with Jennifer Doubt

Three years ago, I came to the Canadian Museum of Nature’s herbarium searching for a fern species native to Quebec. I ended-up discovering far more than I’d expected!

Museum herbarium curator Jennifer Doubt helped me with my request, and then suggested that, given my fern knowledge and enthusiasm, I help with a slightly bigger project. Over the years, fern scientists had improved our understanding of how various species are related to each other, and as a result many species now possessed new scientific names. Now, the museum’s entire fern collection needed to be reorganized to reflect current botanical understanding.

This would be a major job: the herbarium’s international collection of ferns and lycophytes (clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts) fill more than 400 cabinet shelves. But I’ve been a museum visitor for almost 50 years, and here was a chance to deepen my involvement with two things I love: the museum and ferns.

So, in response to my modest initial request, Jennifer turned me from a visitor into an official volunteer, one with the responsibility to drive this 21st-century fern reorganization plan.

A woman sits at a computer with herbarium specimens.
Part way through her three-year long update and reorganization of the museum’s fern collection, Botany volunteer Erica Eason remained undaunted. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

To start, we updated the Canadian ferns with current botanical names.

Determining the correct name for older or unusual specimens was often a multi-step process. This could involve searching traditional databases, on-line resources, historical sources, as well as tapping into the expertise of museum botanists and other local and national experts.

A hand-written label.
Updating the scientific name of a specimen in the fern collection often required hours of dogged detective work to decipher the original hand-written label. The name on this label is still a mystery. Any ideas? Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Next, I updated the names of the international specimens. Although the herbarium has fewer of these than Canadian ones, there are vastly more international genera and species, resulting in a more intensive specimen-by-specimen update.

Simultaneously, I created four new geographically specific folder colours to replace the blue folders previously used to identify all specimens from beyond Canada and the United States.

A live plant and a pressed plant on herbarium sheet.
Botany specimens are collected fresh and preserved by drying to serve herbarium users for hundreds of years. Catalogue number: CAN 10004164. Image: Erica Eason © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Finally, we reorganized the entire fern collection to reflect the latest fern DNA sequencing research.

We began this by creating an Excel file with an updated list of each shelf’s current contents, and adding new family names and numbers (Christenhusz 2011)1 for each genus. Then, the file was reorganized by new family number.

Presto: we’d created a revised order indicating where each specimen would be shelved in the new system. Without this meticulous preparation, the two days of work it required to physically reorganize the specimens — including a lot of bending, stretching and lifting — might have taken weeks, significantly disrupting access to the fern collection.

A woman removing folders in the collections.
University of Ottawa co-op student Rachel Bergeron removes specimens from the museum’s newly updated and reorganized fern collection. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.
Carleton University summer student Brigid Christison poses with a museum horsetail specimen during the digital imaging of the museum’s Arctic fern and lycophyte collection, all of which will be shared on-line. Collection number: CAN 10004196. Image: Brigid Christison © Canadian Museum of Nature.

No sooner was the reorganization finished than we began the digital barcoding and imaging of the collection’s ferns and lycophytes from the Canadian Arctic.

And wonderfully, not only do we know where the Arctic specimens are in the collection, but now they’re all properly named and organized!

1 Literature cited: Christenhusz, M.J., Zhang, X.C. and Schneider, H., 2011. A linear sequence of extant families and genera of lycophytes and ferns. Phytotaxa, 19(1), pp.7-54. (pdf).