We are an adaptable species, so wherever you go there is a good chance to see others like us. This very complete distribution means that we experience the full smorgasbord of conditions that the natural environment has to offer.

A man in winter coat and hat, his clothing and facial hair covered by frost.
Mark Graham enjoying February in the High Arctic. Image: Mark Graham © Mark Graham

High up on the priority list of things for us to adapt to are weather and climate. These physical conditions have caused an impressive diversity of adaptations by humans, like how we make our shelter, dress, grow food and transport ourselves.

Weather and climate have physical features that are predictable and actually allow for adaptations. They also cause endless discussions every day across the dinner table and through all forms of media. The massive, all-of-a-sudden events that come with volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes make adaptation more challenging.

These gargantuan examples of nature unleashed, like the ones we can see in the exhibition of the same name, are literally forces to be reckoned with. The main concern of the aftermath of their destruction is about the clean-up and restoration of order to civil society.

But there are other concerns that linger and cause scientists and others to be worried. The disruptions can be so massive that living things can be displaced by thousands of kilometres. A recent example is the large dock discovered on the shoreline of Oregon (USA), more than a year after being swept away by the Tohoku earthquake and tidal wave in Japan.

This is nature unleashed in a different manner. The dock carries with it a mass of algae, molluscs, crustaceans, worms and other life forms. This disruption gives them a chance to live in environments that are normally out of reach. In these new places, they are alien species. If they reproduce and thrive, they gain the status of invasive alien species, and those can be a serious problem.

A motorboat near the eaves of a house, with three people in the boat and two people on the roof.
Natural disasters such as this flood, presented in the exhibition Nature Unleashed, can facilitate the movement of species into new areas. Image: © Eric Gay/AP Photo

There is a long list of invasive alien species in North America, but some famous examples that we live with are zebra mussels (freshwater rivers and lakes), and Asian carp (Mississippi River system). Once these species are established, there is no stopping them and that gives a whole new meaning to “unleashed”. This kind of natural disaster is more and more common as we enjoy our ability to exchange commodities around the globe.

Blue-green algae cover rocks near shore.
A blue-green algae bloom in Lake Winnipeg. Image: Greg McCullough © Greg McCullough

Nature also comes unleashed or out of our control in ways that aren’t associated with physical disasters. Rapid growth of blue-green algae (called a bloom), is an increasingly common occurrence in the summer in Canada.

That happens when nutrient levels are elevated (for example, from sewage leaks and farm-fertilizer run-off) during prime growing seasons when light is intense and water is warmer. These algal species are toxic and cause major disruptions to domestic water use. That occurs on smaller scales, like ponds surrounded by cottages, or on a grand scale like that of Lake Winnipeg.

These are just a few examples. We didn’t even get started on the unleashed members of our world that like to eat people (polar bears, sharks, large snakes, etc.), or smaller biting animals that spread diseases while they feed on us (mosquitoes and ticks, for example).

The back of a man's head, his baseball cap covered by mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes prey on a specimen of Homo sapiens. Image: Mark Graham © Mark Graham

Scientists who work at museums help us understand all of these moving parts in the ecosystem that we live in. We give them names, keep examples of them in our collections for others to see and study, and work with a wide range of other experts to understand how we all may live together. The process of adaptation continues.