November in West Virginia: Inspiring the Next Generation.

Nature Near Everyone: A Shared Priority! That snappy slogan, and the projects it describes, came about from a creative conference I was privileged to attend this November So, let me share with you what happens when 150 people meet with the goal of inspiring a new generation to engage with nature.

Meg Beckel on the bow of a ship in the Arctic.

Meg Beckel, shown during an Arctic expedition in Labrador with Students on Ice, is part of an international team developing ideas to connect youth with nature. Image: Lee Narraway © Students on Ice.

The idea for the conference, held in West Virginia, emerged from the 2012 World Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There, CEO’s of the world’s parks met to discuss the critical need to inspire a new generation to visit parks and connect with nature. This theme continued at the World Parks Congress in 2014, where there was a commitment to include a program stream about it at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The gathering in West Virginia was the North American summit, designed to prepare ideas for the 2016 congress. Over two days, facilitated group discussions and inspiring speakers resulted in 15 collaborative initiatives to take to Hawaii for further engagement with the global community.

People cross a bridge in front of a large building.

View of the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, site of the North American Summit for the conference attended by Meg Beckel. Image: © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Let me share one initiative that our team crafted. It is inspired by a group vision that “nature be accessible everywhere to everyone”. We determined that a step toward that vision would be to help people find nature that is near to where they live. A young member of our group suggested we simply promote the use of a digital tool that already exists and is free. It’s found at the website called “”.

View of the main web page of

Screen capture of the site. Image: ©

We all used it to find nature areas near our own homes (I of course checked out my neighbourhood in Ottawa!). The application works in Canada, the United States and Mexico. It also lists parks and outdoor places. What a tool!

So, from this group brainstorm, an initiative to encourage individuals and organizations to promote was born! We called it “Nature : Just a Click and Steps Away”. We then merged our initiative with three others that looked at community ownership of natural spaces, at community-designed nature spaces and at multi-levels of government prioritizing natural spaces.

Two girls looking closely at a butterfly.

Getting youth engaged with nature was the goal of the summit, Inspiring the Next Generation. Image: istock © kirin_photo

What evolved was an overarching initiative titled: “Nature Near Everyone: A Shared Priority”. The subtext: Make it, Own it, Find it, Share it.

Of course, there were other groups that brainstormed other equally engaging projects. One proposed an international summit with youth and for youth. (There were numerous millennials at our summit but only one was under 18). Another proposal was to launch a global Nature Corps of young people interning in nature as part of their high school experience.

Logo of the IUCN Hawaii World Conservation Congress. © IUCN


As you can tell, there were many ideas to make nature relevant again to young people. Some of these ideas can be acted on now and others will take time, talent and resources to advance. I look forward to seeing what comes forward at the IUCN Hawaii congress and beyond.

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My Irish Diatom Adventure

Part 1: Finding Samples

Last September, I travelled as a tourist for two weeks with my brother Russell in Ireland, visiting both the beautiful Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Seaside cliffs.

The Cliffs of Moher, on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a volunteer since 2013 for the Canadian Museum of Nature, working for Paul Hamilton with freshwater diatoms, I felt this trip was also an opportunity to collect Irish diatom samples from rivers, lakes, streams and ponds for the museum. I was successful, obtaining 21 samples from around the island.

A castle near shore.

Kylemore Castle and Pollacapall Lake, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although we were on an excellent bus tour, getting at freshwater samples was a bit of a challenge (unlike travelling by car at your own pace): I was limited to towns and cities on the itinerary, which were mainly along the coast. Our periodic stops were for an hour or so.

A man stands next to basalt columns.

Joe Holmes among the hexagonal basalt columns at The Giant’s Causeway, County Moyle, Northern Ireland. Image: Russell Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Rivers flowing through coastal towns tended to be tidal (with salt water), so it was necessary to find fresh water flowing from upstream. Also, rivers through cities and towns were often walled off with little or no public access; in rural areas, they were sometimes fenced off. Some were fast flowing, or the water was too deep. Nevertheless, I still had many good opportunities to find accessible lakes, streams and ponds on the tour.

A grassy burial mound.

Ancient mounds over 5000 years old at Knowth near the Boyne River, County Meath, Ireland. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

To obtain and process a sample, mud from the bottom—which contains diatoms—was collected using a turkey baster and put into small bottles. Photos of the collection area were taken and a local tourist map obtained to mark the exact location of the sample.

Collage: Blarney Castle, a diatom.

