Cave Weevils in North America

An insect.

Baldorhynchus amicalis (Osella), a species of troglobitic weevil from Grotta di Case Vecie, Verona, Italy. This is an example of one of about 200 known European cave-adapted weevil species. Image: Courtesy of Cesare Bello, Italy

When I think of caves I think of bats. Being an entomologist, I also think of bat droppings and the many insects that feed upon the droppings (more properly termed guano) that accumulate in caves under the bats’ roosts. This guano provides a moist, constantly replenished source of repugnant sustenance in an otherwise rather barren environment. As might be expected, most cave insects are detritivores: scavengers feeding on decaying organic material brought into the cave from an outside source.

There are also a number of predators feeding on the other insects with which they share the cave. Certainly, because of the lack of light, there are no plants and thus, none of the multitude of above-ground insects that rely on plants or plant products for their livelihood. But maybe it’s not that simple?

Insects cling to a cave roof.

Talk about creepy! This photo shows hundreds of the cave cricket Ceuthophilus secretus Scudder on the roof of a cave in central Texas, U.S.A. Like bat droppings, the droppings from the crickets (which forage above ground at night) provide a food source for a diverse community of insects and other arthropods that live in caves. Image: Courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas.

I specialize in the taxonomy and biology of weevils, perhaps the most diverse family of living things, and a group almost wholly dependent on plants or plant products for food. There are around 60 000 formally named species of weevils throughout the world. In Europe, surprisingly, there are around two hundred or so weevil species that have been found only in caves.

Stalactites.

While many caves are best known for their wonderful geological structures such as these stalactites, the real richness of caves lies in their emerging biodiversity. Image: courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas

These weevil species show all the traditional traits of cave-adaptation such as reduced pigmentation, reduced or absent eyes and long appendages. How is this possible? What do these cave-adapted (or troglobitic) weevils feed on?

Also, if there is a modest number of troglobitic weevils in Europe, why are there virtually no troglobitic weevils in North America? Despite there being thousands of caves, particularly in the southern United States, and a rich fauna of other beetles and insects associated with these caves, there are no weevils. Well, almost none.

A man's head and shoulders stick out of a cave opening.

The entrance to Spider Cave, Travis County, Texas. A new genus and species of troglobitic weevil has been found only in this cave. Some of the caves have very small entrance points and are difficult to access. Conservationists do not release the exact coordinates of the caves in order to avoid disturbances to these fragile habitats. Image: Courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas

Back in 2009, I was sent some specimens of a species of Lymantes from a cave that I thought at first was a species collected rather commonly in leaf litter (now named by me as Lymantes fowleri). I thought in this case that the leaf litter was likely collected from around the mouth of the cave. It wasn’t until I noticed that these new specimens entirely lacked eyes and when I dissected them and had differently shaped male genitalia and later found out that they were collected deeper in the cave, that I recognized them as a distinct species, which I named Lymantes nadineae. At that time this species was pronounced as “North America’s first and only troglobitic weevil”.

Two views of a weevil.

Lymantes nadineae Anderson, until now the only troglobitic weevil recorded for North America. It’s found in a number of caves in the Edwards Plateau of central Texas. Named after Nadine Duperre, a scientific illustrator and spider expert formerly of Granby, Quebec. The type specimen is housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature collection. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Since then, the lack of troglobitic weevils in North America and the question of what might troglobitic weevils feed on has puzzled me. Was the lack of weevils a matter of a lack of collecting? Or was it related perhaps to differences in the structure or history of the cave systems, perhaps allowing for the evolution of cave-adapted weevils in Europe, but not in North America?

Because almost all cave-adapted weevils have immature stages that very likely feed on plant roots, might the caves where they are found in Europe be shallow and more or less parallel with the ground surface, such that tree (or other plant) roots can penetrate the roof of the cave? These roots could be the plant material on which these troglobitic weevils develop. Maybe few North American caves fit this description? Or maybe it’s just that North Americans have not been looking hard enough for them? Well, the answer to this last question might be near.

A woman hangs in front of a cave opening.

The entrance to Midnight Cave, Travis County, Texas. In contrast to Spider Cave, this cave has a much larger opening; however, the steep drop and the need for ropes to lower oneself into the cave may be just as intimidating as the narrow squeeze into Spider Cave. Image: Courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas

While in Austin, Texas, a few years ago, I met with James Reddell, now retired, but one of the foremost cave naturalists in the United States. James passed along a few vials of weevils that he had accumulated over the course of his career. Included were some exciting finds, most notably a single specimen of an obviously troglobitic (and new to science) weevil from Spider Cave, a small cave within the Austin city limits.

An insect.

A new genus and species of troglobitic weevil collected in Spider Cave, Travis County, Texas. So far, a single specimen is known. Formal scientific description is underway. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

James is now in the process of sending me additional specimens of this species, along with a variety of other weevils that he has accumulated that were collected “in caves”. I’ve not yet received the package, but perhaps the contents can help address the question that the lack of cave weevils is from to a lack of collecting. As this package from James represents the best efforts of cave biologists over the last 50 years, might there be other finds equivalent to the Spider Cave beast? I sure hope so.

Christmas passed by a few months ago, but for entomologists, exciting gifts can be had at any time of the year. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

An unfinished story…assessing the status of Porter’s Twisted Moss

It’s fascinating to study rare species, a job that often involves rewarding detective work. Recently, I’ve been investigating a rare species of moss for COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

It’s the mandate of rare species authorities such as COSEWIC to identify species that may be at risk. They contract experts to gather the information needed for them to decide if, and to what degree, those species risk extinction. As the museum’s Botany Curator, I meet these sleuths when they check our collections for information on their target species. And as a status report author for COSEWIC, I’m also often on the trail of target species of my own.

