Nature Inside and Out

The latest exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature is a provocative look at the inside of animal bodies. A technique called plastination gives durable, graphic and artistic results that allow curious viewers to see and compare biological systems of many different species.

For centuries before this innovative plastination approach, scientists dissected plants and animals to compare anatomical features in an effort to answer their questions. As well as telling us about how the various animals live, the comparison of physical features is also the foundation of taxonomy—the naming and classification of species. Comparative anatomy is a primary tool of species discovery.

A room full of mounted skeletons.

Part of the skeleton collection in the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, National Museum of Natural History, in Paris. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

The size of an anatomical feature (for example, the length of a jaw), or the number of body parts (for example, the number of spines in a fish’s fin), are part of the list of characteristics that can help to distinguish one species from another.

Sometimes, scientists have to dig much deeper to find those critical markers of identity. For example, researchers working with insects often have to dissect and study the shape of the reproductive system to establish the identity of a species. And in most cases, a full diagnosis requires a long list of characteristics.

Illustration of the bones in a human arm, dog leg, bird wing, whale flipper.

A comparison of the upper limbs of vertebrates; colours indicate similar structures for each. Image: Volkov Vladislav Petrovich © Volkov Vladislav Petrovich (licensed: CC BY-SA 4.0)

One thing that all biologists know is that nature offers a great deal of variability in all living things. To fully understand those variations for each species, an extensive collection is ideal. Such a collection is amassed across a wide range of geography and over time. A large collection provides for understandings about the variety of shapes and sizes, differences between males and females, and how a species responds to different environmental conditions.

Collage: Drawings of two fishes.

Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Left: Adult male colouration when it is living in the ocean. Right: Adult males live in freshwater when in reproductive condition, as seen here. Images: Jmabel, United States Government, and Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service © Public domain

Recently, new tools have emerged to assist in the detailed task of identifying species. The use of genetic material such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) can be fast and powerful in differentiating and comparing species. Molecular techniques are especially useful for comparing species that are closely related and difficult or impossible to separate based on just anatomical parts, or for identifying species in their larval stages before they reach the more identifiable adult stage. Because of these new methods and tools, museums are now storing tissues and genetic material for future scientific research in addition to collecting entire plants and animals.

Collage: Drawings of two plants.

Two species of Arctic grasses that are difficult to tell apart by their physical appearance alone (left: Puccinellia banksiensis; right: P. phryganodes). Museum scientists have established a DNA procedure to distinguish hundreds of Arctic plants (read the article). Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history collections come together through field work and in exchanges with an extensive network of collaborators. Museums’ species-discovery programmes include the preservation and sharing of the specimens and data they collect for scientific questions now, and for centuries to come. The Canadian Museum of Nature forges scientific collaborations amongst the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada, with the Alliance of Natural History Museums of the Arctic, and with colleagues at universities, government labs, and other museums around the globe. As we continue our adventures in species discovery, we take a careful look at nature inside and out.

An X-ray of three fish.

An X-ray of three Arctic sculpin species. Top to bottom: Polar Sculpin (Cottunculus microps), Longhorn Sculpin (Myoxocephalus octodecemspinosis) and Fourhorn Sculpin (M. quadricornis). See this X-ray and others at the museum in Beneath the Surface: X-rays of Arctic Fish. Image: Noel Alfonso, Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Collections, Research, Tools of the trade | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tiny Clams That Thrive in Dry Ponds

by Shan Leung and James Darling

The Herrington’s fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale) is one of the smallest bivalves in Canada. At only 7 mm long, it is smaller than—you guessed it—a fingernail!

It is also the only bivalve in Canada that lives exclusively in vernal pools: small, temporary bodies of water that form in the spring and dry out by mid- or late summer. While they last, vernal pools harbour a number of amphibious and dry-resistant species, including tadpoles, salamanders, insect larvae, fairy shrimp and water fleas.

This pool forms every spring and disappears every fall.