Top: Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland, houses the famous Blarney Stone. Bottom: A diatom (Stauroneis phoenicenteron) from a creek on Garnish Island off the coast of Glengarriff seen under 500× magnification. Diatoms are one-celled algae having a silica shell. Their study helps environmental scientists learn how humans can affect ecosystem health and biodiversity, whether through local urbanization or global climate change. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Back at the hotel, samples were filtered using a funnel and special filter paper and then dried overnight. Once dry, the samples were sealed in labelled baggies for the trip home. Latitude and longitude were determined later using Google Maps, which worked well.

Map of Ireland.

Map of Ireland showing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Image: © Tintazul, modified (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Paul and I are looking forward to processing and photographing more of these Irish samples. They will provide the museum with a taste for what Irish diatoms are like and what further research may be done.

Posted in Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Arctic Flora of Tamriel: Botany in Video Games

Crouched down on the hilly tundra outside Whiterun, the Dragonborn spots their quarry. No, not a dragon, nor a lumbering mammoth, but a patch of tundra cotton, swaying gently in the breeze coming down the Throat of the World.

Plants have been antagonists, useful items and scenery in video games ever since Mario jumped over his first piranha plant. As a big RPG (role-playing game) fan, more than once I’ve been caught unaware (virtually) while inspecting a digital ecosystem.

Given the recent release of Fallout 4, a highly anticipated RPG, I thought it would be fun to look at the real-world inspirations behind some of these virtual plants.

An image of tundra cotton from the video game and a photo of cottongrass plants.

Although the leaf shape indicates that tundra cotton may be a dicot (having netted leaf veins) rather than a monocot like real-world cottongrass (parallel leaf veins), the cottongrass—an iconic tundra plant—clearly inspired Elder Scrolls‘ tundra cotton. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Skyrim takes place in the titular northern province of Tamriel, the setting for the Elder Scrolls series. Previous Elder Scrolls games have featured the fungi-dominated island of Morrowind, or the temperate, mixed-hardwood climes of Cyrodiil. In both cases, the plants in the environment help to set the mood of the game by telegraphing to players a sense of fantasy and familiarity respectively.

Skyrim is no exception—this alpine and Arctic realm features many plants that are inspired by those found in our real-world polar regions, thus adding to the realism and helping transport the player on an Arctic adventure.

A photo of a flowering plant (Castilleja sp.) and images of mountain flower from the video game.

There are striking similarities between the Castilleja species, which are found in Canada’s Arctic and alpine regions, and Skyrim‘s mountain flower. For instance, flower and bract colours are important characters in distinguishing both the real and fictional species from each other. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Some Skyrim plant species are direct copies of their real-world counterparts, like juniper (in-game juniper) and wheat. Some, like gleamblossoms, are completely fictional. Others are re-named versions of terrestrial species; for instance, you or I may recognize snowberries as holly.

Skyrim‘s mountain flowers—very, very similar to real-world Castilleja species—are easily distinguished based on flower colour. And in the game’s universe, they are additionally differentiated by chemotaxonomy: the differences in the health effects that they impart on the player indicate that different chemicals (secondary metabolites) are produced by each species.

Just like all real-world vascular-plant species, the virtual plants of Tamriel have been placed in different environments associated with that species, which enhances the realism of the virtual ecosystem. Aspiring e-botanists will have to search high and low to find them all; don’t worry, just like with real-life floras, high-quality “dot maps” of where they are located also exist for the Elder Scrolls series.

Photos of a lichen and a moss, paired with an image of their video-game counterpart.

Even lichens (left) and mosses (right) are re-created in detail. As in real life, both organisms have ethnobotanical uses for Skyrim players. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

In Fallout: New Vegas, as with the other members of the Fallout series, the player navigates the wasteland of a parallel, post-apocalyptic Earth, surviving on their wits, resourcefulness and a steady diet of (mostly) irradiated plants. Many of these plants, such as white horsenettle (Solanum elaeagnifolium; in-game plant) and barrel cactus (Ferocactus sp.; in-game plant) are real species.

Images of plants from the video game.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in a parallel world that is based on our own. As such, two legumes that are common in the southwestern United States, pinto beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and honey locust (Prosopis glandulosa), are re-created with a high level of accuracy. Images: © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Plants populate many, many types of video games, sometimes as antagonists. While I’ve yet to see an ambulatory cactus on my field excursions, some fungal species actually do control plant hosts—not unlike the ancient Thorian in Mass Effect.

Whether friend or foe, plants will definitely find themselves in video games for a long time to come, healing player characters, being a thorn on your parties’ side, or simply providing a richer gaming experience.

Images of plants from video games.