Jennifer Doubt looks at a plant stored flat on a sheet.

Jennifer Doubt examines a plant specimen in the museum’s National Herbarium. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In 2013, I bid, with two co-authors, to write a Status Report on Porter’s Twisted Moss (Tortula porteri). In Canada, Porter’s Twisted Moss grows only in Ontario, only on limestone (and its cousin, dolostone), and only in the province’s most vineyard-rich, warm-wintered regions.

Close-up of a clump of Porter’s Twisted Moss on rock.

The rare quarry: close-up of Porter’s Twisted Moss. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The National Herbarium’s founding curator, John Macoun, picked up the first known Canadian collection of Porter’s Twisted Moss on Pelee Island (almost the southern tip of Ontario) in 1882. Between 1882 and 2013, it was also collected on nearby Middle Island, and on the Niagara Peninsula. The proof comes from voucher specimens in the National Herbarium and other North American collections in the herbarium network.

A close-up of a moss specimen and a collection label from 1882.

John Macoun collected this specimen of Porter’s Twisted Moss (CANM 197807) on Pelee Island. A specimen label from one of these collections (CANM 197808) reveals his handwriting. His mosses are housed in the museum’s National Herbarium. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These specimens helped me and my collaborators to piece together a picture of where, and how abundantly, Porter’s Twisted Moss may have grown over the past 100 years or so. The specimens also helped us to plan a fruitful (and fun) 2014 field search for current information.

With the help of other botanists (the more eyes on the ground and the more local experience the better!), we re-visited places where no moss botanists (a.k.a. bryologists) had collected in 50 years or more. We recorded how much Porter’s Twisted Moss we found (or not), what conditions defined its habitat, and what threats were present.

Six people, including Jennifer Doubt, stand along a fence.

It takes a team! In May 2014, Doubt and her fellow botanists pause before searching for Porter’s Twisted Moss along the Niagara River. (l-r): Albert Garofalo, Corey Burant, Jennifer Doubt, Linda Ley, Allan Aubin, Leanne Wallis. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

With a new understanding of its associations and preferences, we pinpointed other areas that seemed likely homes for Porter’s Twisted Moss, and visited them…until it was time to return to the Museum.

A woman in a forest crouches down to closely examine a rocky outcrop.

Linda Ley, a co-author of the status report on Porter’s Twisted Moss, examines an outcrop for signs of the rare plant during a search in the Niagara region. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It’s back in the lab and the office that the adventure of fieldwork becomes useful to others. We examined the collected specimens, and compiled our fieldwork results and background research on Porter’s Twisted Moss for a COSEWIC Status Report. In spring 2015, a long review period began. All COSEWIC members had a chance to make comments. Now, the report is on the review home stretch, with the third of three rounds underway.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I on the Mosses and Lichens Species Specialist Subcommittee, along with experts who know the species’ habitats and associated land uses, collaborated in a detailed assessment of threats. Information in the report was scrutinized against the criteria that COSEWIC will eventually use to develop its recommendations, to identify information that needed to be clarified or removed. Finally, we drafted a preliminary recommendation on how the criteria might be applied in the specific case of this little moss.

A rocky outcrop covered in mosses.

This outcrop on the Niagara Peninsula is home to numerous species of mosses, including Porter’s Twisted Moss (in middle of photo). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Sometime soon—probably in April—the reviewed (and re-re-reviewed!) Status Report on Porter’s Twisted Moss will appear on the agenda alongside reports about fish, terrestrial mammals, reptiles and more…all at the “big table” of a COSEWIC Species Assessment Meeting. Thoughtful discussion and a vote will result in a status recommendation. The latest recommendations are always made public in a press release.

Did you know that COSEWIC’s assessment and subcommittee meetings are open to all?  In recent years, the autumn meeting has been in Ottawa, and the spring meeting has been held elsewhere in Canada. The dates and locations of upcoming COSEWIC meetings are posted on their website.

Perhaps you’ll get to be a fly on the wall when Porter’s Twisted Moss comes up! The committee asks only that everyone present agree to observe the confidentiality of the discussions, in support of the open discussion required to achieve the best, impartial results.

Posted in Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Museum of Nature as a rare species hub

Many roads to identifying and protecting endangered Canadian species pass through the Canadian Museum of Nature. Some days, it’s a pretty busy intersection! One important reason is our many connections to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (a.k.a. COSEWIC).

You may have already heard about COSEWIC’s work without knowing it. About twice a year, stories pop up in the media about the latest species to be listed as threatened or endangered in Canada, signalling that COSEWIC has assessed another batch of wildlife species.

Jennifer Doubt looks at a magnified image of a plant on a screen.

Jennifer Doubt, the museum’s Curator of Botany examines a plant in the museum’s botany lab. Doubt, a specialist in mosses and bryophytes, shares her expertise as a member of COSEWIC. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Together, committee experts first decide which species seem most likely to be at some level of risk. Then, once the best available information on those species is compiled, they use specific criteria to assess a species’ status (e.g. Extinct, Endangered, Not At Risk) in the eyes of Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Three Peary Caribou on the tundra.

