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.