In the Amazing Business: Museum Collections

Science is often the subject of the news. The science that is most often reported is the super-popular, like reports about birds, the mega-sciences like space exploration, health issues like disease outbreaks or cures, the amazing, new technology applications that change our lives, and the reports of species that are bizarre in one way or another.

The museum recently opened Animal Inside Out to show visitors something bizarre— because you just don’t get the chance to see this kind of thing: the actual biological systems that exist beneath a thin cloak of skin. But amazing doesn’t only come in a travelling exhibition; we have natural-history specimens in our collections that will blow your mind, even without dissecting them.

Heads and tusks of several narwhals above the surface of the water.

Narwhals tusking. Image: Glenn Williams, National Institute of Standards and Technology © Public domain

Imagine an animal that has a canine tooth that can be up to 3 metres long, weighs up to 10 kilograms and unlike the other teeth that point into the mouth, grows through the upper lip to point forward. The narwhal has an extensive, northern distribution, and can be found in the eastern part of the Canadian Arctic. When the males are mature, at least one of their canine teeth (usually on the left side), gives them a unicorn-like appearance.

A close-up of a sea star's tube feet.

A sea-star arm. The tube feet that can open prey are clearly visible. Image: Mokele © Mokele (licensed: CC BY 3.0)

Live clams, mussels and scallops are impossible to open unless you have a hammer or a knife. Some animals are specially adapted to prying them open with their feet. Sea stars have hundreds of tube-feet that apply a small amount of suction and act together to create an unbeatable force. Once the shellfish weakens and is open the slightest crack, the sea-star slowly pushes its stomach outside its body and into its prey to begin digesting and absorbing its meal. (Watch a video).

Some photosynthetic organisms are as small as the red blood cells that course through your veins. Diatoms are protists (not true plants or animals) and distinguish themselves by living in an intricate glass covering. Each species has a unique design that gives protection, allows it to grow, and permits enough light and nutrients to pass to it so it can produce energy and thrive.

A diatom seen through magnification.

Amphora copulata is a freshwater diatom found in the Arctic. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

When you visit the High Arctic, there are a couple obvious features. First, where are all the trees? The second is the wind. But if you look closely toward your feet, there are woody plants all around. The Arctic willow is one of the most northerly, hugging the ground, often with a network of branches, avoiding the worst of the strong, steady wind above. These remarkable trees are also adapted to reproduce and grow in an extremely short summer season, and to survive severe cold.

A ground-level view of woody branches and leaves growing along the ground.

A network of willows (Salix sp.) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in the High Arctic. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history makes it into our lexicon in many ways. For now, let’s focus on “rock-solid”. But in nature there are lots of exceptions, flexible sandstone (itacolumite) being one of them. Itacolumite is a rock named after Itacolumi, Brazil, where it was first discovered. Hollow spaces between the quartz grains of this sedimentary rock give it flexibility. If you hold a long, thin section of itacolumite at its middle point and move it sideways back and forth, the rock will wriggle like a fish tail swimming through the water. (Video).

Collage that shows a long, thin slice of rock bent one way and the other.

A sample of itacolumite that is bendable. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Pterosaurs existed 66 million to 228 million years ago. These reptiles were remarkable because they could fly—a feature not common then or now. (Pterosaur means “winged lizards”). Flight was possible with wings made of a membrane that stretched across the forearm to the tip of a greatly extended 4th digit and down to the ankle of the hind limb. Some pterosaur species were the largest flying creatures ever.

A pterosaur with wings extended.

This illustration of a pterosaur (Sordes sp.) shows the membranous wing structure. Image: Dmitry Bogdanov © Dmitry Bogdanov (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0)

These are examples of the more that 10 million specimens that have been collected and studied at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I could have easily mentioned the parts of a camel that we found in the Arctic, or the new species of crustaceans found in the deep sea, or the micro-algae found in polar sea ice, or the new tourmaline mineral that we just described.

The truth is, when you hang out with natural-history experts, you find that just about everything they study has an amazing story attached to it. Species discovery is a big part of what natural-history museums do, and our findings are shared with our science colleagues and the general public.

This entry was posted in Animals, Collections, Fossils, Plants and Algae, Rocks and minerals and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In the Amazing Business: Museum Collections

  1. Berneda Wilson says:

    I enjoyed this informative and
    interesting article. Thanks!

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