At the fall 2015 COSEWIC meeting, the Peary Caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) was reassessed as “Threatened” due to ongoing concerns about the animal’s future welfare. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, how does the Museum factor into all that? Well, for starters, the Canadian Museum of Nature is one of the founding partners of COSEWIC. Some of its scientists were COSEWIC pioneers, deeply involved even before the first formal meeting in 1978.

Also, natural history collections like ours give hard evidence that particular species lived in certain places at specific times. When searching for new information on rare species, researchers often compare what is present today with what history and collections tell us existed there in the past. So, among the visits and requests we museum curators welcome every day are those of rare species detectives: researchers in search of clues.

A man standing in a creek holding electrofishing gear.

Museum scientist Claude Renaud, an expert on lampreys, served as a representative on COSEWIC. He used his expertise to author a report about the status of the Chestnut Lamprey. Renaud was co-chair of the freshwater fishes subcommittee for COSEWIC from 1999 to 2007. Image: Noel Alfonso
© Canadian Museum of Nature.

To reward their investigations, these researchers end up with new information. For COSEWIC, this info gets packaged into a “Status Report” that summarizes knowledge about the species and threats to its persistence. This information can come from finding the species in the field, or from collections, publications, or conversations with diverse experts. Authors of these status reports are graduate students, expert amateurs, academics, government scientists…and also museum experts like ours.

Two men looking at a map in a small boat.

Museum biologist André Martel (right) and Mark Graham, the museum’s Vice-President of Research, study a map of the Ottawa River in 2014. They were choosing a diving site to search for populations of the Hickorynut Mussel (Obovaria olivaria), recently listed as endangered by COSEWIC. Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature. Inset: Something very few people get to see live in its habitat: a rare Hickorynut Mussel, which is partially buried in sand in the Ottawa River. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Museum experts also serve on COSEWIC’s specialist subcommittees (SSCs). Subcommittee members help to identify and propose species for assessment, and vet draft Status Reports. There are ten SSCs, covering arthropods, marine mammals, birds, plants and more.

There are 31 votes around the COSEWIC table, and each vote can be shared by up to two experts. So, when it finally comes time to meet—usually twice a year—to discuss and apply the information in the Status Reports, the table is huge! Although COSEWIC members may belong to provincial/territorial wildlife organizations, federal agencies (such as our museum), and other groups, no one formally represents any organization or region. COSEWIC is charged with providing impartial advice; only objective interpretation of the evidence and the assessment framework are permitted.

A group shot of about 30 people standing outside on a beach.

COSEWIC experts assemble at the 25th anniversary meeting in May 2002 at White Point Beach Resort, Nova Scotia. The group included museum scientists Claude Renaud and Lynn Gillespie as well as Research Associate Erich Haber. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Two experts from the Canadian Museum of Nature share a vote at the COSEWIC table. Today, that’s Dr. Bob Anderson, our zoologist who directs the Museum’s Centre for Species Discovery and Change, and me, the Botany Curator. When our terms are up, other Museum experts will take their turns. It’s hard work—as it should be for important decisions. And worth every single minute!

In a subsequent blog, I’ll tell you about one fascinating rare species on the COSEWIC path: Porter’s Twisted Moss.

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fieldwork | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Hunting the Urban Diatom in Vancouver, B.C. (Part 2)

This article is a continuation from Part 1 about our December 2015 family vacation to the Vancouver, British Columbia, area.

The trip was also an opportunity for me, as a Canadian Museum of Nature volunteer for Paul Hamilton in the museum’s diatom lab, to collect Western Canada and “urban” freshwater diatom samples in the Vancouver area.

The following are some of the best sample locations and examples of diatoms found, from 20 samples overall.

Stanley Park: Lost Lagoon
Our kids Sheila and David again assisted me with sampling, this time in Stanley Park and West Vancouver. We entered the park and took a sample from the picturesque Lost Lagoon Lake and the creek that flows into it from the west.

117848 1-30 Gyrosigma attenuate

In Stanley Park, Sheila and David Holmes at Lost Lagoon Lake. The sample contained a Gyrosigma accuminata—our target diatom (size: 95 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A portion of the creek, a diatom.

In Stanley Park, ducks unlimited along Lost Lagoon Creek that flows east to the lake. A sample contained a Stauroneis cf. gracilis diatom (size: 85 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Stanley Park: Beaver Lake
Beaver Lake is near the centre of Stanley Park. It is drained by a creek that flows east through dense forest to Burrard Inlet. The Ravine Trail follows the length of the creek. Samples were collected from both the lake and the creek.

Collage: View of the lake, a diatom.

Beaver Lake near the centre of Stanley Park, complete with beaver lodge. The diatom is a Gomphonema insigne (size: 38 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: The creek, a diatom.

Beaver Lake Creek in Stanley Park, flowing east from the lake through dense forest. The diatom is a Brachysira serians (size: 85 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

West Vancouver: Capilano River
Because of a wrong turn in Stanley Park, we found ourselves crossing the famous Lion’s Gate Bridge into North and West Vancouver. It provided an opportunity to get a sample from the Capilano River, which divides the two cities.

Collage: View across the river, a diatom.

Looking south across the Capilano River from West Vancouver to the Lion’s Gate Bridge and Stanley Park. The diatom shown is a Cocconeis placentula (size: 35 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Burnaby: Still Creek
On a rainy day, I took the SkyTrain southeast to Burnaby where, according to the map, there appeared to be some more interesting lakes and creeks. Once above ground, the SkyTrain gives you a feeling of travelling in a low-flying airplane. From the Sperling-Burnaby Lake station, I crossed a pedestrian overpass over a railway line to the Sperling Bike Trail. I took samples from the nearby Still Creek and from drainage ditches along the trail and Sperling Avenue.