This pool forms every spring and disappears every fall. It is located on the museum’s property in Gatineau, Quebec, in the sector of Aylmer. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

This year, as summer students, we are putting on our rubber boots and bug jackets to collect these tiny clams. We’re working at the museum’s research and collections facility, on the 76 hectare property. Joining us are Noel Alfonso, an ichthyologist and head of the Environmental Monitoring Program at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and André Martel, a leading Canadian malacologist.

By sectioning the vernal pools into quadrats from which to sample, the team will estimate population density on the property. Preliminary results suggest there may be as many as 200 of these tiny animals per square metre of pond!

Noel Alfonso (left), Shan Leung (middle), and James Darling (right) take a look at their collection.

Noel Alfonso (left), Shan Leung (middle), and James Darling (right) take a look at their collection. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Living in vernal pools presents significant challenges for the Herrington’s fingernail clam.

First, it must survive when its habitat dries out each year. To this end, the Herrington’s fingernail clam is the most amphibious bivalve in Canada, spending most of the year locked in dry land (although the mud in which it buries itself may remain damp for the rest of the summer).

Second of all, new generations of the clam must somehow disperse if it is to colonize new pools. How the clam does this is something of a mystery. Here’s a possible explanation: it takes to the skies.

The Herrington’s fingernail clam may not have wings but its tiny larvae are able to hitch a ride on passing Wood Ducks, other waterfowl, or even large flying insects to new pools where they can colonize. Once there, a single larva can mature and, once an adult, reproduce clonally (a process called parthenogenesis) to colonize the entire pool.

Herrington's fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale) at five different ages. Individuals can live up to a few years, overwintering several times during this period.

Herrington’s fingernail clam (Sphaerium occidentale) at five different ages. Individuals can live up to a few years, overwintering several times during this period. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Despite the challenges presented by life in vernal pools, such a lifestyle also presents one momentous advantage. Temporary bodies of water in temperate areas do not sustain fish populations, which are the major predators of these bivalve molluscs. By spending their entire lives in vernal pools, fingernail clams have found a special kind of sanctuary, safe from their erstwhile predators.

Our team is looking forward to uncovering more about these tiny clams over the summer!

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Need Inspiration? Come See Our Collections!

Did you know that our 10 million specimens are a source of artistic inspiration?

Visual artist Mary Baranowski-Lowden routinely visits our collections at our research and collections facility to make drawings.

Mary’s main medium of expression is etching. She moved from the very urban city of Toronto, Ontario, and now lives in a pastoral setting along the Gatineau River in Wakefield, Quebec. She finds the nature that surrounds her inspired her work. Its complexity presents its own challenges.

It all began with a bird’s nest. The sculpture-like construction intrigued her. Driven by the desire to understand, be inspired by this “work of art”, and do justice to Mother Nature’s model in her drawings, Mary decided she wanted to learn more about the nest and the species of bird that created it.

Collage of nest, bird and plant images

Top left: Copper engraving of the first nest, drawn below. Right: Prized collage (Natural Elements II) containing the same nest. Images: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

In the spring of 2014, Mary made a visit to the museum. She met with Michel Gosselin, head of the Bird Collection. His scientific expertise and explanations helped Mary base her creations on a better understanding of nature.

This way, our collections have become a precious resource for her as well! By observing her subjects in minute detail, the artist discovers anatomical details that would otherwise not be detectable. These observations eventually become part of the larger picture in her personal interpretations specific to her surroundings.

A beaver's head.

A beaver’s muzzle is hairy! See how short the hairs are near the nostrils, growing longer and longer and changing colour as you move further away. This type of detail fascinates Mary Baranowski-Lowden and is almost impossible to capture in a natural setting. Image: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over time, Mary has diversified and enriched her exploration of nature. The inspiration she derives from nature seems infinite. After birds, the artist is now taking an interest in the mammals in our collections. Her studies provide material for her River Diaries.

Illustration: A heron, flowers and insects.

River Diaries III, multi-plate etching with Chine collé and watercolour. Mary starts her work by drawing her subject. Using an etching tool on the copper plate, she exposes the area of fine lines that defines the image to an acid bath. The lines are engraved into the copper by the acid. Finally, the artist prints and arranges her works in much the same way as a patchwork. This process takes time to develop—much like nature itself. Image: © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

Since Mary’s childhood, a time when she loved drawing nature in the company of her mother, much water has run under the bridge. After a fulfilling artistic career teaching art to children, and after travelling to various countries, particularly in Asia, she has come back to her sources.

This is also an opportunity for her to reconcile science and art. Unlike her two sisters who both pursued scientific careers, Mary struggled with scientific concepts in school. Today, she uses chemistry in her work on copper plates. Her fascination with anatomical details can be likened to the scientific accuracy that informs biology.

That’s a good example of how art and science come together to make nature shine!

Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa recently awarded Mary the Gordon J. Wood Print Purchase Prize for two of her works: Natural Elements I and II. Jean-Claude Bergeron, one of the jurors and director of the gallery, commented on the quality of her works, stressing that Mary Baranowski-Lowden’s compositions are a witness to her love and understanding of nature.

Collage with a bird, feathers and plants.

Natural Elements I. Art and nature are bound together in the artist work. Image: © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

Natural Element II is showing in Ottawa at the Carleton University Art Gallery until August 23.

Also, on October 24, 2015, the Canadian Museum of Nature will opens the doors of its research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec. Visitors will be able to go behind the scenes and meet the experts who curate and study the collections. Admission is free.

Translated from French.

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The Landscapes of Canada Gardens

In 2010, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s downtown “castle” reopened to great fanfare after six years of renovation and renewal. To most observers, the festivities that followed marked the completion of this grand project, and the unveiling of the Canadian Museum of Nature as a complete (and completely new) natural history museum. For a few of us behind the scenes, however, the renewal project won’t be officially completed until later this year, when the museum’s outdoor botany gallery—the Landscapes of Canada Gardens—is officially inaugurated.

Plans showing the gardens on the museum property.

The plan for the Landscapes of Canada gardens on the west side of the museum. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

This garden, unique in the National Capital Region, will transform the west lawn of the museum into a little slice of wild Canada, complete with wide Arctic tundra, colourful prairies and lush boreal groves. With plenty of opportunities for wild play, exploration and relaxation, the gardens are sure to become a destination for museum visitors and Ottawans alike.

My involvement with the project started back in 2011, when the museum’s botany group was asked to draw up a list of native plant species for just such a project: species that would highlight both Canada as a whole, and that represented the breadth of our research and the holdings of our collections. Over the course of the project, the many species and ideas coming out of these meetings were narrowed down to a plan to highlight three important Canadian ecosystems: the Arctic tundra, the boreal forests and the prairies.

Collage: Three plants.

The Arctic tundra zone will highlight species commonly found by the museum’s northern research teams, but that have also been selected for their ability to survive in Ottawa. These include russet sedge (Carex saxatilis; top left), crowberry (Empetrum nigrum; top right) and dwarf birch (Betula glandulosa; bottom). Images: Roger Bull, Paul Sokoloff, Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic tundra zone, obviously near and dear to our hearts, will be one of the trickiest aspects of the gardens to pull off successfully. Arctic plants are well adapted to their environment, often possessing insulating hairs or growing close to the ground where the air is warmest. These traits mean that Arctic plant species generally don’t fare well when transplanted to the warm south.

To work around this, we worked with the landscape architects at CSW, who are designing the gardens, to select cultivars of Arctic plant species successfully grown down south or plants that are found in both Arctic and Subarctic Canada. While these plants will require special care, bringing a bit of the Arctic to Ottawa is well worth the nurturing involved.

Collage: Three plants.

The boreal forest zone on the southern edge of the garden will feature ample opportunities for natural play and exploration. Visitors can discover various plant species, including Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum; top left), ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris; bottom left) and white spruce (Picea glauca; right).
Images: Wouter Hagens © Wouter Hagens (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0), Andrey Korzun © Andrey Korzun (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0), Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The boreal forest region, which bookends the southern edge of the garden, will highlight the great evergreens—the larches, spruces and pines—that take pride of place in many Canadian identities. Underneath this softwood canopy, a stump path winding between trunks and ostrich ferns will allow garden visitors to play and explore.

Collage: Three plants.

The prairie grassland zone in the centre of the garden will provide a peaceful refuge for visitors and pollinators alike, and includes big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii; left), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata; top right) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta; bottom right).
Images: Matt Lavin © Matt Lavin (licensed: CC BY-SA 2.0); Paul Sokoloff, Emma Lehmberg © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the centre of it all, the prairie grassland zone, designed with input from Manitoba’s Living Prairie Museum, will be a colourful and contemplative space, featuring myriad tiers of grasses and flowers set against the backdrop of the castle. Featuring a mix of species from both tall-grass and shortgrass prairie ecosystems, these delightful grasses and important wildflowers will lend colour to the corner of O’Connor and McLeod during spring, summer and autumn.

Work will begin on the Landscapes of Canada gardens this summer, and while it will take many months for it to reach its full potential (as with any garden), the wait will be well worth it. We look forward to sharing this slice of Canadian botany with neighbours and visitors alike.

Posted in Arctic, Exhibitions, Plants and Algae | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Finders are not Keepers

We have all heard the phrase, “Finders, Keepers”. If we are lucky enough to find a loonie, or a cool shell on a beach or maybe an interesting rock, we feel justified keeping it based on this premise. Well, in the field of palaeontology, this often is not the case and our museum experienced a great example of this with the recent return of the world renowned fossil, Tiktaalik.

Kieran Shepherd holds the fossil skull of Tiktaalik, flanked by scientists Ted Daeschler (left) and Neil Shubin.

Kieran Shepherd holds the fossil skull of Tiktaalik, during the repatriation of its fossils to the museum’s collections and to Canada by Dr. Ted Daeschler (left) and Dr. Neil Shubin (right). Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Canada has both federal and provincial/territorial legislation and regulations that control how fossils are gathered and where they can be permanently housed. For the most part, fossils found in this country cannot leave Canada other than for scientific purposes or temporary exhibitions. Palaeontologists who do not work at a Canadian institution are certainly allowed to come to Canada for fieldwork. They can collect fossils and take them back to their own laboratory for scientific study and analysis. At the completion of their study, the fossils must return to Canada and be deposited in a museum or university collection. Once in an official collection, the fossils can be properly cared for and then accessed for study by other scientists and students of palaeontology.

View of the Tiktaalik excavation site on Ellesmere Island.

The Tiktaalik excavation site on southern Ellesmere Island, Nunavut in 2004. Image: Ted Daeschler © T. Daeschler/VIREO.

Tiktaalik is a wonderful fossil now back in Canada after an absence of more than 10 years. A team of palaeontologists from the United States headed by Ted Daeschler and Neil Shubin painstakingly prepared and studied this unique find, which they collected in 2004 on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut.

View of the model of Tiktaalik, with boxes containing the real fossils in the background.

These boxes contain the “repatriated” fossils of Tiktaalik and two other type specimens of lobe-finned fish. The fossils were handed over to the museum recently by the American scientists that discovered and studied them. In foreground is a model and cast of Tiktaalik. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Tiktaalik was a transitional animal that made the evolutionary link between fish and land-based animals. As such, Tiktaalik, which lived 375 million years ago, has shared characteristics of both fish and land-based tetrapods. In Tiktaalik’s time, the Arctic was located close to the equator and would have been a warm, topical region.

Illustration of Tiktaalik as a living animal.

Illustration of what a living Tiktaalik roseae might have looked like. Image: Flick Ford © Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadephia/VIREO

Legislation protecting fossils was enacted by the Territorial government of Nunavut in 2000. All fossils collected from that Territory must eventually be returned there after study. Since Nunavut does not yet have a suitable facility to house such rare fossils, the Canadian Museum of Nature is the temporary home for such finds, where they are curated at our Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec.

Certainly we will hear more about Tikaalik for years to come, especially as other researchers get a chance to study it. Those wishing to see a model of Tiktaalik should come to the Open House at our Gatineau collections facility on October 24. Visit our web site,, for more details closer to the date.

See our Nature Scoop video about this amazing fossil.

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Lady Luck visits the Alberta badlands

June’s palaeontology fieldwork in Alberta has come and gone, and since writing my last blog on the matter, I’m happy to say that our luck improved significantly. This was our best year yet!

On June 9, we stumbled across what proved to be the better part of a skull from the horned dinosaur Centrosaurus apertus. The skull occurred in a classic river channel deposit, and after some poking around, we uncovered both upper and lower jaws, the beak, and a long, forward-curving nose horn typical of the species. We jacketed the specimen with plaster and burlap, and were able to gruellingly hike it out of the badlands a few days later.

The Centrosaurus skull embedded in rock.

The partial Centrosaurus skull we found, with parts labelled. Check out the elongated, forward-curving nose horn. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Not long afterwards, on June 15, we happened upon a bonebed containing mixed bones from the same species of horned dinosaur. This didn’t come as a big surprise—the area of the South Saskatchewan River where we’ve been working is known to contain a vast Centrosaurus bonebed that spans some 2.3 sq. km, and we’ve come across it sporadically in prior years.

Jordan Mallon seated on ground as he maps the bonebed.

Here I am mapping the Centrosaurus bonebed. The view sure beats the one from my office.
Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This newly discovered deposit is particularly rich, with more than 20 bones per square metre. Prospecting this site will keep us busy for years to come, and will be a great place to train prospective students of palaeontology. It boggles the mind to think what could be learned about the population structure of Centrosaurus from a rich bonebed as large as this.

Our last big find came on June 18, when we found the back end of a large Chasmosaurus skull eroding out of a hillside. It appears that the back of the bony frill had eroded away, but extensive pick-work by my crew and me showed that the rest of the frill and skull continues into the hill. We even managed to find a brow horn, which indicates that this is one of the rare, long-horned varieties of Chasmosaurus. Sadly, we weren’t able to fully excavate the skull because it was found relatively late in the field season, but we’ll hit the ground running with it next year.

View from above shows technician excavating Chasmosaurus skull from rock wall.

Scott Rufolo digs back into a mudstone wall to expose more of our long-horned Chasmosaurus skull.
Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

And thus ends a long but rewarding field season. I won’t lie; it’s nice to be home again with friends and family, and the cleanliness of civilization. I don’t miss the windy storms in camp, the sore feet, and the instant coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. But I can’t wait to get back out again next year, all the same. There’s still a lot of work to be done!

A selfie shows the palaeontology team in the back of a pick-up truck, which is loaded with the Centrosaurus skull wrapped in a plaster jacket.

A happy team! Dr. Jordan Mallon snaps a selfie from the back of a pick-up truck, which is loaded with the Centrosaurus skull his team had wrapped in a plaster jacket. With him are museum team members Scott Rufolo and Margaret Currie, as well as McGill University student Elizabeth Church. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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Arctic Field Trip: Studying Flora and Eider Ducks

Summer is upon us, and it is once again time to head to Canada’s Arctic for a month to study plant biodiversity.

This year Roger Bull and I will be working along southern Baffin Island, Nunavut, in and around the community of Cape Dorset, and on numerous small islands in Hudson Strait northeast of Cape Dorset. Hudson Strait links the Atlantic Ocean to Hudson Bay, bordered to the north by Baffin Island and to the south by northern Quebec.

Maps showing the study area.

Inset maps: Nunavut. The black rectangle indicates our general study area on Baffin Island, also shown in the main map.
Main map: Specific areas of study are outlined in red.
Inset map: Algkalv and Dr. Blofeld based on original by Yug. Small inset map: EOZyo. Two maps put together by Ruhrfisch. (Licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0). Modified by J.M. Saarela. Main map: Imagery © 2015, IBCAO, Landsat, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO. Map data © 2015 Google. Modified by J.M. Saarela.

The logistics of this year’s expedition are a bit different than our previous trips. We will be in the field with a small team of Environment Canada researchers engaged in studies of Common and King Eiders. This research programme, led by Grant Gilchrist, Ph.D., from the National Wildlife Research Centre, has been studying eider colonies in the eastern Arctic for nearly 20 years. Their research questions are diverse, and include investigating the effects of polar-bear predation on eider nests as sea ice diminishes and identifying key sea-bird marine habitats.

For the first four days of the trip, Roger and I will explore and document plant biodiversity in and around the hamlet of Cape Dorset. There is a fairly good record of plant diversity in the immediate area. However, most of the existing collections were made in the 1920s and 1930s and have imprecise locality information, and we do not know if the record is complete for the area. I suspect it is not. Our main goal there will be to ensure that all plant species in and around the community are documented by specimens.

View of Cape Dorset in summer.

The hamlet of Cape Dorset. It is on Dorset Island, off the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut. Image: Daniel Christopher © Daniel Christopher (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0)

We will also explore nearby Mallikjuaq Territorial Park (Mallikjuaq means “big wave” in Inuktitut), a small park of some 18 square kilometres, where some collections were gathered in 1970. The park spans Mallik Island and Cape Dorset Island, divided by a narrow inlet that can be crossed on foot at low tide. This will be the third territorial park in Nunavut that we will explore botanically. (Read about our earlier trips at Kugluk/Bloody Falls Territorial Park in 2014 and at Katannilik Territorial Park in 2012).

We will then meet up with the eider team, and together over three weeks will visit about 30 islands in Hudson Strait ranging in size from 0.1 to 5 km2. We will travel by boat from Cape Dorset to the islands, on which we will camp.

Eider ducks prefer to nest on islands with a lot of vegetation, and the eider team hypothesises that these habitats may have been created by the birds over time through nutrient deposition. To test this hypothesis, they will conduct biodiversity surveys of islands with and without eiders, and collect data on insects, soil, pond water, pond sediments and vegetation.

An eider nest with eggs.

Eider duck (Somateria sp.) eggs. Eiders typically make their nests on small islands, close to the water. The nest is a depression in the ground lined with sticks and down. Image: Roger D. Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

That’s where we come in. We will work with the eider team to characterise the vascular plant, bryophyte, fungi and lichen biodiversity at their study sites. We will also conduct broader and comprehensive plant-biodiversity surveys of each island, documenting all species with collections, which will be deposited at the Canadian Museum of Nature in the National Herbarium of Canada.

None of the islands that we plan to visit has been explored previously by botanists, and there is no information about plant diversity in these difficult-to-access and little-known areas. The new information on the vegetation will contribute to both our understanding of eider-duck habitat and the diversity and distribution of the Arctic flora in Hudson Strait.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Dino-mania is back. Thanks, Jurassic World

It’s June, 1993 and I just graduated from Grade 5. My dad takes me to see Jurassic Park in the theatre as a sort of graduation reward. I’m awed and amazed by the realistic dinosaurs on screen—so much so that I spill my popcorn when the T. rex bursts through the electrified fence. I go home that evening and tell my mom that I’m going to be a palaeontologist when I grow up.

Fast forward 22 years later, and Jurassic World has just been released in theatres. But despite its record breaking debut, the movie isn’t being given an easy ride by many dinosaur enthusiasts. Instead, it’s being heavily criticized for its numerous inaccuracies: raptors without feathers, impossibly large mosasaurs, and galloping horned dinosaurs, among others. These criticisms aren’t unwarranted; we’ve learned a lot about dinosaurs since the original film, and those depicted in the latest offering look woefully out of date. Some have described Jurassic World as a missed opportunity for science outreach, and I think they’re right. Putting proper feathers on Velociraptor at this stage of the franchise could be easily accounted for by the in-universe discovery of more complete genomes. No need to sacrifice continuity for scientific accuracy.

But at the same time, the dino-mania that inevitably accompanies the “Jurassic” movies presents a great chance for science outreach; Jurassic World is only a missed opportunity if we let it get away. The original film was likewise panned by dinosaur purists for its spitting Dilophosaurus, giant Velociraptor, and earth shaking T. rex. Yet it inspired a generation of young palaeontologists, myself included, despite these inaccuracies. The wonder of seeing life-like dinosaurs on screen was enough to send us flocking to the libraries and museums (this was a time before the internet) to learn more about them. The new Jurassic World movie is surely compelling enough to do the same. Want to learn more about those cool raptors, mosasaurs, and horned dinos you just saw on the big screen? Come to the fossil gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature and see the real things for yourself!

For what it’s worth, I quite enjoyed the new movie. The special effects were great, and the fan service really hit the spot. I thought there were some interesting moral issues raised concerning genetic engineering and animal rights that could’ve been probed a little deeper, but they’ll make for interesting water cooler talk all the same. I’m especially looking forward to chatting up the young palaeontologists-to-be about their favourite parts of the movie. See you kids this summer at the museum!

Follow Jordan and his fieldwork on Twitter @Jordan_Mallon.

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Hunting for Dinosaurs—You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

In my first year of palaeontology fieldwork along Alberta’s South Saskatchewan River —three seasons ago now—I came across a massive cliff with an interesting dinosaur fossil poking out near the base. There wasn’t much showing; just a flat bone curled at one end, visible in cross section (the rest of the bone had broken away when a piece of the cliff face collapsed long ago).

The fossil embedded in rock.

The fossil as it appeared when I first found it in 2013. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It was hard to tell at the time, but I had an inkling as to what it was (or maybe, what I hoped it would be): the back edge of a horned dinosaur frill. The bone was in solid ironstone, with nine feet of rock above it. I knew I would never get it out with the simple hand tools I had on me at the time, but I couldn’t walk away from such a potentially great find, and planned to return again one day with power tools to extract it.

Jordan Mallon standing by a cliff face that holds the embedded fossil.

Here, I am pointing to the massive amount of rock lying over the bone. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So that’s what I did this year. I had initially and naively planned to jackhammer my way down to the fossil from above—the sheer amount and hardness of the rock prevented that.

Instead, palaeobiology technician Alan McDonald and I opted to cut into the side of the cliff using an angle grinder to extract the specimen. Alan cut a grid pattern into the rock around the fossil, and we chipped the resulting blocks out with a hammer and chisel.

Technician Alan McDonald bends over as he cuts a grid into a wall of rock.

Technician Alan McDonald prepares to cut using the grid-cutting method used to extract the fossil. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The work was long, hot, and very dusty, but after several hours of cutting and chipping, we were finally able to see the fossil in its full glory. And it was…a partial ilium (hip bone) of a duck-billed dinosaur.

Ugh! Certainly not the highlight of my career. Duck-billed dinosaurs are as common as they come in these parts, and another partial hipbone in isolation isn’t likely to teach us much about we don’t already know.

View of the hardrosaur ilium, partially encased in a plaster jacket.

The hadrosaur ilium in all its splendour, partially encased in a plaster jacket. The fossil is just under two feet long. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Still, when it comes to fossils, there’s strength in numbers, as a fellow palaeontologist wrote in his recent blog. Perhaps one day some student will see something significant about the ilium that I might have missed. If so, I hope they’ll appreciate the hard work that went into retrieving it!

Read blogs about Jordan’s previous fieldwork in 2014:

Thinking Back, Looking Ahead: The 2014 Palaeobiology Field Season in Alberta

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In the Amazing Business: Museum Collections

Science is often the subject of the news. The science that is most often reported is the super-popular, like reports about birds, the mega-sciences like space exploration, health issues like disease outbreaks or cures, the amazing, new technology applications that change our lives, and the reports of species that are bizarre in one way or another.

The museum recently opened Animal Inside Out to show visitors something bizarre— because you just don’t get the chance to see this kind of thing: the actual biological systems that exist beneath a thin cloak of skin. But amazing doesn’t only come in a travelling exhibition; we have natural-history specimens in our collections that will blow your mind, even without dissecting them.

Heads and tusks of several narwhals above the surface of the water.

Narwhals tusking. Image: Glenn Williams, National Institute of Standards and Technology © Public domain

Imagine an animal that has a canine tooth that can be up to 3 metres long, weighs up to 10 kilograms and unlike the other teeth that point into the mouth, grows through the upper lip to point forward. The narwhal has an extensive, northern distribution, and can be found in the eastern part of the Canadian Arctic. When the males are mature, at least one of their canine teeth (usually on the left side), gives them a unicorn-like appearance.

A close-up of a sea star's tube feet.

A sea-star arm. The tube feet that can open prey are clearly visible. Image: Mokele © Mokele (licensed: CC BY 3.0)

Live clams, mussels and scallops are impossible to open unless you have a hammer or a knife. Some animals are specially adapted to prying them open with their feet. Sea stars have hundreds of tube-feet that apply a small amount of suction and act together to create an unbeatable force. Once the shellfish weakens and is open the slightest crack, the sea-star slowly pushes its stomach outside its body and into its prey to begin digesting and absorbing its meal. (Watch a video).

Some photosynthetic organisms are as small as the red blood cells that course through your veins. Diatoms are protists (not true plants or animals) and distinguish themselves by living in an intricate glass covering. Each species has a unique design that gives protection, allows it to grow, and permits enough light and nutrients to pass to it so it can produce energy and thrive.

A diatom seen through magnification.

Amphora copulata is a freshwater diatom found in the Arctic. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

When you visit the High Arctic, there are a couple obvious features. First, where are all the trees? The second is the wind. But if you look closely toward your feet, there are woody plants all around. The Arctic willow is one of the most northerly, hugging the ground, often with a network of branches, avoiding the worst of the strong, steady wind above. These remarkable trees are also adapted to reproduce and grow in an extremely short summer season, and to survive severe cold.

A ground-level view of woody branches and leaves growing along the ground.

A network of willows (Salix sp.) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in the High Arctic. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history makes it into our lexicon in many ways. For now, let’s focus on “rock-solid”. But in nature there are lots of exceptions, flexible sandstone (itacolumite) being one of them. Itacolumite is a rock named after Itacolumi, Brazil, where it was first discovered. Hollow spaces between the quartz grains of this sedimentary rock give it flexibility. If you hold a long, thin section of itacolumite at its middle point and move it sideways back and forth, the rock will wriggle like a fish tail swimming through the water. (Video).

Collage that shows a long, thin slice of rock bent one way and the other.

A sample of itacolumite that is bendable. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Pterosaurs existed 66 million to 228 million years ago. These reptiles were remarkable because they could fly—a feature not common then or now. (Pterosaur means “winged lizards”). Flight was possible with wings made of a membrane that stretched across the forearm to the tip of a greatly extended 4th digit and down to the ankle of the hind limb. Some pterosaur species were the largest flying creatures ever.

A pterosaur with wings extended.

This illustration of a pterosaur (Sordes sp.) shows the membranous wing structure. Image: Dmitry Bogdanov © Dmitry Bogdanov (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0)

These are examples of the more that 10 million specimens that have been collected and studied at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I could have easily mentioned the parts of a camel that we found in the Arctic, or the new species of crustaceans found in the deep sea, or the micro-algae found in polar sea ice, or the new tourmaline mineral that we just described.

The truth is, when you hang out with natural-history experts, you find that just about everything they study has an amazing story attached to it. Species discovery is a big part of what natural-history museums do, and our findings are shared with our science colleagues and the general public.

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fossils, Plants and Algae, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , | 1 Comment