeological sites located in the Foxe Basin. Together they contain remains spanning several cultural periods, providing a nearly continuous archaeological record documenting several thousand years.

This concentration of sites and multi-period representation is due in large part to the natural history of the Foxe Basin. The geography of the region contributes to a comparatively moderate climate with seasonal sea-ice patterns favourable to many forms of marine life, including large animals such as the walrus. In fact, walruses are able to live in the basin year-round, providing a valuable and stable food supply for humans.

Walruses on sea ice.

Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) in the Foxe Basin, such as this mother and calf, are able to reside in the area year-round due to the presence of polynyas, areas of open water within the winter ice. Other mammals, birds and fish in the region include: ringed seal, narwhal, beluga, and caribou; ptarmigan and geese; and Arctic Char and Cod. Image: © Ansgar Walk (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The rich archaeological remains preserved here provide a rare opportunity to explore the transition from ancient Thule to modern Inuit cultures. The Thule, the immediate ancestors of the Inuit, were a people who spread eastward from Alaska beginning around AD 1100, reaching Greenland within 200 years and displacing the earlier Dorset culture of the central and eastern Arctic.

Ethnogenesis is the emergence of a new cultural group who view themselves as ethnically distinct from previous societies, and surrounding contemporary ones. The ethnogenesis of Inuit from Thule culture started in the 17th century, but this transition is not well understood.

We began our three-year project with a field season at Avvajja. It’s an archaeological site on an island just to the west of Igloolik Island that represents the very end-point of the Thule-to-Inuit continuum. Avvajja was used as a winter settlement by the Inuit up to the early 1950s, when people relocated to the new hamlet of Igloolik. There are elders alive today who remember living at Avvajja as children.

People arriving by boat on an Arctic shoreline.

A group of elders from Igloolik arrives at Avvajja to share their childhood memories of living there. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Photograph of archaeologist speaking with a woman and taking notes.

Project director Dr. Sean P. A. Desjardins and the team’s translator discuss responses from Inuit elders about how Avvajja living spaces and activity areas were used. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Two days of our fieldwork were devoted to interviewing elders on site so that they could share their memories of living at Avvajja as children. Combining mapping and excavations with these interviews will enable us to illuminate the archaeological record to a greater extent than would be possible through digging alone.

This coming summer, work will continue at the site of Uglit on the Melville Peninsula, where a longer season will connect the historic occupation at Avvajja to the immediately preceding centuries (AD 1600-1900) during which the Thule-to-Inuit transition occurred.

As we gather more data and deepen our chronological representation, we hope to contribute greater detail to our knowledge of the cultural shifts that signal the rise of Inuit society — a culture that I am discovering is just as fascinating and rich as those that initially drew my interest to the Middle East.

Photograph of the archaeological remains of an Inuit winter house.

The remains of several Inuit winter houses, many in use up to the early 1950s, are present at Avvajja. This house is typical, with a low, stone foundation partially covered in the sod that formed the base of the home. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Traditional Inuit foods with an inset photo of a community gathering.

At the end of the field season, a community gathering was held at the site so that elders could relate their stories of life at Avvajja directly to their family and friends while seated around the remains of their former houses (inset). Traditional foods served included frozen fish, raw seal meat, and igunaq (ᐃᒍᓇᖅ), fermented walrus (the two large yellow and red masses on the right in the main photo). Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

An archaeologist sieving soil with an inset photo of an archaeological find

Work at Avvajja included the excavation of a prehistoric house dating to the Late Dorset period, around 1,200 years ago. Collected sediments were sieved in order to recover small stone tools. The excavation produced a mystery artifact (inset). Now at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for treatment, it may be the first known example of clothing from the Dorset culture. Image: S. P. A. Desjardins, © S. P. A. Desjardins (main photo); S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature (inset)

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Pyrite Disease: Keeping Fool’s Gold Challenges Museums

Pyrite, or fool’s gold, has duped prospectors for millennia, and now it’s providing a tricky challenge for museums.

Pyrite is a very common mineral found worldwide and in a very large variety of rocks. The Canadian Museum of Nature collection holds about 800 pyrite specimens. Each specimen has the identical chemical formula — iron disulfide, FeS2. But slight differences in the conditions in which a pyrite specimen formed gives each a unique shape, with cubes being the most common.

A pyrite specimen in a specimen box on a cabinet shelf.

An excellent pyrite specimen with a bright gold colour and cubic shapes. Catalogue number: CMNMC 43372. Image: Christian Capehart © Canadian Museum of Nature.

With its shiny yellow colour and metallic shine, pyrite closely resembles gold. Even more confusingly, it also commonly occurs with gold deposits. Many prospectors have thought they struck it rich when they actually just found a lode of pyrite, hence its common name.

Now, museum staff are dealing with another of the mineral’s challenging characteristics: pyrite can rust.

When exposed to humid air, pyrite reacts with oxygen and water to create iron sulfide (the rust), corrosive sulfuric acid and harmful sulfur dioxide gas. This chemical reaction, called pyrite disease, causes specimens to crack and crumble. Left unchecked, pyrite disease eventually destroys a specimen.