Collage: A bend in a creek, a diatom.

Still Creek, where a sample with an Aulacoseira ambigua diatom (size: 48 μm) was taken. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sperling Avenue Ditches
Further south on either side of Sperling Avenue were drainage ditches with plenty of water. There was also a swamp. These were all ideal places for diatoms.

Collage: A ditch running along a residential road, a diatom.

Drainage ditch along Sperling Avenue at Roberts Street. This Cymbopleura inaequalis (size: 65 μm) diatom was found in the ditch. Roberts St. leads to Burnaby Lake. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Burnaby Lake
I took two samples from Burnaby Lake. The first sample was at the Rowing Pavilion. Because of swampy ground and elevated walkways, I took a sample from under weeds by the shore. A second sample was taken just off the Southside Trail in a more accessible spot. There, the bottom was rich with black muck—perfect for diatoms. Both Burnaby Lake samples contained many diatoms of various species and were the best of the trip.

Collage: A boardwalk, a diatom.

Sample was taken from the weedy area in the foreground of the Burnaby Lake Rowing Pavilion. The Gomphonema coronatum diatom (size: 73 μm) was found here. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A lake, a diatom.

Burnaby Lake, near where the second sample from the lake was collected. A diatom from here is this Eunotia tetraodon (size: 43 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Overall, we had a very enjoyable family trip to Vancouver, as well as a successful one collecting diatom samples. I am planning a future trip there for live diatom samples, with possible side trips to Victoria and Mission. Sheila may also be able to send us live diatom samples from B.C. in the spring or summer for analysis.

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

Hunting the Urban Diatom in Vancouver, B.C. (Part 1)

In December 2015, my wife May and I flew to beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, over Christmas to visit our daughter Sheila, who was living and working there. Our son David also joined us from Toronto, Ontario.

The last time we were in Vancouver together was when we crossed Canada by train from Ottawa, Ontario, in April 2004. This time we celebrated Christmas, visited the Vancouver Aquarium, and watched a Canucks hockey game (versus the Edmonton Oilers). As expected, the weather was mostly mild with some rain.

A river bordered by buildings, with mountains in the distance.

A beautiful view of Vancouver with False Creek, from our hotel on West Broadway. Images: Joe Holmes © Joe Holmes

Diatom Sampling and Research
The trip was also an opportunity for me, as a Canadian Museum of Nature volunteer for researcher Paul Hamilton in the museum’s diatom lab, to collect “urban” freshwater samples from the bottom of lakes, rivers and ponds in the Vancouver area.

Diatoms are microscopic one-celled algae that have a silica shell. They are found in an array of shapes and sizes, from about 5 to 100 microns (1 micron equals one millionth of a metre). Diatoms are present in all bodies of water, from the tropics to polar regions. They are at the bottom of the food web, converting sunlight into energy and CO2 into oxygen.

Having this energy in their bodies, they become a prime food source for small creatures, which are eaten in turn by larger ones, and so on through the food web.

Diatoms are very important for scientists in studying climate change, evolution, water quality and the environment. The museum has a vast collection of many species from around the world. Paul was particularly interested in hunting down a Western Canadian S-shaped Gyrosigma diatom, among other species.

I was successful, managing to collect 20 samples from the Vancouver area, a couple of which included the prized Gyrosigma. They were all gathered using a turkey baster to extract mud containing diatoms. Back in the lab, these samples were processed into slides, and then photographed, analyzed and added to the museum’s collection.

A room with worktables, shelves and equipment.

The Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA lab, where diatoms are analyzed. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

For future research, we would like to return to B.C. to obtain live samples for DNA analysis. The museum has an entire lab for DNA studies. When collected, live samples have a shelf life of only 3 to 7 days. For a one-week-or-longer trip, they would need to be couriered back to Paul’s diatom farm at the museum. There, they can be kept alive longer.

Because many diatoms around the world are similar, it would also be interesting to see how these B.C. species compared with other parts of North America and the world, including Ireland, where I collected diatom samples last September. (See my article My Irish Diatom Adventure in this blog).

Our kids enthusiastically assisted me in obtaining diatom samples in the Vancouver area. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Sheila drove David and me around in her car to various locations for samples: the Fraser River, Vancouver’s West Side, Stanley Park and West Vancouver. We all really enjoyed the experience. They were eager to assist, especially when they thought I might fall in when trying to get a sample.

The following are some examples of interesting sampling locations in the Vancouver area with examples of what we found.

Fraser River
For our first samples, we collected two from the river at Fraser River Park. Here, the river is a distributary branch of the Fraser River delta with a mix of fresh water and marine (salt) water. Diatoms were very interesting, but essentially marine.

Some marine Gyrosigma were found in these samples. For 100% fresh water, it is necessary to follow the Fraser to Mission, but because of time, we decided to leave this for a future trip.

Collage: A man stands beside a river, and a diatom.

Joe Holmes at the Fraser River in Fraser River Park. Here, the river delta is a freshwater-marine mix. Although we were primarily interested in fresh water, this marine diatom, Stephanopyxis corona (size: 32 μm), was very interesting, having a honeycomb structure similar to a fly’s eye. Images: Sheila Holmes © Joe Holmes; Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Vancouver’s West Side
In the West Side area, we collected from the lake in Jericho Beach Park. On another day, I took samples from ponds along the Island Park Walk by False Creek. Photos of ponds and diatoms are pictured below from Vanier Park and a pond called The Lagoons. Samples were also taken from Charleson and Sutcliffe Park ponds. All the diatoms collected were freshwater.

