The Arctic is undergoing more extreme climate-related changes and at a faster rate than any other region on Earth. In order to understand the nature and impact of these changes, it’s critical that we document Arctic biodiversity, including the amazing diversity of marine invertebrates, from anemones to amphipods.

To aid this effort, the Canadian Museum of Nature has launched an Arctic collections digitization project. We’re digitizing the collections information for the museum’s several million Arctic invertebrate specimens and are in the process of putting the information online for researchers worldwide.

Commonly known as the Sea Angel, Clione limacina is a pelagic, or free-floating, marine sea slug. Contrary to its name, it’s a voracious predator that feeds almost exclusively on a pelagic sea snail species. Image: Samantha Brooksbank, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The museum’s Arctic marine invertebrate collection consists of thousands of species of crustaceans, bivalves, bristle worms, anemones, sponges, and many other taxonomic groups. The specimens were collected over the past century by generations of museum researchers and also donated to the museum, including from the former Arctic Biological Station that was part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Given their great diversity and widespread distribution Arctic marine invertebrates are a “canary in the coal mine” of environmental change. For example, when the ocean warms many species will be able to move farther north. Some will be looking for cooler temperatures while others will be pushed out due to competition for food and territory.

In order to identify these potential changes it’s necessary to have easy access to historical baseline species data—exactly what our Arctic collections digitization project will provide.

A small rounded shrimp-like animal
Hyperia galba is a small amphipod distinguished when alive by its large green eyes. In preserved specimens (shown here) the eye colour fades. These amphipods live within sea jellies, sharing the sea jelly’s food and feeding on its eggs. Image: Samantha Brooksbank, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

When a specimen is collected, the researcher creates an identification label that records vital scientific information including where, when, and by whom the specimen was collected, and eventually, who identified it. Similarly, collections staff gather any supplementary information provided by the collector, and link this to the specimen.

Through the Arctic collections digitization project, all of the specimen information for millions of Arctic invertebrates will be digitized in a searchable database and made publicly available.

A shrimp-like animal with long dangling legs.
Large numbers of the amphipod Themisto libellula live in the Arctic’s cold waters and are food for many species of fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Image: Samantha Brooksbank, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Arctic collections digitization project is possible due to a $4-million donation to the museum by the Beaty family.

This generous gift is turning the museum’s Arctic invertebrate collection into a powerful online force for both public education and scientific research on the Arctic and the multiple stressors affecting this beautiful yet fragile ecosystem.