Going Hunting in Texas

In March of this year, I had the opportunity to visit retired colleague Charlie O’Brien at his house in Arizona, U.S.A., and work with him on his outstanding weevil collection.

While identifying members of a group of weevils that I had worked on in the 1980s for my Ph.D. thesis, I ran across a series of five specimens collected in October 2004 from McKenzie Lake in Gaines County, Texas, U.S.A. Because this was a group of weevils that I was very familiar with, I immediately recognized them as a new species, and perhaps, a new genus.

Lateral view of a weevil and a 2 mm scale bar.

A new genus? An undescribed species (and likely also an undescribed genus) of weevil from Gaines County, Texas. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

So, armed with the knowledge of when and where the specimens were collected, I set out this past month to find more, and to find out something about their biology and maybe their host plants. I set aside the week of October 19 (this matched the collection dates from 2004) and flew off to Texas to start the hunt.

A flat landscape with a hill in the background.

Sandy shores. Sandy salt flats along the north shore of McKenzie Lake, Texas. The white spots on the sand are deposits of salt left by higher water levels. Image: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Arriving in Dallas, I rented a car and drove out to Gaines County in the high plains of west Texas. After miles of cotton fields, I came to the McKenzie Lake area, a rich natural oasis of some 1600 hectares of mesquite, sagebrush, snakeweed and myriad other arid land plants.

Because the weevils had been collected by an enthusiast of tiger beetles, Dave Brzoska, I spent the better part of my first day scouring the open sandy habitats favoured by these fast-flying, vividly coloured predators, hoping to run across the weevils.

The shoreline of a sandy beach.

A good place to hunt? The shoreline at McKenzie Lake. Insects (including beetles) and other debris wash up along the shores during windy periods. Image: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

About five hours and five litres of water later, I found my first specimen, lying dead in debris among other beetles washed up around the edge of the lake. Sadly, despite three more long days of checking various plants and walking the shores of the lake, it turned out to be the only specimen I found.

Rows of cotton growing beside a road.

Cotton fields. A small portion of the many cotton fields surrounding the native habitat around the lake. One can drive for miles in west Texas through what seems like endless cotton fields. Image: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, I had planned a couple of days to examine the collection of an entomologist friend Darren Pollock over in Portales, New Mexico, and as luck would have it, he had a specimen of the same species that he had collected earlier this year in March, in Quay County, New Mexico.

So although I did not find out anything about biology or host plants, I did get a second specimen and now knew that the species has a wider distribution than just the McKenzie Lake area, and was active in spring as well as autumn. And, with the now-seven known specimens, I had a good series from which to put together a species description and decide on the generic placement.

A flat area with plants and small trees.

Great for weevils. The native mesquite shrub habitat surrounding the lake. Lots of weevils were collected at night from the small yellow-flowered shrub when they came up onto the plants to feed in the cooler and more humid night air. Image: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although I collected only two specimens of the target species, while at McKenzie Lake I also collected hundreds of other interesting weevils of a number of different species. I caught the majority at night by sweeping plants with a heavy net (the weevils come up onto the plants then to feed in the cooler and more humid air).

Many of these weevils are restricted to the west-Texas high-plains area and are quite rare in collections.

You just have to be careful that your headlamp doesn’t go out on you, or that you get so distracted by the plentiful weevils or by the coyotes howling in the distance, that you step on a rattlesnake.

Natural oasis. A short panoramic video of McKenzie Lake in Gaines County, Texas, and surrounding habitat. A natural oasis in a sea of cotton fields:


McKenzie Lake, Texas, U.S.A.
Video: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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Nature Heroes recognized at Nature Inspiration Awards

It is important to celebrate our heroes. They deserve recognition for good deeds done, and because they provide powerful inspiration. Some of our heroes have the talent to create art that raises our emotions through sheer beauty or incredible imagination. Other heroes have the physical ability to float across a hockey rink or rocket down a soccer field, which causes us to shout and cheer.

And then there are the heroes of nature who are often less well known, but because of what they do, why they do it, and the deep passion in their delivery, they are able to change the world around them.

Finalists and winners of the Nature Inspiration Awards standing on a staircase.

Assembled for the Nature Inspiration Awards gala are this year’s 2016 finalists, winners and jury members. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These nature heroes are individuals, groups and organizations; they are young and old. They see themselves as an integral part of the natural world and are so enthused by nature, and the prospect of the sustainability of it, that they create new ways of taking part in life. And they do it for their whole lives, or make sure it is part of the core value of their institution, usually involving many others.