Though they may draw on real-world inspirations, many plants in video games are completely fictional (and antagonistic), including Plants versus Zombie‘s peashooter, Final Fantasy‘s cactuar, Super Mario‘s piranha plant, and Mass Effect‘s Thorian. Images (license CC-BY-SA): © Pop Cap Games, © Square Enix, © Nintendo, © EA

Posted in Plants and Algae | Leave a comment

Minerals Are Species Too!

by Paula Piilonen and Noel Alfonso

Most times, when someone uses the word species, the automatic assumption is that they are talking about a biological species, whether it is a plant, mammal, reptile, fish, algae or fungus.

Very rarely do people equate the word species with a mineral. But minerals are species too. And mineralogists use a classification or taxonomic system that is very similar to that used by biologists.

Biological Classification Mineralogical Classification
Kingdom Class
Phylum Subclass
Class Family
Order Supergroup
Family Group
Genus Series
Species Species

Humans have a natural instinct for seeing similarities and differences. Biologists use a hierarchical classification system based on similarity (shared characters) in order to group organisms. Most people are familiar with the kingdom, phylum, class, etc. categories down to the two most familiar levels, genus and species. Domain is a new level above kingdom.

Several specimens of Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush).

Morphological variation in the Lake Trout of Great Bear Lake, NWT, as an illustration of natural variation within a species. The role of biological taxonomists is to understand and delineate species boundaries. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Biologists struggle with the definition of a species. There are about twenty-six species concepts currently in use. The most prevalent one defines a species as groups of actually or potentially interbreeding populations. This is very difficult to test. Reproductive isolation can be demonstrated by defining a gap in a morphological or molecular character between two populations.

Defining a mineral species is more straightforward. Although minerals can be grouped in many different ways, mineralogists use a mineral classification scheme that is based on both the chemistry and atomic structure of a mineral. In order to classify a mineral, we must first know what elements it comprises.

All minerals are made of positively charged atoms (cations) and negatively charged atoms (anions). We use both these types of atoms to help us classify minerals.

To determine the class (the highest grouping in the hierarchal scheme) that a mineral falls into, we must know what anionic group acts as the main building block of the mineral. For example:

  • all silicate minerals are built from SiO44−
  • carbonates: CO32−
  • sulphides: S2−
  • oxides: O2−
  • halides: Cl or F
  • phosphates: PO43−.

We can further classify minerals based on how the cations and anions in a mineral bond together, as well as variations in chemistry between minerals.

Diamond and graphite specimens with a diagram of their atomic structure.

Diamond and graphite are both made of only carbon. It is the different ways in which the carbon is bonded in each mineral that cause their physical differences. Their respective atomic structures are represented by the diagram below each mineral. Image: Materialscientist © Materialscientist

Example 1: Both diamond and graphite comprise only one element: carbon. However, the way the carbon atoms are bonded together results in two very different mineral species.

Collage of mineral specimens: muscovite (collection #CMNMC56667) phlogopite (CMNMC30318), annite (CMNMC30318).

Muscovite, phlogopite and annite are all types of mica. They have the same atomic structure, but differences in their chemistry result in different mineral species names. Images: Michael Bainbridge © Michael Bainbridge

Example 2: There are 49 different species in the mica group. All micas have a similar atomic structure. They are sheet silicates, comprised of alternating layers of silicate tetrahedra and other cations (Mg, Fe, Al, Li, etc.). We can define each of the 49 species based on their differences in chemical composition. For example, muscovite is a K-Al mica, phlogopite is a K-Mg mica and annite (biotite) is a K-Fe mica.

Mineralogists in the museum’s Centre for Species Discovery and Change are interested in mineral species in the same way that biologists are interested in bird, plant or insect species—differences in species between geological environments can provide us with information on the evolution of that environment, such as pressure, temperature, oxygen fugacity or bulk chemical changes that may have occurred as the mineral species were crystallizing and growing.

The next time you are out for a nature walk, remember: the rocks at your feet contain important species too!

Posted in Research, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

How to Keep Skeletons Clean—Just Spit on Them!

In a previous post for the museum blog, I briefly discussed zooarchaeology as an academic discipline and mentioned my desire to foster zooarchaeological research at the Canadian Museum of Nature. We once hosted the Zooarchaeology Research Centre (ZIC), which operated from 1972 until 1996, and the museum continues to house the excellent comparative skeletal material that was assembled by ZIC.

With more than 4500 specimens, representing over 95% of the bird and mammal species known to occur in Canada, the museum Comparative Osteology Collection is an invaluable research tool for archaeological work in Canada.

Several mounted skeletons in the museum's collection.

Skeletons of North American hoofed animals in the osteology collection, including (from left to right) a moose (Alces alces), a juvenile and an adult bison (Bison bison), a muskox (Ovibos moschatus) and a pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Image: Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

Since ZIC disbanded, osteological specimens—osteology being the study of bones—have become an underutilized resource at the museum. This pains me, having a research background in zooarchaeology myself, so I have set out on a mission to change the situation.

