Putting collections data on the map

Earlier this year my son asked me, “Daddy, what does your museum collect?”

I quickly responded that the Canadian Museum of Nature collects natural history specimens, material culture artifacts, and library and archival fonds which reflect the changing biodiversity of the planet. Of course he was mostly interested in hearing more about the natural history collections; but as the days and weeks went by, I wondered if the simple answer that I’d given to my son was only a partial truth. Is there something more that we collect?

Since that conversation, I have come to realize that what the museum collects above all else is data. While the museum’s collections are great in and of themselves (check out our online collections – go ahead, I will wait…), it’s the data associated with them, such as collection location, date and collector, that gives researchers the ability to analyze and understand them. Without this data, the specimens, artifacts and fonds are just pretty things. So, it is this information, or metadata, which is a museum’s real stock and trade.


Interactive map Interactive map detailing the location of institutions who have collaborated in collection development.

An interactive map detailing the location of institutions who have collaborated in the development of the Museum’s collection. Image: Rick Leir © Canadian Museum of Nature



If data is what we actually collect, then we should be working hard to make it all available. Not just the information about a particular specimen, but the information about how that specimen moves through the research community and is used as a tool to build global scientific research networks.

To this end, I’m working with a Museum volunteer Rick Leir to analyze the collection’s digitized acquisition and loans information. Our goal is to visualize the data in a new way with the intent of getting others to see this rich data complimenting the physical specimens.


Interactive map Interactive map detailing the location of institutions who have collaborated in collection development.  Each geographic point has a bar graph coming from the surface of the planet representing the number of collaborating institutions at that particular location.

An interactive globe detailing the location of institutions who have collaborated in the development of the Museum’s collection. The globe helps visualize how many collection collaborators exist at a particular place. Image: Rick Leir © Canadian Museum of Nature



We decided the best way, initially to present this information is as maps and globes and let users start to tease-out new conclusions from the information.  At a glance, Rick and I were able to identify the museum’s biggest collection collaborators, their locations, and how often we’ve collaborated with them.



An interactive map detailing the location of institutions who have borrowed specimens from, or loaned them to the Museum, for research or exhibition. Image: Rick Leir © Canadian Museum of Nature



This new data sharing adds to the museum’s already extensive collection and specimen data sharing through our online collection (seriously, go look!), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, WorldCat, Citizen Science projects (zooniverse), our work with university classes through Cultural Heritage Informatics, and our publications.

Information like this goes a long way to supporting the museum’s mission of saving the world for future generations—by showing just how involved we are in it.



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Freezing Arctic microbes for the future

Roger Bull (Canadian Museum of Nature) and Warwick Vincent (Université Laval)


When you imagine Arctic biodiversity what first comes to mind? Polar bears? Tundra plants? Most likely you didn’t think of freshwater microbes.

But, that’s exactly the collecting goal for a team of international scientists who in summer 2020 will travel across the Arctic sampling microbial mats found at the bottom of lakes. From each collection site, samples will be sent to the National Biodiversity Cryobank of Canada at the museum.


In the image is a man standing on ice in front of a partially frozen water body. He is collecting a water sample with a cylindrical container with a very long rope attached. In the background there are mountains.

Université Laval researcher Alexander Culley hauls in a microbial catch in the High Arctic, Nunavut. Image: D. Sarrazin, CEN © ULaval


This project is part of a research program called T-MOSAiC (Terrestrial Multidisciplinary distributed Observatories for the Study of Arctic Connections), a major multinational project to study and document for posterity the Arctic in the age of climate change, co-led by the Centre d’études nordiques (CEN) at Université Laval, Québec.

In the extreme environments of the High Arctic, plants and animals are scarce on land yet rich communities of microbes often thrive in the lakes that dot the tundra. For example, at the bottom of Ward Hunt Lake, Nunavut, there’s a community of millions of microbial organisms forming a vast orange-green mat—even though it’s Canada’s northernmost lake, only 770 km from the North Pole.


There are several circular blue-green cells that are attached together to form a chain. There are many chains that can be seen against a transparent background.

A photomicrograph of a sample of Nostoc, a colony of blue green algae (cyanobacteria), collected from a lake on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Colonies of Nostoc can form seaweed-like mats (see image below). Image: W.F. Vincent, CEN © ULaval


Through DNA analysis researchers have discovered that these microbial communities, or microbiomes, are surprisingly complex and diverse, with many different types of co-habiting bacteria, fungi, protists, and viruses. Cyanobacteria, or blue green algae, are the dominant organisms in these microbiomes and give the mats their colour and structure.