The Museum has created a way to celebrate some of these heroes through its Nature Inspiration Awards. Each year, we see a long list of well-deserving applicants and face the tough choice of deciding who should be given recognition at a special gala. The revelation of the contenders’ accomplishments is nothing short of amazing. The experience of reading through such a wide range of activities and accomplishments gives a refreshing perspective on our capacity as humans, and is a humbling experience.

This year’s gala took place on November 9. The recipients of the 2016 Nature Inspiration Awards are:

  • Individual, Youth: Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a dynamic teenager who is a First Nations Leader, Actor, Singer-songwriter and Youth Ambassador for Native Children’s Survival. She regularly speaks on the world stage in her roles and her latest music/visual project, Earth Revolution, is a powerful move to gather respect for Mother Earth.


  • Individual, Adult: John Lounds, President and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an organization that he has transformed into an important national force. The not-for-profit has safeguarded over 2.8 million acres of ecologically significant land in Canada.
John Lounds, holding a trophy, standing beside Meg Beckel.

John Lounds with museum President and CEO Meg Beckel at the 2016 Nature Inspiration Awards gala. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

  • Lifetime Achievement: Neal Jotham has spent more than 50 years advocating for the humane treatment of animals, including as leader of the Federation of Canadian Humane Societies. Because of his efforts to develop humane trapping methods, the suffering of millions of wild fur-bearing animals in North America, Russia and the European Union has been eliminated, and the trapping of untargeted species has been greatly reduced.


  • Not-for-Profit, Small to Medium: The Natural Step Canada is an organization that facilitates the path to sustainability. Its programs give instruction on how to best embed sustainability into the strategies, operations, products, services and plans of communities, businesses and groups. They have fostered commitment and competence in thousands of leaders and practitioners through its learning programs.
  • Not-for-Profit, Large: Ocean Tracking Network is a global research and technology platform and development project based at Dalhousie University. This network of scientific experts enables national and international sustainable management of species such as marine mammals, sea turtles, squid, crustaceans, sharks, sturgeon, eels, tuna, salmon, and cod. It achieves this by providing knowledge of aquatic animal movements, migrations, habitat use and survival.
A woman holding a trophy stands at the side as a man stands at a podium in front of a screen.

Dr. Sara Iverson and Dr. Fred Whoriskey (at podium) accept the 2016 Nature Inspiration Award at the gala held November 9, 2016 at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

  • Business, Small to Medium: SK Films is an established multimedia company dedicated to creating and distributing high quality, natural history productions. It also links innovative educational materials and conservation activities to reinforce and enhance the entertainment experience. SK regularly collaborates with scientists and educators and in their emphasis on connecting to school groups, families and citizen scientists.
A man shakes the hand of a woman accepting an award.

John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, presents the 2016 Nature Inspiration Award for Business (small to medium) to Wendy MacKeigan and Jonathan Barker with SK Films. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

  • Business, Large: Teck Resources Limited is a diversified resource company committed to responsible mining and mineral development. It has expertise related to exploration, development, mining and minerals processing, including environmental protection, materials stewardship, recycling and research. Teck is committed to minimizing the footprint and mitigating impacts of its operations, eventually leaving behind productive ecosystems for future generations.

The Canadian Museum of Nature extends a well-deserved congratulations to all the recipients of the 2016 awards. Read more about these heroes and see videos recognizing their achievements at nature.ca. And may their accomplishments and the powers of nature inspire you!

If you know a deserving person or organisation for the 2017 awards, look for the Call for Nominations in February 2017.

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“Skeletons Out of the Closet” at the Museum’s Research and Collections Facility

Every year, the Canadian Museum of Nature hosts a popular open house for the general public at its research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec (Aylmer sector).

The building is several times bigger than the familiar downtown Ottawa museum building, and contains many research laboratories and nature collections.

People look at a mounted mastodon skeleton.

The entrance to the research and collections facility with welcoming Mastodon skeleton. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the open house, curators, scientific staff and volunteers are on hand to answer questions and share their knowledge. There are a number of activities for families with kids. The open house is very popular and typically gets about 3700 attendees.

Major exhibitions include dinosaurs, mammals, insects, minerals, aquatic creatures, botany, DNA and the Arctic. Many amazing and ancient things are revealed to the public.

The following photos document some of the highlights of the latest open house, held in October 2016.

