These uncertain times have me thinking about how scientists—whether they be epidemiologists, biologists or meteorologists—rely on models to predict answers to the questions that are on the top of everyone’s mind.

Such predictions are supported by the best possible data available; however, such assumptions can get refined with “cleaner” data and thorough analysis. The more information, the better.

While the staff at the Canadian Museum of Nature have been working from home during the pandemic, many members of the Research and Collections team have been busy cleaning up data and analysing it in new ways.

Through the data derived from the natural history collections, which contains more than 14,6 million specimens, the Canadian Museum of Nature has a lot to contribute when it comes to predicting and answering research questions in regard to the safety and health of the natural world.

A woman in outdoor winter clothing, standing in front of a brick wall, writing in a red notebook.
Jackie Madill writing field notes during the Zebra mussel survey. Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our team builds the museum’s collection, documenting and preserving it so it can last for hundreds of years for future generations to analyze. The specimens in our various collections can also be loaned to other researchers or viewed online where digital images and data is available for everyone to use freely. The museum’s dedicated staff and volunteers also ensures that our databases are up-to-date when it comes to new findings from other scientists.

A lot of this information is shared widely through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. Billions of data points are mined each year for research into topics such as food security, population dynamics, invasive species and pests, and the conservation of endangered species.

Nearly 800 published studies a year utilize this data.

Our own collection is extremely valuable to the scientific community. Our Research Review 2018 details over 250 published studies that used our collection data.

Two elderly people sitting at a desk in front of a computer working on an open database of information.
Volunteers Yolande Hachez and John Davies working on the Portfolio database for the Nature Art collection. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature 

The internet is a gift for scientists who can now draw upon huge networks of digitized data, something which comes in handy when required to work at home. Biologist Edward O. Wilson commented on the magnitude of networked data when he said:

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

Edward O. Wilson

These choices begin with the millions of specimens and associated data in Canada’s natural history museums, including those of the Canadian Museum of Nature, which are a gold mine for modellers and other academics looking to save the world.

A man in a white lab coat holding the skull of an animal in front of drawers that contain other animal bones.
Kamal Khidas showing off one of the many specimens from the vertebrate’s collection at the Natural Heritage Campus of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

As with human pandemics, we hope there are no environmental crises now or in the future. But when they happen, or if they are predicted to happen, natural history museums across Canada and around the world have a solid base of knowledge for scientists to work together to create models and predict the answers to the questions that will again be on our minds.