Collage: Ducks on a lake and a diatom.

Lake in Jericho Beach Park. The diatom found here is a Nitzschia brevissima (size: 32 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A river and a diatom.

Near the Vancouver Maritime Museum, a tranquil view of the pond in Vanier Park, with the Gate to the Northwest Passage sculpture in the distance. A large diatom, Pinnularia neomajor (size: 170 μm), was found here. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum

Collage: A lagoon surrounded by buildings and a diatom.

Along False Creek, The Lagoons Pond and public bench near Granville Island. A sample taken beside the bench yielded some interesting diatoms, such as this Epithemia adnata (size: 90 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Happy Darwin Day! Evolutionary Transitions Abound at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Today is the day we celebrate the birth and life’s work of renowned biologist Charles Darwin, who would have been 207 today (February 12, 2016).

Portrait of a seated man.

Charles Darwin, a year or so after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Image: Messrs. Maull and Fox © Public domain

Darwin is most famous for his theory of evolution through natural selection, which revolutionized the field of biology by providing a viable mechanism to account for the evolution of biodiversity on Earth. When Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he lamented the poor quality of the fossil record, which he felt should contain more evidence of evolutionary transitions through time.

Little did Darwin know that continued probing of the fossil record would eventually yield such examples in plenitude. Let’s take a look at some of those examples here.

Two skeletons hang from the ceiling; a third is mounted standing. Ambulocetus natans (CMNFV51838), Pakicetus attocki (CMNFV51974), Dorudon atrox (CMNFV51837).

A series of fossil whales, beginning with the terrestrial Pakicetus (49 million years ago) in the background, followed by the shallow-water dwelling Ambulocetus (47 million years ago), and deep-water diver Dorudon (40 million years ago). Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of the best transitional series in the fossil record is that of whales. These animals began as superficially dog-like creatures that walked on land some 49 million years ago. Over time, these animals grew larger, their nostrils migrated backwards onto the forehead, their forelimbs turned to flippers, and their hind limbs virtually disappeared as they adapted to life in the water. This fantastic succession is well documented in the fossil gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

A second well-attested transition is the evolution of tetrapods (four-legged animals) from fishes. As best as we can determine, this process took place between 390 and 360 million years ago. It is during this time interval that we see the evolution of fish-like forms with tetrapod-like limb bones, weight-bearing joints, necks, pelvic girdles fused to the backbone and loss of gills. One such transitional form is Tiktaalik from Nunavut, housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature on behalf of the territory.

Tiktaalik roseae fossils (NUFV108) and documentation in a specimen tray.

The famed “fishapod” Tiktaalik, so-called because it exhibits an interesting blend of fish- and tetrapod-like characteristics that beautifully exemplify the evolutionary link between these two groups. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lastly, being the dino-phile that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include an example from the dinosaur fossil record. Behold: the Ceratopsia, or horned dinosaurs, a lineage that began as small, hornless bipeds some 160 million years ago and evolved to include massive, horn-faced quadrupeds by the time of Triceratops some 66 million years ago. If only Darwin were alive today: wouldn’t he feel vindicated?!

Collage: Cast and fossil skulls on a table and a mounted dinosaur skeleton in a gallery. Psittacosaurus mongoliensis, Leptoceratops gracilis (CMNFV8889), Protoceratops andrewsi (CMNFV8511), Triceratops horridus (CMNFV34824).

This fossil series nicely illustrates the evolution of smaller, less-ornate forms (examples shown at left) to big, horned dinosaurs like this Triceratops (right). Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fossils, History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

House Guests at the Castle

After a fire 100 years ago today, our museum became the seat of Canada’s government. Parliament stayed for four years.

The fire started in the Parliamentary Reading Room on February 3, 1916, destroying the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. Seven people were killed.

The Minister and Deputy Minister of Public Works wasted no time in searching for new accommodations for Parliament. They did a site inspection of the museum shortly after 11 PM, and by midnight they had met with Prime Minister Robert Borden to make their recommendation.

The House of Commons in the museum.

The first session of the 13th Parliament in the museum auditorium in 1918. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden is sitting at left near the back, and Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier is sitting at right near the back. Four hundred and eighty-five acts were passed while Parliament governed from the museum, including

  • An Act to amend the Canada Temperance Act
  • An Act to authorize the levying of a War Tax on certain incomes
  • War-time Elections Act
  • An Act to provide Compensation where Employees of His Majesty are killed or suffer injuries while performing their duties
  • An Act to confer the Electoral Franchise on Women.

Image: Library and Archives Canada PA-22433 © Public domain

Remarkably, arrangements to accommodate Parliament were made at lightning speed. The list below is just a sample of what was done after staff were informed of the situation at 10 AM on February 4.

Friday, February 4, 1916
By noon:

  • A post office, telephones and two telegraph offices were installed
  • Vertebrate-palaeontology exhibits in the east wing were removed and stored elsewhere
  • A newspaper library for members of Parliament was set up in the tower hall
  • The archaeology and entomology exhibits were cleared from the west hall.

By 3 PM:
The House of Commons resumed its sitting in the converted museum auditorium, completed with throne and press gallery.

By 4 PM:
The west hall exhibit of minerals was packed and removed to make room for the Senate of Canada.