Composite: Large vertebrate skeletons, the skeleton and a model of Tiktaalik roseae, a mounted muskox, dinosaur skulls and bones.

Skeletons out of the closet:
Top left: Some specimens of the museum’s vertebrate zoology collection, with moose, bison and seal skeletons.
Top right: Model of the “fishapod” (Tiktaalik roseae), a 375 million-year-old fossil fish discovered in the Arctic in 2004. It was the first fish species to venture onto land. Kieran Shepard, Curator of the palaeobiology collection, answered questions from attendees.
Bottom left: Two taxidermied muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus). Muskoxen originated in Eurasia, and probably reached North America across the Bering Strait. They are superbly adapted to Arctic conditions by their compact build and thick pelt as well as other adaptations.
Bottom right: Horned-dinosaur skulls and other dinosaur parts.
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Specimens in the fish lab.

An exhibition of aquatic specimens preserved in jars of ethanol. The museum’s fish lab lends out specimens to institutions around the world. As explained by Noel Alfonso, Senior Research Assistant in Zoology, a specimen is removed from its jar, wrapped in cheese cloth, put in a bag and flown to its destination (i.e., “flying fish”). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Rows of insects in a display case.

Do you love the beetle? The museum has hundreds of drawers with thousands of beetles and other varieties of insects collected from around the world. Bob Anderson, Ph.D. and Research Scientist in Zoology, was on hand to answer questions. Enlarged photos of scarab beetles are on display at the museum in downtown Ottawa. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Composite: In each image, a person behind a table with specimens talks to visitors.

Experts answering questions about fossils:
Top left: Palaeontologist Xiao-chun Wu, Ph.D., talks about early dinosaur skulls to some young attendees. Shelves behind hold hundreds of plaster-protected fossils from the field that have yet to be unwrapped.
Top right: Volunteer William McDonald, whose father Alan is a Collection Technician at the museum, describes the procedures involved in preparing fossils. In the foreground is an assembled ancient turtle shell.
Bottom left: Collection Technician Margaret Currie discusses origins of the ice ages and compares woolly mammoths to mastodons and modern elephants.
Bottom right: Research Scientist in Palaeobiology Jordan Mallon, Ph.D., explains a dinosaur skull and claw (and a T. rex skull, not in the photo).
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Composite: A visitor handles a fossil, a man stands beside a giant snail model.

Left: Attendee Ed Gregory handles a 70 million-year-old fossil from a herbivorous ornithopod dinosaur, with the assistance of two museum volunteers. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature
Right: Joe Holmes, a museum volunteer in the diatom lab, stands beside a large snail model in the corridor of the collection and preservation area. In this section, food and drink are banned to avoid attracting insects, which would also eat the collection specimens. Image: Ed Gregory © Canadian Museum of Nature

Composite: Tools, meteorites and a moon rock.

Tools, meteorites and a moon rock:
Left: Scott Rufolo, Ph.D. and Research Assistant in Palaeobiology, discusses archaeological sites in the Arctic, including those of the Franklin Expedition. His table displays prehistoric tools found in the Arctic.
Middle: Museum volunteer Christian Rochford shows off meteorites and a moon rock to curious onlookers.
Right: Plaque with moon rock collected on the Apollo 17 mission to the Taurus-Littrow Valley, plus a Canadian flag that was carried on the same mission. Inscriptions express hope for world peace from the people of America, and a dedication of the plaque to the Canadian people by President Richard Nixon in 1973.
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

View of the DNA lab.

Inside the popular DNA lab: “A fox in a box”. The sign above it shows some DNA sequences that distinguish the red fox from other mammals. Left is Roger Bull, a Senior Research Assistant in Botany, and Coordinator of the Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity. The museum does DNA research on plants, animals, algae and diatoms. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Collections, Education, Fossils, Mammals, Museum Visitors, Our visitors, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Arachnophilia: Spiders of the Museum Research Campus

Spiders are a diverse and amazing group of arthropods comprising the order Araneae. They are not insects. They often elicit strong reactions in people, but injurious spider bites are very rare.

This year, the Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP for short) of the Canadian Museum of Nature began to survey spiders on the 76 hectare property that comprises the museum’s research and collection campus in Gatineau, Quebec. Spiders have very diverse life styles: some dig tunnels, many use webs to catch prey, and some use their silk as a sail to get around. Some species even live under water!

A spider in a spider web.