Part of the plan to resuscitate a zooarchaeology research program here in Ottawa involves expanding the osteology collection, adding new specimens that will increase the representation of Canadian species and also expand coverage beyond North America.

Collage: A room full of metal cabinets, an Atlantic Cod skull, an American bison skull.

View of the Comparative Osteology Room at the museum’s collection and research facility, in Gatineau, Quebec. All of these cabinets contain skeletons that together represent all the major vertebrate groups of Canada. Left: The skull of an Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) mounted so that the separate bones are clearly visible. Fish have very complicated skeletons, particularly the skull, so specimens such as this are essential to both teaching and identification. Right: Head of the mounted skeleton of an adult American bison (Bison bison) in the osteology collection of the Vertebrate Zoology section, with the skeleton of a moose (Alces alces) visible in the background. Images: Scott Rufolo, Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

Zooarchaeologists use osteological collections as references for helping to identify the bones of animals found on archaeological sites, with the ultimate goal of better understanding the relationship between humans and animals over time and in different cultural contexts.

To help me prepare for adding specimens to our collection, I recently attended a workshop and conference in England focused on curating osteological material. Titled Bone Collections: Using, Conserving and Understanding Osteology in Museums, the event was a venue for discussing methods of skeletonizing carcasses. It also provided hands-on training in various techniques for cleaning and caring for bone specimens once a skeleton has been extracted from all of the surrounding soft tissue. I’ll save discussion of how to prepare a skeleton from a fresh animal carcass for a subsequent post, and rather share here some of the tips I learned for cleaning bone.

Drawers open in a cabinet displaying bones cushioned on foam.

A cabinet full of bones—deer skeletons in the comparative collection. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Once in storage, bones can become covered in dust or accumulate fatty deposits on their surfaces from the oils that are often left inside specimens following their initial defleshing. If left for long periods of time, this surface debris can alter the chemistry of the bone and harm its structural integrity.

In the workshop, we learned to tackle cleaning a specimen in stages, working first with the more gentle agents and tools and moving on to harsher—but often more effective—treatments where necessary. Brushing and the use of specialized museum vaccuums took care of general dust accumulation, but heavy soiling with airborne debris required smoke sponge and Groom Stick specialized conservation materials that act as molecular traps for removing particulate matter.

For thick layers of congealed substances such as bone grease, we turned to dilute alcohol solutions and industrial detergents. Their usage, however, has to be limited because they can harm some specimens through dehydration.

Collage: The babirusa skull before and after cleaning.

Left: The skull of a babirusa (Babyrousa sp.) prior to cleaning. Collected at the end of the 19th century and stored on an open shelf for decades without treatment, this specimen was dark with accumulated dust. Right: The same skull following my preliminary cleaning during the workshop. Perhaps not yet worthy of exhibition, but certainly looking spiffy compared to its earlier state! Images: Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The surprise tip of the workshop: use saliva! The enzymes in saliva that help break down food also work well on bone grease and the organic components of dust, and they don’t harm the bone. So, before breaking out the detergent solutions, workshop participants moistened swabs with their own spit and used these first to tackle stubborn accumulations. In a number of instances, saliva alone was sufficient to clean the bone surface. Contrary to what the title of my post might suggest, however, we all had enough couth to not spit directly on our bone specimens.

An array of pinned insects in a tray.

During the tour for conference participants, we saw a collection of beetles assembled by Charles Darwin while he was a student at the University of Cambridge. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The conference was held at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, and conference attendees were treated to a tour of the museum’s holdings. I’ll leave you with more pictures of a few of the treasures in the University Museum of Zoology’s collections. Until next time!

An egg in protective foam.

Charles Darwin collected this bird egg (which belongs to one of South America’s tinamou species), and it still bears his signature. The crack—also courtesy of Mr. Darwin—occurred when the egg was being placed into its original container on board the HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Darwin on his travels in the southern hemisphere during which his theory of evolution began to take shape. It is the only egg collected on the voyage to have survived. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A mounted Dodo skeleton, a Tasmanian tiger skull in a storage box.

Left: One of the great osteological treasures of the University Museum of Zoology is this nearly complete Dodo skeleton. The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), once found on Mauritius in the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean, is an extinct relative of the pigeon. Right: Ranking alongside the Dodo as a famous symbol of extinction, the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) is also represented in the osteological holdings of Cambridge. Shown here is the jaw and cranium of a thylacine pup, quite valuable as examples of young individuals of this animal are rare. Images: Paul Tucker © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge (Dodo skeleton), Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature (Tasmanian tiger skull)

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

Shrinking the World to Talk about Nature

If you were asked to give a talk halfway around the world, what would you say? It’s a simple answer: yes and when. Connecting to anyone around the world is now a routine, often daily, event with tools like Skype, WeChat and QQ international.