Less than 24 hours after the fire, the museum had become the new seat of government.

Sunday, February 6
By noon:
The zoological hall was cleared to provide space for offices for members of House of Commons.

Monday, February 7
By noon:

  • The west wing, with its geological and mineralogical exhibitions, was cleared and fitted up for the Senate
  • Offices for press gallery staff, Hansard staff and others were ready in the west hall

By midnight:
The east hall’s invertebrate-palaeontology exhibits were packed and removed by midnight.

Tuesday, February 8
The Senate met at 8 PM in their new chamber, the west hall.

The gallery.

Hall of Invertebrate Palaeontology in 1913, just after the building opened to the public. All these specimens (including those stored underneath the display cases) had to be quickly packed and moved out of the hall. Image: Library and Archives Canada C65590 © Public domain

The building was officially turned over for Parliament by the Governor General at 11 AM on Monday, February 7, less than 87 hours after the fire began.

Contrast that to modern times, when preparing for a move in the 1990s, museum staff packed the museum’s collections (albeit a larger collection by then) over the course of at least one year.

A museum building had been in the works for many years. As early as 1894, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was advocating for more operating and display space. However, the government also considered additional uses for such a building, such as housing the Supreme Court, the Exchequer Court, the National Art Gallery, a fisheries exhibition, the Royal Society of Canada and the Archives Branch of the Department of Agriculture.

In the end, the Geological Survey and its museum prevailed and occupied most of the space; the National Gallery of Canada was given temporary space in the east wing. (Complete historical timeline).

Having just opened to the public a few years prior, it must have felt like a bit of a setback to have to relinquish that hard-fought working space and to close exhibitions to the public.

The Senate of Canada in the museum.

The Senate in the museum. Image: Library and Archives Canada C-22916 © Public domain

Over 70 of 140 GSC staff were moved to buildings on Wellington Street. Approximately 60 remained in the museum.

No doubt both the parliamentarians and the remaining Geological Survey staff had to make some adjustments in their day-to-day work. Charles M. Sternberg, an early fossil collector, recalls an interaction in this audio clip. (C.M. Sternberg interview audio files courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology).


Sternberg tells a brief story in which a member of the parliamentary contingent found a louse in his office and asked if it came from the dinosaurs in Sternberg’s laboratory. Sternberg’s negative answer veiled his condescension only slightly.

More serious difficulties had to be overcome by the GSC and its museum. Specimens and records were lost in the emergency evacuation, and it was many years before the collections returned to their full use; some material was reportedly never recovered. The anthropological division had to temporarily discontinue field work. A small temporary branch library was set up at 221 Wellington Street. Collections continued to be moved some time after the emergency move.

After Parliament left the museum in 1920, not everything was restored as it had been. The GSC was not completely reunited. The mineralogical laboratory and distribution division remained in different buildings. The National Gallery was given one of the survey’s former exhibition halls, that of Vertebrate Palaeontology—leaving the survey short again of display space. The editor of the Canadian Mining Journal wrote in 1920 that this indicated a non-appreciation of the work of the Geological Survey.

There were even longer-term implications resulting from the move. In 1917, the entomology collection was physically moved to another building and administratively transferred to the Department of Agriculture. Unlike most of the other natural-history collections that were transferred to the museum when the GSC and the National Museum of Canada became separate entities in 1927, the Canadian National Collection of Insects has remained the responsibility of Agriculture to this day. The National Museum of Natural Sciences (the former name of the Canadian Museum of Nature) started to build its current entomology collection only in the mid-1980s.

Wilfrid Laurier's funeral cortège.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier died on February 17, 1919. His body lay in state in the museum. Here, we see his funeral procession on February 22, 1919, leaving the museum. Image: Library and Archives Canada C-7213 © Public domain

The next time you are visiting the museum, stop in the rotunda and listen for echoes of long-forgotten parliamentary debates.

Watch our video: Parliament Burns in 1916—Relocates to Museum the Next Day.

Posted in History | Leave a comment

Food for Thought: Fish Fossils and Evolution of the Human Brain

I am now in Kenya, continuing my study of fossil fish. As I wrote in my previous blog from Ethiopia, studying the fossil fish of East Africa reveals much about the environment in which our earliest human ancestors lived.

Entrance of the Nairobi National Museum, which includes a courtyard with sculpture in front.

Main entrance of the Nairobi National Museum. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Knowing the habitat preferences of the species in the fossil record can be used to reconstruct the types of lakes, rivers, streams, and other waterways that once dotted the Horn of Africa 2 to 4 million years ago.

These fossils could also reveal whether hominins have a long history of exploiting fish as a food resource. Hominins are the group that includes modern humans plus all of our closest relatives, following the evolutionary divergence between chimpanzees and humans over 7 million years ago.

The head of a fish mounted on a wall.

Head of a Nile perch (Lates niloticus) mounted in the Natural History Museum of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. These fish can grow to be quite large, reaching up to 2 metres in length, and are still eaten today in many countries. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Now I am at the Nairobi National Museum, the flagship institution of the National Museums of Kenya. I have spent a week examining the fish fossils collected in 2014 at the site of Kanapoi, which is located south of Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya.

View of trees in a courtyard surrounded by a building with white walls.

A courtyard of the Directorate of Research and Collections at the Nairobi National Museum. The fish fossils are stored among the palaeontology collections housed on the third floor overlooking this court. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

At just over 4 million years old, these fossils predate the appearance of the earliest member of our genus by at least 1.5 million years. As can be appreciated from the photos included here, these fossils represent a diverse assemblage that is very interesting from a palaeontological perspective alone. So what is their relevance to human evolution?