Woman with brown curly hair, navy sweater and dinosaur t-shirt is holding up in the air in front of her wet seaweed-like Nostoc that she has removed from a container filled with water. In the background is a building surrounded by grass.

A seaweed-like clump of the blue-green alga Nostoc collected at Kuujjuarapik, Nunavik, by T-MOSAiC member Anne Jungblut, from the British Natural History Museum, London. Nostoc has many talents, including protecting itself from ultraviolet radiation with its own sunscreen, and fixing nitrogen gas to produce nutrients that fertilize Arctic ecosystems. Image: W.F. Vincent, CEN © ULaval


In the past, High Arctic lakes froze solid to the bottom in the winter and were ice-covered year-round. Now, due to climate change, these lakes are warmer; the year-round presence of liquid water and complete loss of ice cover in the summer are becoming more common. These shifts are changing the activity of these microbial communities. One effect is an increase of the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which is likely to increase the warming of the Earth.


Man in a lab coat and large blue gloves is removing a rectangular tray that has many boxes from a large silver and black cryogenic freezer. There is mist coming out of the freezer. In the background you can see there are several more large silver and black freezers.

The museum’s Roger Bull, Head of Operations of the National Biodiversity Cryobank of Canada and a member of the T-MOSAiC action group on Arctic microbiomes, lifts a rack of samples out of a Cryobank freezer. Image: D. Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature


This summer, small tubes of microbial mat material will be collected from each Arctic lake in the study and sent to the Canadian Museum of Nature to be stored in the National Biodiversity Cryobank of Canada. The samples will be stored in freezers cooled by liquid nitrogen to less than -160 °C. At this low temperature, the information encoded by the DNA molecules in the sample will be perfectly preserved in perpetuity. This will allow future researchers to study these archived samples, perhaps even with new technologies that we can’t yet imagine.

In a time of rapid change, especially in the Canadian Arctic, these samples will be priceless tiny time capsules of the genetic diversity of high Arctic freshwater microbiomes in the summer of 2020.







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Butterflies in Flight: a fair-trade delight

Have you ever wondered where the live butterflies in the museum’s popular Butterflies in Flight exhibit come from and how they get here?

Our butterflies are imported from sustainable, fair trade exporters in Costa Rica—the world’s largest butterfly exporter. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s butterfly and plant suppliers there and it was reassuring to meet people so committed to the wellbeing of butterflies! I was able to see how they inspect, sort, and package the pupae and do all the documentation required for legal exportation.


An image of a butterfly with black and green wings sitting on a leaf.

The Malachite (Siproeta stelenes) butterfly is one of about three hundred thousand species of Lepidoptera globally. Moths make up the vast majority (95%) of this group, but butterflies are most visible, best known and appreciated. Image: Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature


One exporter works with more than a hundred different families rearing butterflies sustainably. Smaller family farms specialize in only a couple species of butterflies; others raise many. All Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) undergo complete metamorphosis, beginning with an egg, then a larva (a caterpillar), a pupa (also known as a chrysalis) and then the adult. The butterflies are shipped as pupae, which are carefully inspected for damage and disease during every step of the processing. The pupae are carefully placed into specialized foam pads; the order is assembled, the pupae checked again.


An image of a butterfly with black, red and yellow wings sitting on a leaf.

A Postman (Heliconius melpomene) butterfly, one of the many species of Costa Rican butterflies in the museum’s Butterflies in Flight exhibit. Image: Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature


The pupae are boxed for the destination with all the required paperwork. Costa Rica requires export permits and the museum is required to have import documentation and meet Canadian Food Inspection Agency containment standards. Working together the exporter and farm families ensure the exportation of healthy pupae to museums, zoos and butterfly houses all around the world—the exporter even insulates the shipping box to protect the pupae from the cold during transport.


rows of small tubular butterfly pupae

Pupae are carefully sorted by species. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature


When the pupae arrive at the museum, we carefully hang them until they are ready to emerge and then release them into the exhibit, where they fly freely.