Orb-weaver spider (Araneidae family) found on the museum’s research and collection campus in Gatineau, Quebec. Image: Carly Casey, Geoff Carter © Canadian Museum of Nature

The EMP students began collecting spiders in addition to continuing to collect beetles. The spiders were collected using the same pitfall traps that we use to collect ground beetles.

Composite: A man holds a sheet in a forest, and a man crouches in a forest o pour liquid into a sunken container.

Geoff Carter examining his sheet after beating the trees (left) and setting a pitfall trap (right) on the museum’s research campus. The pitfall trap, also used to trap beetles, guides the animals along a clear plastic barrier and into cups filled with propylene glycol, which kills and preserves them. Images: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

“Beating” is a second method of spider collecting that we tried out this season. This technique involves holding a sheet beneath a tree and shaking the tree vigorously. Any spiders that fall onto the sheet need to be sucked up quickly using an aspirator. This requires a lot more time and energy than the passive pitfall traps.

There is evidence that spider assemblages change as the environment around them changes. A change in the spider species that are present is reflective of an environmental change in our forest.

Once collected, we preserved our specimens in ethanol and brought them back to the lab for sorting. When trying to identify spider families, there are a few key features that are used. Often, eye arrangement indicates the appropriate family, such as the wolf spider family (Lycosidae), which has four large posterior eyes that form a rectangle if you look from the top, and four much smaller anterior eyes that form a row in front.

Close-up of a spider.

Male wolf spider (Lycosidae family) from a frontal view collected by EMP students in the 2016 field season. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

The crab spider family is easy to recognize by body shape with its longer first and second that resemble those of a crab. Other families can be much trickier to identify, requiring us to count the number of large hairs (macrosetae) on a segment of a specific leg.

Overhead view of a spider.

Male crab spider (Thomisidae family) from dorsal view collected by EMP students in the 2016 field season. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

To identify spiders to species, we would need to look more closely at their genitalia because these structures are very species-specific.

Before mating, males create a web where they deposit their sperm. They then collect the sperm in their secondary genitalia and store it near their head in specialized structures. Called pedipalps, they resemble ornate glasswork or sugar-work and are inserted into the female’s epigynum during mating. The spiders’ genital structures function like a lock-and-key mechanism.

After mating, some males leave in a hurry, leaving a palp behind. This effectively blocks any other males from mating with the female.

Close-up of a pedipalp.

Male fishing spider (Pisauridae family) pedipalp from ventral view collected by EMP students in the 2016 field season. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are over 100 families and 35 000 species of spiders in the world. When you take a closer look under a microscope, you can see how different these species really are.

Spiders may never win everyone’s approval, but now EMP students react with excitement, curiosity and appreciation when they see spiders.

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fieldwork, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Forever Business

One of the oldest and most respected international, non-government organizations that looks out for nature is the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Every four years, the IUCN calls its members together to a World Conservation Congress, and the invitation is extended to anyone else who wishes to contribute to the many activities on the topic of species and habitat conservation.

A building beside water.

The Congress Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, this September, the “anyone else” part of the equation took on significant proportions: 10 000 registered delegates from 184 countries, representing 1300 non-government organizations.

A large room with tables and displays.

Many of the member organizations and others have information booths at the meeting. There are also larger spaces, pavilions that were used for thematic presentations. The Nature for All Pavilion was co-sponsored by the Canadian Museum of Nature and featured activities aimed at engaging youth and others. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Meg Beckel, Robert Anderson and Mark Graham of the Canadian Museum of Nature were at the meeting representing some of our programmes (such as Nature Nocturne) through the Nature for All pavilion and through an electronic poster presentation about the importance of taxonomic research.

A crowd dances indoors.

The museum organized three successful Nature Nocturne events in the Nature for All Pavilion during the meeting. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

We attended meetings of the Commission on Environmental Management as a member of the Arctic Theme, Chaired the Governance Committee of the Assembly and participated in the Member’s Assembly as part of the Canadian Delegation.

View from the audience in an auditorium.

Hundreds of members assemble to make decisions about the operations and governance of the IUCN. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

It is a big, dynamic meeting, and there is a lot to talk about, but one thing said in a session really resonated about the contributions of natural-history museums. Such a large and important meeting attracts high-placed decision makers. One of those was Sally Jewell, the Secretary for the Interior in the United States (in charge of their Geological Survey, National Parks and Land Management). She proclaimed that the US government is now including environmental sustainability as part of its decision-making process, because healthy ecosystem services will ensure our best chance for survival. “We are in the forever business”, was her comment—a very positive step forward and, I dare say, a sign of hope for the future.