Fossil fish bones on a blue background.

(left) Cranium fragments from a member of the catfish genus Clarotes. The distinctive texture on the outer surface is characteristic of this type of catfish, which is still represented by two modern species in Africa. (right) Vertebrae from the Nile perch (Lates niloticus), a fish species still present in the waters of East Africa. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Within palaeoanthropology, it has long been debated when our ancestors regularly began to utilize fish and other aquatic animals as a source of nutrition. Until recently, good evidence for the human consumption of fish did not stretch back more than 50,000 years; active fishing on any appreciable scale is only well-documented in the archaeological record for the last 10,000 years.

Fossil fish teeth.

(left) Fossil fish teeth rank among the most diagnostic elements. These are teeth from Gymnarchus, a genus of fish represented today by the aba or African knifefish. (right) These blade-like teeth belong to a species of the genus Hydrocynus and represent a relative of the modern African tigerfishes. The modern species are famed for their ferocity and have even been observed leaping out of the water to take birds in mid-flight. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In 2014, however, a study provided evidence for the capture and consumption of both fish and turtles from the Kenyan site of Koobi Fora dating to about 1.95 million years ago.

It has been proposed in the palaeoanthropological literature that the incorporation of fish into the diet of early hominins may have launched the evolutionary trend towards larger brain size that characterizes the human line. This is partly because fish are rich in docosahexaenoic acid, which plays an important role in brain chemistry and function.

A traditional Kenyan village.

A Luo village at the Bomas of Kenya, an outdoor museum where representatives of Kenya’s tribes have constructed buildings according to traditional designs. The fenced area would be used to confine livestock overnight. My guide, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, told me that the Luo are known for producing Kenya’s most intelligent people, and he attributed their braininess to their diet of fish! The Luo live along the shores of Lake Victoria and are one of the few tribes to include fish regularly in their diet. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The role and effects of fish in the early hominin diet remain a contested subject, but any evidence of the early consumption of fish by early human ancestors will help to fill out the picture. The material I studied this year provides no such evidence, but in future seasons we may be able to target sites that would have the best chances of yielding the necessary clues.

In the meantime, fully analyzing the data I have gathered over the past few weeks will keep me busy, and I’ll update you on the results in another blog post in the not-too-distant future.

Posted in Animals, Fossils | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Talking about the Arctic – Insights from Museum Directors

In January, I met with my counterparts from across the world at the annual meeting of Arctic museums in Washington, DC. It was a whirlwind 36 hours that was at once enlightening, productive, interesting and inspiring.

Meg Beckel and three other directors sitting at a table.

An Arctic power breakfast! Meg Beckel with (left to right) Mark Brzezinski, Executive Director, US Arctic Executive Steering Committee; Jan Olov Westerberg, Director General, Swedish Natural History Museum; and Kirk Johnson, Director, Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As directors leading major museums, this meeting is one of the few opportunities to look beyond our hectic daily responsibilities—administration, fundraising and problem-solving—to take a global look at our work. We focussed on how museums can take concrete action to contribute more to global knowledge and dialogue about the changing Arctic environment.

Sunset and iceberg near Nachvak Fjord, Labrador

Sunset and iceberg near Nachvak Fjord, Labrador. Image: Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It helped that the meeting coincided with the Arctic Matters event of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Smithsonian’s Arctic Crashes symposium. Both of these provided a real flavour for the latest research and approaches to communicating Arctic research to experts and the public.

We also confirmed our agenda for the 2016 annual meeting of the Arctic Natural History Museum Alliance, taking place March 13 to 15 during the Arctic Science Summit Week in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our alliance will focus on raising the profile of our respective research programs during this week, and at other Arctic research forums.

Children walk across a giant floor map of the Arctic.

This giant Arctic floor map was produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature and Canadian Geographic. It’s an educational project that uses the museum’s research to teach schoolchildren about the natural history of Canada’s Arctic. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Geographic.

We will also focus on digitizing and making our collections more accessible. With more governments committed to open data, we now have a window of opportunity to share our collections data through portals with an Arctic focus. These include the University of the Arctic’s ArcticPortal, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the Encyclopedia of Life.

Logo of the 2016 World Congress.

Image: © IUCN

Finally, we will ensure the conservation of Arctic species will have a presence at the September 2016 World Congress in Hawaii of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

So, a lot was accomplished. But after spending 36 hours with my director colleagues from the Swedish Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum I realized a few things:

  • Natural history museums really are saving the world. Through evidence, knowledge and inspiration, we making a difference every day, and I am proud to be part of that.
  • Natural history museums collect the evidence of our natural world (our collections of specimens) and have done so for hundreds of years.
  • Natural history museums are a source of knowledge derived from the scientific study of that evidence.
  • And, ultimately, we are a source of inspiration. Inspiration to explore, to connect with, and to discover the natural world around us, all in the hope that we inspire understanding, respect and value for nature.
Museum botanist crouched on ground collecting plants in the Arctic.

Canadian Museum of Nature botanist Dr. Jeff Saarela collects plants near Cape Dorset, Nunavut in summer 2015. Saarela is co-leading an international research project to document the plants of Canada’s Arctic and northern Alaska. Image Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It sounds like a simple three-pronged approach. Simple you say? Actually…as I have found throughout my career, it becomes simple once you focus on what matters.

Meg Beckel and three other directors sitting at a table.

Meg Beckel with (left to right) Jan Olov Westerberg, Director General, Swedish Natural History Museum; Kirk Johnson, Director, Smithsonian Natural History Museum and Mark Brzezinski, Executive Director, US Arctic Executive Steering Committee (holding a narwhal tooth!). Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature.

What matters is that understanding our natural world and how to live in balance with it matters now and in the future. That is what natural history museums do – through scientific evidence, knowledge and inspiration. How we collect the evidence depends on the types of collections we hold and study. The knowledge we create and share depends on the research expertise we have and we build over time. The way we inspire the many audiences we reach also varies by subject, location, size of space, funding, partners and governance structure.

As I look at the year ahead, and the ongoing work of the Canadian Museum of Nature scientists, I am confident that we will continue to inform global climate and biodiversity talks, and to galvanize communities to help all of us to truly be citizens working for a better natural future.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Of Fish and Men…Studying Fossil Fish in Ethiopia

It will come as no surprise that this museum knows its fish. With experts like Brian Coad and Noel Alfonso, and world-class collections, ichthyology is alive and well here. For some of us, however, acquiring a deeper knowledge of our water-dwelling friends is a newer pursuit.

Which is how I find myself writing this blog post in Addis Ababa following a week of research at the National Museum of Ethiopia. I am in East Africa studying 3 to 4 million-year-old fish from sites associated with some of the earliest human ancestors.

The main grounds of the National Museum of Ethiopia in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa.

The main grounds of the National Museum of Ethiopia in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. The yellow building to the left marks the entrance to the main research and collections building where all of our work was conducted. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A mosaic above the main entrance to Ethiopia’s National Museum.

Above the main entrance to Ethiopia’s National Museum is a beautiful mosaic depicting objects that reflect the nation’s heritage, including the bones of Lucy (as seen in the centre). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As a specialist in zooarchaeology, I am interested in understanding how people interacted with animals in the past. I analyze the bones found on archaeological sites for clues about the nature of the human-animal relationship. In prior blogs, I have mentioned my work in Syria and my hope to see zooarchaeological research return to the Canadian Museum of Nature.

In Syria, I explored the ways in which the management of animal-derived resources—meat, milk wool—evolved from the fifth to the third millennia BC. This span of time includes the emergence of the world’s first urban centres. An increasingly complex economy focussed around animal-based goods was one of several factors that contributed to the rise and success of cities.

Most of the animal bones that I identified in Syria belonged to mammals, though, so how do fish come into the picture? Well, with the current political situation in Syria, it is no longer possible to conduct fieldwork there, so I needed to find another line of research.

Scott Rufolo seated at a table, examining fish fossils.

The National Museum of Ethiopia completed construction of a new storage and research facility in 2010. Here I am in one of the study rooms working with the fish fossils. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In stepped Kathlyn Stewart, head of the museum’s Palaeobiology Section and an expert in fossil fish. She presented an opportunity I could not pass up: joining her on a fossil fish project in East Africa. So, after several months of preparation learning more about the skeleton structure and evolutionary history of fish, I am now in Ethiopia.

Working in collaboration with Alison Murray of the University of Alberta, I examined the fossils of catfish and minnows recovered from several sites located in the basin of the Awash River in eastern Ethiopia. We processed over 700 specimens, and we believe we have even identified one – perhaps two – new species. And while this is not a proper zooarchaeological project, it does have a particular relevance to the human dimension.

Piles of fish fossils on a table.

Many of the fish fossils are small fragments that require sorting. Here you see the contents of a large bag of fragmentary remains partially sorted into piles of identifiable and unidentifiable material. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These fossil fish once shared the landscape with early hominids, the primate family to which belong the famous Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) and all her relatives, including us modern humans. The fish fossils reveal much about the past waterways and environment, providing more detail about the world in which our ancestors lived.

(left) Display of the skeletal remains of Lucy. (right) The jawbone and partial skull of Lucy.

(left) Display at the National Museum of Ethiopia of the skeletal remains of Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old member of the early hominid species Australopithecus afarensis. Long considered to be ancestral to the modern human lineage, A. afarensis roamed what is now Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania between 3.6 and 3.0 million years ago. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In a sense, then, I have moved on to looking at the beginnings of the human relationship with fish. From neighbours in the wild to the complex set of interactions today (fish as pets, food, focus of recreational activity, etc.), we humans have a long history with the finned animals that inhabit the Earth’s waters.

Early hominids certainly encountered fish over the course of their lives, and it probably wasn’t long before fish became regarded as a food resource—or was it?

A display case with partial skull of an early hominid.

Lucy, discovered in 1972 at Hadar in the Afar region of Ethiopia, is by no means the sole fossil representative of her species. Seen in the centre of this display case is a replica of the partial skull of Selam, often called the “first child.” Discovered south of Hadar at the site of Dikika in 2000, Selam died at the age of three, and her remains are still under study. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Exactly when our ancestors began regularly eating fish is a debated topic, and one I will discuss in my next blog entry. I’m off to Kenya next to look at some additional fish fossils there, so more soon from Nairobi!

The fin spine of a fossil catfish.

The fish remains may often be small, but they can certainly be distinctive. This is the pectoral fin spine from Clarias, a genus of catfish commonly found in the East African fossil record. You can see the articular surface to the left, where the spine attached to the body, as well as the sharp serrations that adorn the outer surface. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Posted in Animals, Fossils | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment