At the Canadian Museum of Nature there is scientific excellence in Arctic research, a regular part of our work in the last 100 years. The museum experts unlock the stories of the natural world and one of our specialties is the marine life that lives on the Arctic seafloor. That puts us in close contact with sea-stars and sea-cucumbers, crabs and shrimps, corals, sponges, clams, scallops and mussels, snails and worms, to name a few.
When you get people to think about natural history, whether they are scientists or the general public, there are a few questions that come up right away. The first and most important question is, “what is it?” You would think there is an answer to that question in every case, but that is not true. In fact if estimates are correct, there are more unknown species in the world than are known. Luckily, the most obvious and easiest to find animals have been described, or at least we can say who a specimen is related to if there is no official name, and get on to the second question, “how does this thing make a living?” This is an especially common question for seafloor animals, which come in an uncommonly wide range of shapes, sizes and colors. After this is a range of questions that might be “where does it live, is it useful and why should we care?”
The answers to these questions are part of the results of our Arctic marine research. They add to our knowledge and appreciation of the natural world and are a starting point for all other kinds of scientific work. For example, Dr. Kathleen Conlan is trying to learn what climate change will do to Arctic marine life. She discovers and describes what is there now, and with an understanding of environmental changes canmake predictions on vulnerabilities. She’s sampling in every habitat possible and returning over time to monitor changes. That means lots of samples and lots of animals to identify. In one sample her team dug up 15,000 animals in a square meter of seabed! These tiny bottom dwellers are important. They feed the fish or, whales, seals, ducks and walruses that are food for humans. They are efficient recyclers and get rid of the ocean’s garbage. And if you know the signs, they tell us things – is there methane seeping out of the seafloor? Is this productive habitat? Should this become a marine park? Has somebody been polluting?
Kathy, her team and her collaborators are building a record of life for a complex part of Canada during a time of large-scale climate changes, increased pressures and threats from ocean travelers, as well as ambitious companies exploring for resources to feed our thirst for conventional fuels. The little animals crawling in and around the mud are important, provide amazing services and deliver a powerful message about the world around us.