Museums are in the business of education and always on the lookout for ways to reach the public, both near and far. A few months ago, I was asked to give a lecture at Universitas Tadulako in Sulawesi, Indonesia, concerning the global footprint on conservation, preservation and biodiversity. There was one fundamental problem: I was 15 000 km away with no resources to travel to Indonesia.

After some discussions with Dean Tantu and Professor Nilawati, it was decided that I could give the lecture using Skype. With some success at group meetings and short talks using Skype across North America and Europe, the thought was Why wouldn’t it work in Indonesia? The Indonesian Internet infrastructure is not as good as the North American one, but we decided to give it a try.

View of the class and projection screen.

Thanks to new communication technologies, particularly Skype, I was able to give a lecture and talk with a class at Universitas Tadulako in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Professor Nilawati (seated at the front) acted as interpreter. Image: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission)

The next issue was the time. The third-year class was held at 11:00 a.m. every Wednesday, which translated into 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday for me. Indeed, an interesting time to be starting a talk. A compromise was reached whereby the class would start two hours earlier, so the talk would be at 9:00 p.m. for me on Tuesday evening.

Collage: The students in their classroom, Paul's computer screen during the talk, a laptop on a table.

Views of the students in the class, what they saw on the projection screen, and what I saw on my laptop screen. Images: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission), Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

So on May 6, 2015, at the set time, the initial Skype connection was made. It was successful for two minutes. This was not a good start. A reconnection was made, which lasted less than one minute. I started thinking about the number of failed attempts we experienced in connecting four or five people for a conference call in Canada…

Finally, after a few other attempts, a good connection was made. After a brief introduction by Professor Nilawati, the talk began. Although I’ve done it before with a small group, setting up a PowerPoint talk for a class and then talking at my computer screen was interesting. I could see the students in a small window at the top-right of my screen, but there was a time delay.

A woman holding a microphone stands in front of the projection screen in the classroom.

My presentation on-screen and Professor Nilawati acting as interpreter. Image: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission)

So, the talk proceeded at times with translation into Indonesian when required. I talked about the definitions of environmental protection and conservation. These are human-derived concepts and actions. There are natural disasters like fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as human disturbances like pollution that are part of our protection and conservation initiatives. Throughout the talk, examples of conservation were given from research activities at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the end, there was a lengthy discussion that lasted another hour. This was by far the most important part of the event. The ability to have back-and-forth classroom conversations over the Internet was significant. Two deans from the university joined the classroom at that stage.

The range of topics varied from what is the significance of the global human footprint (including water footprint) to how we can further develop stronger educational links between Canada and Indonesia. I was impressed, and at 12:30 a.m., finished the lecture sitting alone in the algae lab at the museum.

The significance of this first connection was seen in the media coverage in Indonesia. This was a first for both the Universitas Tadulako and the Canadian Museum of Nature. News coverage in both the City of Palu and university newspapers indicates how important the university considers the event—a real-time educational initiative co-ordinated halfway around the world. Let’s hope we can develop stronger communications that make a global difference.

Collage: Several newspaper articles.

Images: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission)

Posted in Education, Plants and Algae, Research, Tools of the trade | Tagged | Leave a comment

Citizen Science Led by the Canadian Museum of Nature and Ottawa Riverkeeper

By Jacqueline Madill and Meaghan Murphy

Watch out! Zebra mussels may be coming to an area near you. Disturbing sightings of this invasive species on the Ottawa River has spurred the creation of a zebra-mussel citizen-watch programme in the Ottawa River watershed.

A couple dozen zebra mussels in the palm of a hand.

Zebra mussels found in Lac Deschênes, Ottawa River. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

The discovery of zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) in a new location on the Ottawa River was brought to the attention of André Martel, Ph.D., at Canadian Museum of Nature. This spring, Martel confirmed the arrival of the invasive zebra mussel on boats and anchors in Lac Deschênes, a reach upstream of Ottawa that we hoped would avoid invasion.

Many zebra mussels cling to a large mussel that is on its side on the river bottom.

Underwater view of a freshwater native mussel in the process of falling over from the heavy weight of the attached zebra mussels. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

In response to this discovery, Ottawa Riverkeeper and the Canadian Museum of Nature joined forces to develop a Zebra Mussel Watch Program for riverwatch volunteers who live along the Ottawa River.

People on a dock on the river.

Newly minted citizen scientists: the volunteer riverkeepers who will be monitoring the zebra-mussel populations in the Ottawa River.