In the wild, butterflies feed on more than just flower nectar, often feeding on overripe fruit.  At times, they also feed on dung, urine, blood, and carrion. These unusual foods provide valuable nutrients such as amino acids, salts and other minerals.


two workers are packing the pupae in white foam

Pupae are carefully packed for shipment to museums and other centers around the world. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature


To mimic these wild foods in the Butterflies in Flight exhibit, there are several options for feeding. The butterflies can collect nectar from flowering plants or dine at feeding stations which consist of various types of fruit and hanging tubes of red jelly, which provide minerals and sugars to round out a healthy diet.

But even with an ideal diet, adult butterflies have a short lifespan, ranging from a week to a month. Surprisingly, some males can also be fatally aggressive.  And so, from time to time, like the lifecycle of the butterflies, we make another order from our great fair trade, sustainable butterfly suppliers in Costa Rica.


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The rocks in fishes’ heads tell amazing stories

When I collect and research fish specimens for the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collection, I’m often particularly interested in the rocks in their heads.

These tiny rocky structures, just millimetres in size, are called otoliths, or ear stones. For fishes, otoliths are used for balance and hearing (humans have smaller ear stones used for similar purposes). For scientists, these little otoliths are scientific gold, providing an encyclopedia of information. And, most intriguing of all, fish otoliths hold a few unsolved mysteries.

Otoliths come in pairs, one per ear, and are found near a fish’s brain. The ear stones are composed of calcium carbonate in one of three mineral forms: primarily aragonite; sometimes calcite; and rarely vaterite.


An x-ray of a fish with two bright oval structures in its head

The otoliths are clearly visible in this x-ray of an eelpout (unknown species). Image: Noel Alfonso, Stéphanie Tessier © Canadian Museum of Nature


The Museum has 2258 otoliths representing 477 species as part of the fish osteological (bone) collection. Researchers use ear stones to investigate biological questions about the fish they came from, ecological questions about the fishes’ environment, and anthropological questions about how people used fish in the past.

Each species of fish has otoliths with a distinctive shape. This means that even when isolated otoliths are found–whether in the gut contents of predators, in feces deposited by animals that eat fish, or preserved on archaeological sites–we can identify the fish they came from.


Six white to off-white round to slightly oval objects, lined up; three in the top row, three in the bottom. Scale bars in the image show that the objects are from three to twelve millimetres in size.

Otoliths of six fish species. From upper left, clockwise: Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) CMNFI Z000082, Red Grouper (Epinephelus morio) CMNFI 1986-67, Northern Pike (Esox lucius) CMNFI 78-166, Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) CMNFI 81-836, Goldeye (Hiodon alosoides) CMNFI 1975-1898, Walleye (Sander vitreus) CMNFI Z0000736. Image: François Genier © Canadian Museum of Nature


Most importantly, each otolith tells a detailed story about a fish’s life. Otolith size provides an estimate of its body length and the otolith growth rings record a fish’s age and rate of growth in a way analogous to tree rings. The shape of the annual growth rings also captures climatic data, even recording the season of the year when the fish died.

Chemical analysis of otoliths reveals the average water temperature during a fish’s life and the strontium, calcium and zinc ratios in them reveals patterns of migration when fish move from marine to fresh waters, and even within different habitats in large rivers such as the Amazon.


An oval object with a v-shape piece missing in the centre. There are concentric lines all through the object.

Otolith growth rings correspond with the individual’s age. This ear stone of a Black Rockfish (Sebastes melanops) shows that the individual was more than 40 years old. Image: Vanessa von Biela, © USGS (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Fish otoliths even help us understand ourselves, in particular our history. For example, a study of heaps of cod otoliths collected from a sixteenth-century Basque fishing settlement in Labrador provided extensive information about Atlantic Cod populations prior to increasingly intensive commercial fishing. Otoliths can be radiocarbon dated to identify when a site was used, and changes in the chemistry and structure of otoliths can even provide information about how a fish was cooked. 


On the left, a fish on a dock; on the right, a man with latex gloves holding a fish.

Left: Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) otoliths are sometimes called “lucky stones” and made into jewellery. Right: Blog author Noel Alfonso preparing to remove the otoliths of a Greenland Cod (Gadus ogac). Image on left: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature; Image on right: Noel Alfonso: © Martin Lipman / Students on Ice


One of the outstanding fish ear stone mysteries also relates to humans and fish. Farmed fish of all species have ten times the amount of vaterite in their otoliths as compared to their wild cousins, but as yet we don’t know why.

The good thing is that fish have rocks in their heads that help them hear—and help scientists like me tune into amazing natural history stories.

Posted in Collections, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Lemmings: The favourite Arctic meal

The Arctic tundra is home to a small animal whose ecological footprint is much larger than its size would suggest – the lemming. In many summers, these slightly larger-than-a-mouse mammals are the most sought-after meal in the Arctic. In fact, lemmings are part of a complex food web that has an impact across North America and beyond.

Brown lemming (Lemmus trimucronatus)

A brown lemming (Lemmus trimucronatus) on Bylot Island, Nunavut. Dominique Fauteux © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lemmings are famous for having dramatic boom-and-bust population cycles.

Every three to four years, lemmings hit a population cycle peak, when the population density can increase from a low of one lemming per hectare to a high of as many as 100 lemmings per hectare. The range of population peak depends on whether the lemming populations are located in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (Nunavut) or in more productive areas in Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.

Arctic landscape showing a research station and a backdrop of mountains

The Centre for Northern Studies’ Bylot Island Research Station in Nunavut, an ideal location for studying lemmings. Dominique Fauteux © Canadian Museum of Nature

The mechanisms driving these cycles are complex, including the amount of summer predation on lemmings and their winter food availability, including willows and mosses. According to Canadian scientists, the most likely hypothesis is that dramatic population declines are caused by intense predation, whereas phases of population growth are dependent on successful winter reproduction. For example, research has shown that lemmings in Canada’s High Arctic reach population peaks only when they achieve high rates of winter reproduction.

During peak lemming population years at a given location, a notable phenomenon occurs: the majority of tundra birds and mammals, carnivores and herbivores alike, reproduce successfully.

One reason for this is that, during peak population years, lemmings are an abundant food source for snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, long-tailed jaegers, gulls, Arctic and red foxes as well as ermines. While the lemmings are being hunted en masse there’s less predation pressure on geese, passerines and shorebirds.

A white and grey bird with a dark brown cap on its head

One of the lemming’s many predators, the long-tailed jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus). Dominique Fauteux © Canadian Museum of Nature

Consequently, the well-fed predators and less hunted prey species successfully reproduce, with North America-wide implications. For example, the resulting increase in snow goose populations has a positive impact on the hunting season in Quebec and the United States.

Thus, despite their small size, lemmings have a huge ecological footprint.



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Whale composting: Letting bacteria do the hard work of specimen defleshing

Bones and skeletons are key parts of a natural history collection, used by researchers from archaeologists to zoologists. Usually, preparing these osteological specimens starts with removing the flesh. No big deal for small animals.

But, a couple of years ago, Canadian Museum of Nature collections staff faced a whale-sized specimen preparation challenge.

We wanted to deflesh hundreds of kilograms of preserved whale specimens. They had been collected during commercial whaling off the coast of Newfoundland from the late 1960s until 1972, when commercial whaling in Canada was ended.

These specimens weren’t just big (up to 25 kilograms) they had also been changed by the preservation process.

Before being transferred into ethanol in the late 1990s, the whale parts had been stored in formalin which hardens animal tissues. This meant they’d require additional preparation, such as ammonia soaks or peroxide treatments, to break down the tissues so that they could be physically removed.

We calculated that manually removing the skin, blubber and muscle to preserve the bones would take years.

Our short-cut alternative? Compost the whale pieces and let bacteria and fungi do the hard work of defleshing.

Whale pieces in a compost bin

Whale specimens in the museum’s special compost bin prior to being covered with sawdust and manure. Image: Shalini Chaudhary © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, in the summer of 2017 we created a compost station on the grounds of the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau.

Efficiently composting large whale pieces requires creating a compost pile with the right mix of carbon (sawdust) and nitrogen (manure) to achieve the ideal temperature for microorganisms, and then giving it time.

During the summer, we did five 18-day composting cycles. During each cycle, we adjusted the sawdust to manure ratio to try and achieve the ideal temperature, which varied between 27°C and 43°C. Sometimes we added water to optimize the humidity levels for the microorganisms. After the last cycle, we removed the largely defleshed whale pieces from the compost pile and moved them into the collections lab.

The compost-based defleshing process did not go as quickly, or work as completely, as we’d anticipated. This was in part because we’d struggled at times to reach optimal composting temperatures. So, to get rid of the remaining flesh we simmered the bones in almost-boiling water, a technique called hot macerating. Then, residual oil was removed by soaking in ammonia. Finally, a peroxide soak bleached the bones which had darkened in the composting process.

A chart with two jagged lines, one well separated from the other.

A chart of ambient air temperature vs. the internal compost temperatures over three months during whale specimen composting. The most efficient composting occurred when there was the largest gap between the two temperatures. Image: Marie-Hélène Hubert © Canadian Museum of Nature

This combination of multiple preparation techniques worked well and saved the museum time, money and effort. Osteological, or bone, specimens are important components of natural history collections. They are used by many researchers, from archaeologists and palaeontologists to comparative anatomists and zoologists. So, there will always be work preparing these specimens.

Our whale composting experiment has led us to think that we might well be heading back to the compost heap for the preparation of future zoological specimens.

On the left, a large dark-coloured mass of tissue. On the right, a smaller light-coloured piece of bone.

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) skull bones before (left) and after (right) composting. The initial weight was 25 kg; after composting and cleaning, 18.7 kg. Image: Marie-Hélène Hubert © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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Dendrites in rock: Getting a microscopic view

Last summer, I had my first research job: a geology summer student at the Canadian Museum of Nature as part of its Scientific Training Program. It was an incredible experience. At first, though, I was very nervous. Thankfully, the work environment was very student friendly which took away my fear of messing up.

Throughout the summer I was given lots of opportunities for hands-on tasks. My favourite was learning how to operate the museum’s Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). With this technology, I looked at minerals 20-times smaller than the width of a human hair. It was fascinating to see how crystal structures stay the same, whether it’s a mineral 0.002mm small or one 20m tall.


A magnesium oxide dendrite in a specimen from the Pilbara Region of Western Australia. Field of view 0.44mm. Image: Ann Presley © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During my SEM work with museum researcher Aaron Lussier I had the opportunity to examine rock samples from around the world. However, my research mainly involved samples of chalcedony, a variety of quartz, from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The focus of my summer research was studying how elements, such as iron, move through this rock. For example, why only certain elements are incorporated into the rock’s structure.

Similarly, another question I explored is why the minerals grow the way they do, including the interesting behaviour of dendrites in chalcedony. A dendrite is a natural tree-like or moss-like formation on, or in, a piece of rock or mineral. A dendritic pattern forms when an element or mineral, starting from a point of origin, migrates and branches outward. A single dendritic branch extends until the mineral reaches a point where growing various new branches is, for some unknown reason, more favourable.

A piece of limestone with a darker tree-like dendrite pattern

A magnesium oxide dendrite in a limestone specimen from Solnhofen, Germany. Catalogue number CMNMC 34359. © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Dendritic branching is just one of the many natural phenomena scientists like myself hope to explain in the future. My museum internship was such a fun, amazing and memorable learning experience — one for which I am very grateful as I branch-out on my research career.


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Bees and Wasps: Providing Ecosystem Services with a Point

With spring finally on the way, many of us are excited about patio season. So are some wasps. It’s an almost sure bet that in late summer yellowjackets of the genus Vespula will be unwanted visitors at our outdoor picnics and barbecues. Even though I’m a hymenopterist – someone who studies bees and wasps, currently the museum’s Beaty Postdoctoral Fellow for Species Discovery – I too can be bothered by yellowjackets as they relentlessly hover around my plate and drink.

But while there’s lots of buzz about bees’ ecological and economic importance, it’s unfortunate that our appreciation of wasps’ enormous ecological role is overshadowed by a few species that disrupt our outdoor dining.

What are wasps? They include more than 100 000 members of the insect order Hymenoptera with a narrow “waist” that are not bees or ants.

A pinned wasp specimen

A female baldfaced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, a widely distributed and commonly encountered species of North American wasp. Image: François Génier, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Wasps are essential for ecosystem functioning and indirectly responsible for increased food production. Most wasp species prey on other insects, including agricultural pests (the ones hovering over your drink are adults in search of a sugar fix to fuel their flight). Some wasps are parasitoids, laying eggs in other insects. After hatching, the offspring feed on those insects. These wasps in particular are a desirable and effective alternative to pesticides as they go after specific insect targets without any risk of environmental contamination.

Many wasps are also essential pollinators. Figs, for example, are pollinated by minute, specialized wasps.

A bee sitting on a leaf.

Although very wasp-like, this is a female cuckoo bee (Nomada sp.). Cuckoo bees invade the nests of foraging bee species, stealing their pollen. The absence of long pollen-collecting hairs is due to their cleptoparasitic lifestyle. Image: Thomas Onuferko, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Bees are effectively vegetarian wasps and include more than 20 000 species. Unlike wasps, bees have small, branched featherlike hairs which help to pick up flower pollen, the protein-rich food source on which their brood is reared, and in turn pollinate flowers.

However, not all bee species are important pollinators. About 15% of bees are “cuckoos” — they invade the nests of other bee species stealing pollen for their own offspring.

Two bright red flowers in the foreground, many red flowers in the background. A bee is flying toward the flowers.

The flowers of the scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) attract many kinds of bees. Image: Thomas Onuferko, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, what about the fear of getting stung by a wasp? Yes, female yellowjackets can inflict a painful sting (the males don’t have stings). But the majority of wasp species don’t sting.

Many female bees and some ants also have stings, but they generally do not elicit strong negative feelings. We see bees as seemingly docile compared to wasps, even though social bees can be quite dangerous when defending a nest.

Bees and wasps both play vital roles in the production of much of the food we eat. The pollination of plants by bees enhances fruit production. Wasps help keep pests away, reducing competition for our food.

So, the next time that wasps are bugging you, it might help to recall that without them, your meal might look very different.

Posted in Animals, Nature Inspiration, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Herbarium Sheet Mounting: Adhesives Recommendations That Really Stick

In the summer of 2018 Jennifer Doubt, the museum’s botany curator, presented me with a challenge: find a better adhesive for mounting the museum’s botany specimens on herbarium sheets.

I was working in the museum’s Conservation lab as part of the Scientific Training Program, but my background is in fine arts, and conservation training with materials including metal, wood, textile, and paper conservation—not conserving ferns and flowers. Natural history conservation is specialized and rarely taught in conservation programs in Canada. So, I was excited for the opportunity to challenge myself in something new.

Having the best possible adhesive is critical because every year the botany team adds more than 5,000 specimens to the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada which includes more than 650,000 herbarium sheets in the vascular plant collection. At present, new specimens are attached to herbarium sheets using linen tape, a process that’s effective, but very time consuming. My task was to find a conservation glue that’s easy and quick to apply and keep specimens stuck for a long time.

Closeup image of a herbarium sheet with a spreading wood fern specimen that has a section missing.

Notice the missing section of this spreading wood fern (Dryopteris expansa). Over time the adhesive holding the specimen to the herbarium sheet aged and failed, resulting in the loss. Specimen collected in 1895. Catalogue number CAN 10005210. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Close-up image of a herbarium sheet with an alpine hedysarum specimen attached to the sheet with thin strips of white linen tape.

This alpine hedysarum (Hedysarum americanum) is attached to its herbarium sheet with linen tape. This technique allows the plant to bend with the sheet, decreasing the risk of breakage and loss. But applying linen tape is a time-consuming process, with each piece of tape carefully cut and placed by hand. Specimens collected in 2016. Catalogue number CAN 10042881. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

My core challenge was that in the conservation literature there’s no single recommended adhesive for herbarium collections. So, in my search for the best adhesive I considered the museum’s needs while exploring new research in adhesives.

Three of the key herbarium conservation needs are strength, flexibility, and neutral pH. Herbarium specimens must be conserved for decades, if not centuries. So an adhesive must have enduring strength to hold a specimen on its sheet and also flexibility to keep it held while the sheet’s handled by researchers.

A neutral pH keeps the surrounding substrate from becoming acidic, turning yellow, and prematurely aging.

Close-up image of a herbarium sheet with a subalpine fir specimen that has some acidic, yellowed adhesive masking some of the specimen from view.

This closeup image of a subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) herbarium sheet shows that the adhesive has browned with age masking some of the specimen from view. The browning also indicates that the adhesive’s become acidic, which could cause damage to the area over time. Specimen collected in 1975. Catalogue number CAN 10005767. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In addition to these archival requirements, the adhesive I was looking for also needed to have other practical properties. It needed to be water-based, high tack, and clear when dry.

The Canadian Conservation Institute’s long-term study of commercially available adhesives, Adhesive Compendium for Conservation was an invaluable resource.

My research led me to recommend three neutral pH polyvinyl acetate (PVA) adhesives or “white” glue.  These adhesives have both great workability properties in the lab and long-term preservation qualities. They have stood the test of time while remaining strong, flexible, neutral, and exhibiting minimal yellowing.

My adhesive research truly stuck with me. It enabled me to more deeply appreciate how in the selection of conservation materials every small detail must be considered to ensure the preservation of collections.

Understanding material characteristics and their deterioration was a core concept in my conservation training. I’m proud to know that what I contributed to the museum’s herbarium will increase the chance that in the 22nd century a museum botanist will hold a herbarium sheet prepared today—with its specimen still firmly attached.

Posted in Botany, Collections | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

In Jassa mating: A thumb matters

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my Ph.D.-related publications about tiny, shrimp-like animals called Jassa. I set out to discover a way to tell the species apart based on their appearance. But soon I asked why they looked that way.


Blog author and museum scientist Kathy Conlan in 1980 searching for Jassa in a sample collected in southeastern Alaska. Image: Ron Long, © Canadian Museum of Nature

First, a little about Jassa. It’s a genus of 20 species of marine, colonial amphipods, in which each male or female lives in a self-made tube that it attaches to almost anything hard, from rocks and docks to boat hulls. Species of Jassa live on most rocky shores and harbours around the world from Newfoundland to the Antarctic (not yet in the Arctic, but see Cruising the Globe Undetected). Anchored in their tubes, they extend into the water to capture passing plants and animals or scrape up bits of dead organic material called detritus. Being without a tube could be a death sentence as Jassa is easy prey to fishes.

A crustacean, top view, with small black eyes and four large antennae; its body enclosed in a tube

A female Jassa marmorata in her tube. Her four antennae are outstretched to capture passing phytoplankton, zooplankton and detritus. Image: Kathy Conlan, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Yes, it’s mostly a sedentary life, but things get interesting when it comes time to mate.

Inside its tube, Jassa grows in stages, splitting its old outer “skin”, or cuticle, after it has grown a new, slightly larger one inside, a process called molting. For a mature female, this is the only time that her cuticle is flexible enough to allow the release of her unfertilized eggs into her external brood pouch. For a mature male, this is the only time that he can fertilize her eggs.

This opportunity to mate is very short, only a couple of hours long. So there is fierce competition among adult males to find a female that is receptive to mating. The females broadcast their receptiveness by releasing attractive chemicals. The adult males abandon their tubes, roving to find the receptive females. But the females are choosy. They will only accept males with the right look. These males have to have a thumb (an enlargement on a gnathopod, or pincer). The thumb signals an intent to mate. Thumbless males are intent on evicting the female from her tube, and so she drives them off.

The thumbed males fight to guard the receptive female until she is ready to molt and release her eggs. Once fertilized, the embryos grow inside the eggs until hatching as miniature Jassas.

Two small dark crustaceans facing each other closely and fighting.

Confrontation between two large-thumbed male Jassa marmorata. Image: Kathy Conlan, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In my doctoral research, I discovered that not all Jassa thumbs are alike. In every species, big males had big thumbs but some little males had smaller thumbs than would be expected for their body size. Some also had ornaments that the big males did not have. I thought this might indicate that the little males behaved differently and follow-up studies by other scientists have confirmed this for Jassa marmorata.

The little males appear when there has been not much protein from phytoplankton and zooplankton to feed on, so they had to depend on a less healthy diet of bits of detritus. But what little thumbed males lack in size, they sometimes make up for in behaviour.

A line drawing of an adult male amphipod with a large prominent claw below its body.

A male Jassa marmorata with a major thumb on its gnathopod (below and to the right of its head). The size of the adult male’s thumb seems to depend on its diet. A well-fed big “major” male produces a big thumb. Nutrient poor environments result in small “minor” males with smaller thumbs than expected for their body size. Image: Susan Laurie-Bourque, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Faced with a big male with an over-sized thumb, the little males seemingly don’t stand a chance. But in fact, they do. They are quick to mature and their small thumbs are big enough to signal the female not to reject them. When they outnumber the big males, they win the mating. And females will accept more than one male to mate with, increasing the odds that little guys can succeed too.

So, different strategies work for different situations. The fascinating Jassa mating ritual dances to the rhythm of how a male presents his thumb.


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