Ms. Jewell’s comment reminded me that museums are also in the forever business. If you ask our curators and conservators how long they feel their collections will last once prepared, they will likely say “hundreds of years”. That is as close to forever as you get in most businesses.

And the really interesting part is that those collections, and the data attached to them, are often integral in helping Sally Jewell’s forever business and the many others like it. Natural history collections and the data shared about them are a relevant, dynamic part of the scientific community and the conservation efforts of non-government and government decision-makers.

Composite: Jane Goodall and an on-stage panel discussion.

Jane Goodall addresses the attendees about the importance of engaging young people in nature conservation efforts. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

All that aside, the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress also attracted some enviro-heroes. For example, E. O. Wilson, Ph.D., who coined the term biological diversity, was here to speak to the assembly and demonstrated powerfully that at 87 years old, he is still one of our guiding lights on how to think about these complex issues. We also heard from Jane Goodall, Ph.D., who at the age of 82 is still inspiring young people to care about conservation through the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots and Shoots programme.

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Where in the World Is Snow Grass? Part 2

Be sure to read part one of Where in the World Is Snow Grass?

We continued the search for my little Arctic grasses in Naujaat (previously known as Repulse Bay), a small hamlet in Nunavut that is located directly on the Arctic Circle.

We discovered our first population of ice grass within hours of landing in the community. The plants were considerably larger than those of Arviat and showed more diversity in the habitats in which they were found.

Composite of images showing plant specimens, some being held by a person.

Habitats around Nujaat where we located ice grass:
• top left: a sandy coastal area within the community
• top right: along a gravel road
• bottom left: completely submerged in a little pool on a rock outcrops (an unusual situation likely caused by excessive rain that occurred just prior to our arrival)
• bottom right: at the base of a late-melting snowbed.
Images: Lynn Gillespie, Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

But where was snow grass? Candidate specimens of snow grass from Canada are superficially similar to ice grass, and without a microscope, we were stuck relying on our hand lenses and general observations of plant form and habitat.

We found several plants with stems that grew semi-erect rather than sprawling out along the ground—a trait indicative of snow grass. However, the hand lens revealed what seemed to be typical ice-grass florets.

Composite of images showing a person crouching while taking a photo, and plant specimens.

Ice grass plants of Naujaat:
• top left: the smallest plant we collected
• top middle: the largest plant we observed
• right: showing off the incredible root length of one little plant
• bottom left: a mixed population of bright green plants and purplish plants
• bottom middle: close-up of an inflorescence (the flowering part of the plant).
Images: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

We also searched frost boils (upwellings of mud) out on the tundra, a habitat more suited to snow grass, but came away empty-handed. With growing doubts about the presence of snow grass in Canada, we left Naujaat for our final destination: the capital of Nunavut.

With only three collecting days in Iqaluit, we had to carefully plan which habitats we wanted to target. On the first day, we found several populations of ice grass in disturbed, wet sandy habitats in and around town. Plants were quite large with dense inflorescences (the flowering part of the plant), with nothing standing out as possible snow grass.

Composite of images showing a person crouching while taking a photo, and plant specimens.

The last collection of ice grass we made in Iqaluit:
• left: photographing the population
• middle: a typical plant from that population
• right: close-up of an inflorescence.
Images: Lynn Gillespie, Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The next day, I (reluctantly) wrapped my arms around a researcher I had just met, as we hitched a ride down the Road to Nowhere on the backs of a couple of ATVs. We hiked across hilly tundra, scouring every snowbed and generally wet sandy habitat, but there was neither an ice grass nor snow grass to be found. How could this be?

With time running out, we spent our last day combing the shoreline of the bay just east of Apex, a village near Iqaluit. I was confident we would find more ice grass, at the very least. But as we hiked further and further into the bay, my confidence withered away. Alas, the time had come to head home to Ottawa.

A woman with an exaggerated frown.

Taken after arriving back in Apex, sweaty and with nothing to show for it—this self-portrait is entitled The Saddest Botanist Ever. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

What now? Probably a few long nights crying into a microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass. Luckily, I also have several loans from herbaria around the globe that have already begun to arrive. The loan from Svalbard, Norway, where ice grass and snow grass are morphologically distinct, should be especially invaluable.