On July 10, 2015, a training session for the monitoring programme was held at the Ottawa Rowing Club as part of Ottawa Riverkeeper’s annual Riverwatch Meeting. Over 40 riverwatchers were trained by museum researcher Jacqueline Madill on how to distinguish zebra mussels from our native marine and native freshwater mussels, as well as how to conduct shoreline surveys. Important but not identifying characteristics: native marine mussels are scrumptious and native freshwater mussels are the best organisms for filtering water clean.

Two women hold a cement block by the river.

Meaghan Murphey (left), an Ottawa Riverkeeper, and the museum’s Jacqueline Madill hold a cement block that was handed out to riverwatchers. Image: Joe Ryan © Canadian Museum of Nature

Martel and Madill designed a simple zebra-mussel collector, needed for estimating their settlement patterns: a standard cement block lowered into the water. At summer’s end, the number of adults that accumulated on the block is counted. This method allows comparisons to be made throughout the watershed with the help of many volunteers. A fine example of citizen science!

Zebra mussels arrived in the Great Lakes in 1986 from ballast waters of vessels from Europe. Their veliger larvae drift in water after spawning, subjected to current flow. A female zebra mussel can produce up to a million larvae in a single summer.

A woman sits at a table and holds the specimen.

A participant at an Ottawa Riverwatch meeting examines a freshwater mussel shell that has become covered with zebra mussels. Image: Joe Ryan © Canadian Museum of Nature

In two to three weeks, zebra mussels settle and attach with byssal threads to any hard substrate that they can find, such as rocks, plastic, shells and even other zebra mussels. In a river, the larvae can travel in only one direction, and downstream portions of the Ottawa River are in danger.

One mussel of 1.5 mm and one of 5 mm.

Microscope photographs of newly settled zebra mussels holding onto substrates with their byssal threads. The specimen on the left is attached to a kitchen scouring pad. Note that the scouring fibres are green with algae. The older specimen on the right is crawling across a glass slide as it is being observed under a microscope. The white byssal threads can be seen on the glass slide. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

To travel upstream and to other bodies of water, zebra mussels require the assistance of humans. That is where we come in. Zebra mussels travel well on boats, trailers and vegetation caught in the motor, and they can live for several days out of water. We have to clean anything that can transport zebra mussels from one water body to another.

With citizen scientists tracking the distribution and movements of this invader, and everyone’s effort on boat washing, their spread upstream can be prevented. Let’s focus on critical regions within the watershed that are at risk.

Vigilance is important because we do not know of any way to get rid of these destructive pests once they are established.

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork, Research, Water | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Understanding Sir John Franklin, Then and Now

The Canadian Museum of Nature is the officially designated repository for archaeological material recovered from Nunavut. As the manager of the growing archaeology collection, I am greatly looking forward to the lecture at the museum on October 8, 2015, by underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris. He was a member of the Parks Canada team that located the remains of the HMS Erebus on the floor of Queen Maud Gulf in the Canadian Arctic in September 2014. Also speaking will be Caitlyn Baikie, a young Inuk who was on the expedition.

A dozen old photographs in a display case.

Photographs of some of the officers of Franklin’s 1845 expedition. These are reproductions of daguerreotypes taken in London just before departure.
Sir John Franklin’s photo is at upper left. The man to the right is James Fitzjames, the captain of the HMS Erebus. The photos were exhibited at The Polar Museum. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

The Erebus was the flagship of Sir John Franklin’s fabled 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage—one of two vessels lost to the ice and cold of the Arctic along with their entire crew.

A biscuit and a canister in a display case.

Search parties looking for Franklin and his men often left caches of food and supplies in their wake, holding out hope that survivors would come across them.
The Polar Museum has a number of examples of such supplies, including the hardtack, or ship’s biscuit, stamped with the pheon or broad arrow of the Royal Navy shown above and left on Somerset Island in 1848 by Sir James Clark Ross.
The canister above contains pemmican, a mixture of dried beef and lard, and was prepared for the 1847–1849 British Overland Franklin Search Expedition. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

In my excitement to learn more about the Government of Canada’s efforts to recover objects from the Erebus and the ongoing search to find her sister ship, the HMS Terror, I thought I would share some photos and thoughts from my recent visit to some British museums with exhibitions about Franklin and his final Arctic voyage.

While in England this September to attend a conference, I took the opportunity to visit both the National Maritime Museum in the London borough of Greenwich and The Polar Museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. These institutions hold significant collections of documents, equipment and photographs relating to Sir John Franklin and his Arctic voyages (he had visited the Arctic three times prior to the 1845 expedition, twice before having been in Canadian Arctic territory), and the objects that I saw on display set me to pondering the cultural and historical impact of Franklin’s fateful final journey.