Moreover, the corrosive acid and gas can destroy the storage containers holding the pyrite and even damage surrounding minerals. This is why it’s called pyrite disease, because it acts like a contagious infection that can spread. The acid and gas are also a health hazard for museum staff.

A pyrite specimen that is cracked and discoloured.

A specimen of pyrite damaged by pyrite disease, resulting in cracks and discolouration. Image: Christian Capehart © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Since the museum holds pyrite specimens that are of great scientific interest and stunning beauty, it is of the utmost importance that we take proactive steps to preserve them.

Pyrite oxidation is triggered by humid air, so the best ways we have found to prevent pyrite disease are to lower the humidity of the collection room and keep the specimens in dry, impermeable containers.

With these steps, the museum’s pyrite specimens have the potential to keep fooling the unwary for millennia.

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Triceratops skull delivers a Wow! of a Christmas gift

Removing dinosaur bone from rock is much like opening a Christmas gift: you never know what to expect. Sometimes, if you are really lucky, what’s revealed makes you take a step back and say, Wow!

And that’s exactly the early holiday surprise I got several weeks ago working on the museum’s one-of-a-kind Triceratops skull. It might contain the world’s first fossil evidence of this horned-dinosaur’s skin from the area of the neck frill.

When I last wrote about the partial skull of a large Triceratops prorsus in our collections, I had just started preparation work on the specimen. From reading Charles M. Sternberg’s 1929 original field notes, our expectations were already high. The complete frill and both horn cores he collected and preserved in two plaster jackets could be the world’s largest Triceratops.

Drawing of a horned dinosaur skull

Drawing of a Triceratops prorsus skull collected by the pioneering American palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. The first fossils of this famous horned dinosaur were found in the late 19th century in Colorado, and have since been collected from Wyoming, South Dakota, Alberta and Saskatchewan. © Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Now, after five months of meticulous work on the backside of the bony frill, a completely unexpected find has emerged that could change our view of what Triceratops looked like.

A major challenge in preparing this Triceratops specimen is that much of the skull is fractured, and between these thin gaps in the fossil, tiny fragments and rock dust have accumulated. Before the fractures can be repaired, this accumulation must be removed.

Photograph of fossil in a partial plaster jacket.

A section of the bony shield that flared out around the neck of our Triceratops specimen, seen here sitting in a plaster jacket in the museum’s palaeontology workshop. The surface has been partially cleaned revealing many fractures. When C. M. Sternberg examined this fossil soon after its discovery in 1929, he made note of its exceptionally large size. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Close-up view of fractures in fossil of a horned dinosaur.

View of the frill section from above following complete exposure and cleaning of the numerous fractures that riddle the surface. One such fracture held a fragment containing a very interesting surprise — what appears to be preserved skin. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

One afternoon in early October, as I was removing and sifting through the dust trapped in the fractures, I noticed a small, broken section of fossil.

A triangular-shaped piece of fossilized bone had separated from the main frill, but remained largely in place.  As I cleared the rock fragments and lifted out this small bit of fossil bone, what I saw underneath it made me quickly set down my brush.

To my surprise, there was a small section of what looks to be beautifully fossilized dinosaur skin.

Canals in the surface of a dinosaur fossil.

This block of sediment covered a portion of the Triceratops frill and bears the impression of its surface features, including deep channels and pits. These may have once harboured blood vessels and other soft-tissue structures. One theory concerning the frills of horned dinosaurs is that they were covered in a hard sheath, perhaps composed of keratin, just like our fingernails. It’s possible that this protective covering was so dense and tight against the skull that the blood vessels providing oxygen and nutrients normally found in the soft tissue instead grew into the outer layers of the bone of the skull. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

If so, it is the first evidence of skin from the head of this dinosaur species. Since it was first discovered in 1887, there has been no fossil material found to give any clear indication of what covered this horned dinosaur’s iconic frill. For more than a century, it was assumed that a mosaic of scales covered the surface of the frill, but others have more recently suggested that it was instead covered by a tough, horny sheath. Until now, we had no way to be sure.

Fossil skin impression.

The polygonal features seen in this photo appear to be the remains of fossilized skin preserved in association with the frill. The fossil has been removed for further study to confirm this initial identification. Once preparation of the top side of the frill is underway, it may finally provide some answers regarding the nature of the skin on a horned dinosaur’s neck shield, and perhaps also earn the specimen the title of the largest Triceratops skull ever described. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Taking a closer look at the section of distinctly patterned features with Dr. Jordan Mallon, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s dinosaur specialist, we decided we needed to re-examine how best to approach preparing the opposite side of the frill. We want to not only preserve any delicate fossilized skin it may retain, but if possible, also keep it from separating from the bone.

With this in mind, I am proceeding even more carefully and slowly in continuing the finer preparation and stabilization of the currently exposed side of the frill. Over the next few weeks, we will create a new plaster jacket to support the specimen, flip it over, and then see what new surprises the other side might have for us.

For now, though, I am quite content to enjoy this early, unique Christmas gift of probable fossilized Triceratops skin!

Posted in Fossils, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments