No, not maggots, just a sample of krill—a small euphausiid shrimp.

Euphausiids, along with copepods (another small crustacean), are the major food source for bowhead whales in the Arctic. Assuming that a krill weighs about a gram, a bowhead whale would need to eat about 100 million krill each year.

The krill looked more appetizing than the mixture of mud, crustaceans and molluscs that grey whales scoop up from the sea bottom and then sieve through their baleen to keep only the tasty bits.

These were just a couple of the fun examples of the Arctic mammal lunchbox items that were displayed by museum zoologists Kathy Conlan, Ed Hendrycks, André Martel, Noel Alfonso and Jackie Madill on April 27 and 28, 2013, the last weekend of the Extraordinary Arctic Festival. As a museum volunteer, I assisted the researchers in this activity and learned a lot of interesting facts while doing so.

Do you know how walruses find clams, one of their major lunch items? They patrol the sea floor with their snout and find the clams with their moustache-like vibrissae. They dislodge the clams by fanning the mud with their big front flippers, aided by jets of water from their mouth, and suck the flesh right out of the shells. Yum!?

A boy uses a tool to pick a clam from a cooler of water while others look on.
Visitors had a closer look at some bottom-dwelling marine organisms like those found beneath the ice cover in the Arctic. These included a leather starfish (Dermasterias imbricata) fondly named Harold by an enthusiastic young visitor. The critters were safely returned to their aquarium. Image: Jackie Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature.

There were lots of smiles from both the young and older on seeing some marine creatures up close.

Many had a go at drawing various shells with the aid of a microscope and a camera lucida. A camera lucida allows you to see the image of what is under the microscope and your drawing page at the same time. You can then reproduce what you see using a combination of tracing and shading. This technique is used by museum scientists to make detailed drawings of tiny organisms.

Judging by the efforts we saw at the weekend, there were some budding artists and biological illustrators among the visitors!

A girl looks into a camera lucida while drawing on paper.
Showing excellent attention to detail, a young visitor draws a shell using the camera lucida. Image: Jackie Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has thousands of samples in its research and collections facility (in Gatineau, Quebec) that represent an invaluable record of diverse Arctic vertebrate and invertebrate species. Judith Price, Assistant Collection Manager of invertebrates, is an expert at looking after these specimens.

Judith Price stands behind display cases with specimens and a microscope on top, with blue-whale ribs in the background.
Judith Price in the belly of the whale. Image: © CWClark

At the weekend activity in the museum, Judith was appropriately located in the belly of the blue-whale skeleton in the RBC Blue Water Gallery, having fun showing visitors various types of parasites that can be found in Arctic marine and terrestrial mammals. Whales can be infested with tapeworms that are several metres long, and nematodes (round worms) also come in size XXL when found in whales.

To add to the creep factor, Judith also showed larvae of caribou bot flies, including some in a skin sample, and liver worms contracted by sled dogs that were fed raw fish, a cheap and available food in Canada’s North.

I admit it: my gut reaction to lampreys is “ugh!” Considering the teeth of lampreys and how they feed, this is understandable perhaps…? There was an interesting display about research being conducted by museum scientists on Arctic lampreys in rivers around Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories. Interestingly, these lampreys don’t latch onto humans.

As learned more, I found that my “ugh” reaction decreased and my curiosity and interest increased. I had no idea that some lampreys are not parasitic, and that perhaps both parasitic and non-parasitic forms of lampreys may exist within one species. Why and how? How important are lampreys in the dynamics of Lake Trout populations?

A man looks at a lamprey specimen on display.
A visitor contemplates the rows of teeth on a lamprey. No evidence of an “ugh!” reaction here. Image: Jackie Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This was my first time being a volunteer at the museum. It was a fun and educational experience—the questions that people ask, the enthusiasm and curiosity of the young visitors, and the smiles and laughs!!! It was also a great opportunity to learn more about the wide range of research that is being done by scientists at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Where’s the sign-up sheet for next time? ☺