A metal and wood tool.

Inuit snow knife constructed of materials salvaged from either the Erebus or the Terror following their abandonment. The handle is formed from part of a chair leg. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

Two porcelain figurines.

Decorative figurines of Sir John and Lady Franklin in the National Maritime Museum. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

At the National Maritime Museum, I was disappointed to discover that the old Explorers Gallery—which included an entire section devoted to Franklin—had just recently been permanently closed. An exhibit case in a hall near the main entrance, however, still had a small collection of Franklin-related objects on display. These artifacts were incorporated into an exhibition whose theme is emotion, particularly the emotions that one might experience in relation to maritime history and the exploration of the oceans. The Franklin material was chosen to represent love—not the emotion I believe most people would initially come up with when thinking of Franklin’s lost expedition.

Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, however, was tireless in her efforts to support searches for her missing husband, and it is her devotion, determination and hope that earned the Franklin story a place in the display as a focus for love.

The framed flag hanging on a wall.

This flag was embroidered by Lady Jane Franklin and given to one of the search missions sent to the Canadian Arctic in the hope of finding Sir John Franklin and his crew alive. This is the final object one sees upon passing by the Franklin display. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

This unexpected categorization of the Franklin expedition prompted me to think about the many views and reactions concerning Franklin, a man whose life, even in his own day, was one of certain contrasts.

A medal in a display case.

John Franklin was appointed to the knighthood as a Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order. The National Maritime Museum displays the star awarded to Franklin upon receiving this title in 1836, which he brought with him on his 1845 voyage, the medal subsequently having been obtained from the Inuit hunters who recovered it. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

As governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), he was politically considered to have been a poor bureaucrat and leader, and yet the people of the island respected both him and his wife for their charity and attempts to reform the governance of the penal colony. In the years following his disappearance, many saw Franklin as a symbol of bravery and heroism, and yet some came to regard his story as a tale of hubris and failure. In the 21st century, the final Franklin expedition is often framed as one of adventure and mystery.

For me, the various facets of Sir John Franklin’s life and the cultural mythos built around it all in their own way capture a part of the picture.

Why don’t you come out and join us on October 8 at the museum to find out which emotions and thoughts come to the forefront for you?

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Ecology of the Forest Floor: Ground Beetles and Habitat Health

by James Darling and Shan Leung

Ever notice those little black beetles scurrying across the ground? They’re called ground beetles (Carabidae family) and believe it or not, they are very important little insects.

Before earthworms were introduced to North America via horticultural trade from Europe in the 18th century, ground beetles were the primary soil-churners responsible for mixing nutrients and contributing to floral diversity. Even today, there are parts of North America (generally toward 60° latitude) where earthworms have not reached, so the soil is still churned by beetles. Some ground beetles act as biological indicators: their presence or absence provides insight into the health of an ecosystem.

A man holds an uprooted plant outside while another looks on.

We—Environmental Monitoring Programme students James Darling (left) and Shan Leung (right)—have been surveying ground beetles on the Canadian Museum of Nature’s 76 hectare wetland property in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau, Quebec.
Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our surveying involves collecting using five pitfall traps, which consist of an acrylic glass strip laid on its side and a plastic container embedded in the ground on either end. Once collected, beetles are pinned, identified and stored in the museum’s collections.

Our overall objective is to document which beetle species live in the various habitats that are found on the museum grounds: forest, wetlands, meadows, etc. We also want to monitor what changes in the beetle species we can observe as those habitats naturally evolve—meadows becoming forests, for example.

Several insects float in a small tub sunk into the ground.

Our traps work by guiding beetles along Plexiglas and into pitfalls/cups filled with propylene glycol (which kills and preserves the beetles). This particular trap contains several bronze carabids. Image: James Darling © Canadian Museum of Nature

Carabus nemoralis: The Bronze Carabid

Early on, we noticed that one species in particular was filling our traps disproportionately. This species is the bronze carabid (Carabus nemoralis), a European ground beetle that was first recorded in North America approximately 150 years ago.

Since its accidental introduction to North America (again in the 18th century via European settlers), the bronze carabid has spread as far north as Quebec and as far south as California, U.S.A. There are species in the same genus that are native to North America, seven of which can be found in Ontario and Quebec.

Illustration of a bronze carabid.

The bronze carabid is completely flightless; this beetle spends literally all of its time on the ground. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Despite dozens and dozens of bronze carabid specimens collected over the past summer, only one specimen of a native Carabus species was found. Could it be that the bronze carabid is displacing native species by outcompeting them for food or other resources?