I’ll be sequencing several DNA regions of these specimens to screen for genetic markers that can be used to separate the two species without a doubt. I’ll then be able to check for those markers in the specimens that I collected on my trip, as well as other North American and Greenlandic material.

Then, just maybe, we’ll finally be able to answer the question “Where in the world is snow grass?”

Pieces of paper on the floor, covered with plant specimens.

Ice-grass collections from our Nunavut trip, pressed and ready to be studied under the microscope. Left to right, the rows of specimens are from Iqaluit, Naujaat and Arviat. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Where in the World Is Snow Grass? Part 1

A grass is a grass is a grass—or is it?

In fact, grasses are a family of over 12 000 species! As a budding botanist, I wouldn’t have touched the grasses with a 10-foot pole.

A diagram.

Anatomy of a grass inflorescence. (The inflorescence is the flowering part of the plant). The basic unit of the inflorescence is the spikelet (shown in red), which contains one or many florets (blue). Specific parts include
a) upper glume
b) lower glume
c) lemma
d) palea
e) awn
f) anther
g) filament
h) stigma
i) ovary (matures into fruit known as grain or caryopsis). Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The grass family, called Poaceae, is characterized by reduced floral characteristics and simple linear leaves. Pair that with frequent hybridization between species, and it’s a recipe for long nights spent crying into the microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass (ok, maybe I’m being slightly dramatic).

But when you decide to do a Master’s thesis with the Canadian Museum of Nature’s grass expert, Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., there’s a chance you’re going to have to strap on your big-botanist boots and plunge into the grasses.

So here I am, studying a small grass genus composed of two species: ice grass (Phippsia algida) and snow grass (Phippsia concinna). They are extremely closely related—both are small, tufted, perennial grasses that are found in late-melting snowbeds and other wet, sandy habitats, and reproduce primarily through self-pollination—and thus far, little genetic variation has been found to separate the two.

Composite: Two sheets of paper with dried plants attached.

Herbarium vouchers of ice grass (left; Phippsia algida) and snow grass (right; Phippsia concinna) from Svalbard, Norway. A common characteristic that is used to distinguish the two species is the shape of the flowering part of the plant (inflorescence): narrow and dense in ice grass and diffuse with spreading branches in snow grass. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Ice grass occurs in the circumpolar Arctic with disjunct populations located in the North American Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, U.S.A.

Snow grass is well documented in Eurasia, but its presence in Greenland and North America has been debated since the 1950s. So where in the world is snow grass?

In order to answer this burning question, I joined a team of four other botanists from the museum and hopped on eight planes over 30 days to survey plants in three Nunavut communities: Arviat, Naujaat and Iqaluit.

The hunt for my grasses began in Arviat, the southernmost mainland community of Nunavut. Neither species had been previously reported from this locality, but a collection of ice grass from approximately 60 km north of the area left me hopeful.

We hit pay dirt just a few days into the trip and I’m embarrassed to say that, despite having spent the weeks prior studying my grasses under the microscope, I had no idea what I held in my hand.

Composite: A hand holds a plant specimen, the ground, a plant.

Ice grass from Arviat. Left: Our very first specimen. Middle: Second population, locally common and dominant on wet sand. Right: Close-up of an inflorescence. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The ice grass plants of Arviat were small—around the size of a toonie ($2 coin) or ever-so-slightly larger—which was surprising considering how far south we were. We collected from three populations of ice grass, all from sandy, coastal habitats.

A woman sitting on the ground.

Getting low to photograph tiny ice grass plants on the sandy shore of Hudson Bay in Arviat. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lynn Gillespie and I then headed north to two regions where both ice grass and snow grass had supposedly been collected.

Did we find the elusive snow grass in our great Canadian Arctic? You’ll have to read the second installment of this article to find out.

A sign that says "Welcome to Naujaat" in English, French and Inuktitut, with a helicopter and building in the background.

The adventure continues in Naujaat. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A Green Tour of Rideau Hall for Museum Botanists

On the morning of August 16, 2016, a group of 14 scientists and volunteers from the Canadian Museum of Nature’s botany team were given a special guided tour of Rideau Hall and its greenhouses.

Located in Ottawa, Rideau Hall is the principal residence of the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston.

The tour was organized by Roger Bull, the coordinator of the museum’s Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity (DNA laboratory) and a member of the museum’s botany team that studies plant diversity in the Canadian Arctic. As a high-school student, Roger spent a summer working in the Rideau Hall greenhouses.

View of the building from outside temporary fencing.

Rideau Hall is currently undergoing exterior renovations in preparation for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Inside the Residence
For the first part of the tour, the group was shown the residence ballrooms and sitting rooms. There were many beautiful paintings, including portraits of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II and previous Governors General. There were also some interesting landscape paintings and aboriginal art.

A dozen people stand inside a grand room.

The group inside the Tent Room, so-named because it mimics an outdoor tent. A copy of a portrait of Queen Victoria (originally by artist George Hayter) is on the back wall. There are also portraits of former Governors General, including Lord Stanley—of Stanley Cup fame (not shown). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Chairs circle the walls in a very large room.

The main ballroom with a recent portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Government cabinet members are sworn in here. The ceiling has a 1951, Irish-made Waterford crystal chandelier with 12 000 crystals. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man stands beside a painting on a wall.

Joe Holmes with a portrait of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (by Newfoundland artist Mary Pratt). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Inside the Greenhouses
The second part of the tour was inside the Governor General’s greenhouses. They were filled with plants from all over Canada and elsewhere, in a controlled environment. The greenhouses are administered by the National Capital Commission. A staff member was present to discuss the operation and answer questions.

People walk between botanical displays.

Inside the Governor General’s greenhouse with many kinds of plants from Canada and other parts of the world. Some have been meticulously trimmed into interesting shapes. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

An area of the display garden.

Some Boston ferns amongst other lush plants and manicured shrubs. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A view of a large botanical-display room.

Palm trees are farther inside the greenhouse. There is also a large bowl with some aquatic plants (not shown). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Outside Grounds
Outside, group members walked around the arboretum where many dignitaries have planted trees on their visits to Ottawa over the years. When they were planted, the saplings were—no doubt—just sticks, but over the years, they have grown to be quite large.

A tree outside with a plaque planted in the ground near its base.

This special tree, a red oak (Quercus rubra) was planted by U.S. President John F. Kennedy more than 55 years ago, on May 16, 1961. There is also a tree planted by his wife Jacqueline Kennedy (not shown). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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How Did Those Mussels Get to the Museum’s Pond?

Around 2005, Noel Alfonso, coordinator of the Environmental Monitoring Program at the Canadian Museum of Nature, started finding mussel shells strewn around the edges of the pond at the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec.

In 2015, these large mussels—known by their common name giant floaters—were formally surveyed for the first time by Environmental Monitoring Program summer students. For the second consecutive summer, we have been doing a lap around the pond every few weeks to collect specimens that the local muskrats have fed on and left on the shore.

The regular collection and analysis of specimens can give us approximate population and age estimates.

A hand holds an open mussel shell.

A giant floater (Pyganodon grandis) collected from the shore of the museum’s pond. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The pond did not exist before 1997; somehow, giant floaters made their way there in a very short time frame, given the age of some of our samples.

The discovery of giant floaters in 2015 was quite remarkable because, among the giant floater specimens (Pyganodon grandis) in the museum’s collection, the nearest was found in Lac des Fées in Gatineau Park, Quebec.

So how does a mussel get up and move several kilometres to a new pond? This is no easy task for animals that move by dragging themselves across the lake or river bed with their extendable “foot”.

View of the pond.

The pond is on the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec, close to the facility that hosts the museum collections and research activities. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

As it turns out, they get a little help from some friends. Giant floaters release larvae into the water, which then attach to the gills and fins of a fish. Once developed into their juvenile form, they detach from the gills and settle into the bottom substrate, where they will reach adulthood.

The giant floater is a generalist species that can sustain low dissolved-oxygen levels and a variety of substrates. The same can be said for its choice of larval-host fish species.

Of the 27 or so potential host fish species, five can be found in the museum’s pond. The most likely scenario is that giant floater larvae hitched a ride on some of these fish, which transported them to the pond.

Small fish in shallow water.

Fish travelling upstream in the ditch along Pink Road, on which the museum’s research and collections facility is located. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

A trip to Lac des Fées renewed our confidence that giant floaters are still present there. In this case, for the fish to get from Lac des Fées to the pond is no easy task because they must make their way up Betty’s Creek against the current.

From Betty’s Creek, they then travel west—again upstream—along the Pink Road ditch before reaching the pond. This ditch is usually flooded, but nevertheless, some parts of the journey are quite difficult to navigate, especially in a dry summer like this one.

The POV (point-of-view) video below shows the route through the “waterway” to the pond.

A Mussel Larva’s Journey Down the Pink Road Ditch

A map.

Map showing the most likely route of colonization of the pond by giant floaters. Image: Geoffrey Carter © Canadian Museum of Nature. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Earthstar Geographics, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS user community

Giant floaters can be dated fairly easily and in a similar fashion to trees, each growth season being marked by a dark stripe on the shell of the mussel. This counting technique can underestimate a mussel’s true age by up to half. As a result, some of our specimens could be up to 20 years old. Their potential maxium age means that the period between the creation of the pond in 1997 and its colonization could have been very short indeed.

The pipe opening and water.

A culvert along Pink Road that would be difficult for fish to pass through during this dry summer. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

What a journey! The lengths that fish and mussels will go to colonize new areas can leave many of us wondering how on Earth that species got there.

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

“Royal Canadian” Diatoms from the Rideau Hall Pond in Ottawa

A man poses in front of a building and fountain.

Joe Holmes in front of Rideau Hall. The Canadian flag flies on the roof when the Governor General is out of town. Otherwise, his Royal flag (purple with a lion) is flown.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a volunteer with the Canadian Museum of Nature, I have been involved since spring 2016 in a project to collect diatom samples from more than 80 sites around Ottawa.

We visit lakes, rivers, canals and ponds to collect diatoms that will then be processed, photographed and added to the museum’s collection of 120 000 samples.

Preparing the samples, identifying the species and entering related data and photos into the museum’s phycology database are ongoing.

Visiting Rideau Hall
Our diatom project has involved looking for interesting places around the city from which to collect diatom samples. In June, I visited Rideau Hall, the principal residence of the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston.

An open gate in an iron fence beside a road.

At Rideau Hall, the south entrance off MacKay Street provides public access to the grounds.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

While touring the grounds (Rideau Hall is on a 31.6 hectare property), I found out from a staffer that there is a pond on the premises. However, it is located on the private grounds, requiring special permission to visit. Because Rideau Hall is an interesting place of national significance, I decided to go ahead and ask at the Visitor Centre for approval to access the pond and collect diatoms there.

A diatom viewed under a microscope.

This diatom was collected at Rideau Hall. It is a Caloneis silicula (size: 47 µm × 7 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Diatoms are microscopic one-celled algae that have a silica shell and come in many different species, shapes and sizes. They are found in all bodies of water, in the mud on the bottom.

At the bottom of the food web, diatoms convert sunlight into energy and CO2 into oxygen. They are a primary food source for small creatures, which pass the energy further through the food web.

Scientists and botany students use diatoms to study DNA, climate change, evolution, water quality and the environment.

Not long after my request, the Rideau Hall maintenance staff contacted me and graciously arranged a visit to the pond. In July, I was escorted there by a helpful staff member to collect mud samples. The pond is horseshoe-shaped and in a wooded area called the Sugar Bush. It is just west of where the Governor General’s outdoor skating rink is placed each winter. The pond appears to be isolated, so its water likely comes from rain or the water table.

A pond.

The Rideau Hall pond, located in the woods in the private area of the grounds.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sampling Results

Back at the lab, I processed the mud samples, made microscope slides and photographed the diatoms using a camera-mounted light microscope with magnification of up to 1600 times. Overall, our results were very good; some diatoms even matched species that I found in Ireland and in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Composite of diatoms viewed through a microscope.

Some additional interesting diatoms found in the Rideau Hall pond (1 µm = 1 micron = 1 millionth of a metre):
1. Diploneis ovalis (17 µm × 7 µm)
2. Gomphonema acuminatum (51 µm × 10 µm)
3. Gomphonema insigne (44 µm × 10 µm)
4. Pinnularia viridis (73 µm × 15 µm)
5. Rhopalodia gibba (65 µm × 7 µm)
6. Placoneis abiskoensis (44 µm × 10 µm)
7. Reimeria sinuata (36 µm × 7 µm) 8. Frustulia rhomboides (59 µm × 15 µm).
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because the Governor General is the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, the Rideau Hall diatoms will add a “Royal Canadian touch” to our Ottawa diatom project, which includes locations such as the Rideau Canal, the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers, Mud and MacKay Lakes, Mer Bleue and many other sites.

Overall, our venture will benefit students and scientists worldwide who are interested in diatoms from the Ottawa area and North America. The museum frequently works with botany students who are researching diatoms from Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and other universities and research institutions.

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