The bronze carabid’s success in North America might be attributed to its skills as a hunter. Members of genus Carabus prey on slugs and are specially adapted for detecting mucus trails. Some slugs are agricultural pests that consume large portions of crops, but with the help of the bronze carabid, we may be able to control slug infestations. So despite its invasive nature, the bronze carabid could be an effective biological control for keeping our crops slug-free.

Highlights from Summer 2015

Three men pause in the water while holding a net.

The Environmental Monitoring Programme team in 2015: left: Shan Leung; centre: Noel Alfonso, who runs the programme; right: James Darling. Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature

Bronze carabid numbers throughout May, June and August were high. Quite often we would collect as many as a dozen specimens from a single trap!

Interestingly, we collected hardly any bronze carabids throughout July. This is because July represents the time between the death of the adult beetle and the complete metamorphosis of their larvae.

Bronze carabids overwinter as adults and become active again in April or May to reproduce. These adults produce larvae in June and by July are all dead. Larvae emerge as adults in August, which explains the sudden reappearance that we observed.

It is worth noting that our pitfall traps were not selective: we have never exclusively found ground beetles in our traps. Usually it’s other ground-dwelling insects that find their way into our traps, but every now and then we come across mammalian or amphibian by-catch.

Over the course of the summer, we have accidentally caught three shrews, four voles, five wood frogs, six American toads and one blue-spotted salamander. Next summer, we can prevent by-catch by covering the pitfalls with a wire mesh: this will limit the size of what can fall into our traps.

But should we prevent by-catch? Of course, one could argue for the sake of limiting our impact on local biodiversity, but by-catch from the beetle traps is our only source of vertebrate specimens. It is because of our beetle traps that we found a vole species that had not been recorded previously on the property!

Overall, we had a successful summer of beetle collecting, having added more than 1000 specimens to the existing Environmental Monitoring Program beetle collection. Approximately 400 of these specimens are ground beetles, representing twenty one species. Once all the data has been organized and all the numbers have been crunched, we will have a clearer picture of the local biodiversity and the shape it’s in.

A man walks in a forest.

James Darling on a weekly excursion. Image: Shan Leung © Canadian Museum of Nature

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It’s Not Every Day You Get to Fly Over a New Dinosaur Museum!

There’s a new reason to take the short drive along Alberta’s Highway 43 from Grande Prairie to the community of Wembley—a wonderful new dinosaur museum anchored by a bone bed filled with fossil treasure.

The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum hosted an open house on September 3, 2015 and welcomed more than 2,000 visitors. I witnessed the wonder and pride experienced by the young—and the young at heart—who wanted to be part of something new and exciting.

Visitors in a hall of the museum.

One of the exhibition halls of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. The museum just recently welcomed its first visitors. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Named after Dr. Philip Currie, Canada’s leading palaeontologist, the new museum honours his lifelong commitment to the discovery and study of palaeo-heritage.

What is interesting, however, is the role played by a school teacher in the museum’s creation. As noted on the museum’s website: “Al Lakusta stumbled upon something exciting while out on a nature walk one day at Pipestone Creek. His findings that day in 1974 would eventually be identified as bones of a yet to be discovered species Pachyrhinosaurus – a type of horned dinosaur, which subsequently was re-christened Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai after Lakusta.”

Palaeontologists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, including Dr. Currie, eventually examined that same area and realized there were thousands of bones in a massive bone bed. This rich site has become a treasure trove of fossil finds that eventually inspired the creation of the new museum.

A woman sitting in a helicopter signals with her hand.

Here I am in the helicopter, ready to fly over the bone bed. An exciting journey! Image: © Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum

While the fossils are the main draw, the museum is also an impressive piece of architecture designed by Teeple Architects in conjunction with Architecture Tkalcic Bengert. The elegant modern design provides wonderful natural light, interesting angles, and warmth from the extensive use of wood in the public spaces. This building was also one of the fastest design/build/install projects that the museum world knows of!

Aerial view of a building in construction.

Aerial view of the brand new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, erected in Wembley, Alberta. Image: © Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum

In addition to the state-of-the-art displays, the museum opening featured a travelling exhibition called Ice Age Mammals—created and toured by the Canadian Museum of Nature in collaboration with members of the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada. The temporary exhibit space was packed and so I am confident it is a welcome addition to the museum’s permanent displays.

An exhibition specimen.

A display from the Ice Age Mammals travelling exhibition. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

This gem of a museum is certainly worth a trip to the Grande Prairie area any time of year. I encourage any visitor to take advantage of the helicopter tours of the nearby Pipestone Creek bone bed. These offer an amazing way to view both the museum and the bone bed that inspired its creation.

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