Bioblitz: Nature Nuts Combine Forces

Saturday, June 11 at 10 a.m., the beginning of another Ontario Bioblitz weekend: exhibitors set up kiosks, registration volunteers cross off names, and signs pinned around the site draw blitzers who are crazy about plants, insects, fish, or lichens—or any in a long list of categories of living things—to more of their own kind.

Dozens of people stand in a loose group.

In their official t-shirts, bioblitz participants (gathering here for the opening ceremonies) are recognizable wherever they’re working in the watershed. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Their goal this year is to count as many species as possible in 10 sites of the Credit River watershed—most managed by Credit Valley Conservation—in just 24 hours.

A map of the Credit River Watershed.

The watershed running from the Orangeville area south to Lake Ontario, via Mississauga. Image: © Ontario BioBlitz 2016

The nature nuts cluster eagerly around maps, interrupting their planning to welcome newcomers. Despite sharing a sign with a horde of 50 botanists interested in flowers, trees and ferns, the four* members of the bryophyte (moss and liverwort) team manage to assemble in kind.

A sign that says "Ontario BioBlitz Plants & Bryophytes".

Signs posted around the bioblitz site help naturalists with various interests find their teams. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Then a kick-off ceremony: a sea of matching t-shirts surveilled by a swarm of camera drones. And then, people scatter.

The bryophyte team, which edged impatiently toward the car during the speeches, bee-lines from Blitz HQ to its first site. Once we’re out of the car and into the trees, our focus turns to the hunt, and everything slows down.

A man kneels in a forest making notes on a paper bag.

Allan Aubin, a bryologist from Simcoe, Ontario, makes notes on a collection bag just minutes after the blitz begins. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

People who study moss take a lot of flak for their laborious rate of speed, but when 10 or more species can grow together on a single log, it’s impossible to travel quickly and notice them all (and if you think that we are slow, wait ’til you see the lichenologists).

We’re on a particular mission at the Credit Blitz: certain rare species were recorded in the watershed 60 to 120 years ago, according to specimens in collections such as the National Herbarium of Canada.

Composite: Two herbarium-sheet labels.

Two labels from our herbarium specimens dating from 1892 (top) and 1941 (bottom). Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Whether or not those rare species are still around can reveal a lot about how their ecosystems are faring as the landscape changes, and help conservation experts know more about the resources they manage. With this in mind, we’re especially vigilant.

Leanne Wallis, a biologist with Credit Valley Conservation and a member of the bioblitz moss crew, has armed us with historical research (just where would botanists get off the train from Toronto in 1941, anyway?), lists of species known for the area, and a roster of promising sites.

A woman sits on a tree root in a forest.

Biologist Leanne Wallis (Credit Valley Conservation) knows the watershed and its many species inside out! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

At noon on Sunday, time’s up! Even at our studious pace, we record over 100 species, and parcel away dozens that we’ll need to examine under the microscope before the list is complete. It’s the most bryophyte species we’ve counted at the Ontario Bioblitz since it started in the Rouge watershed, where it will return in 2017.

People pose in and beside a decorative fountain.

Working together after the main event, the blitz moss team (joined on this occasion by Credit Valley Conservation biologist David d’Entremont) poses by a mossy fountain before parting ways ’til next year. Left to right: Leanne Wallis, Jennifer Doubt, David d’Entremont, Allan Aubin, Linda Ley. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

In fact, the Ontario BioBlitz Program, along with national partners including the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada, plan to launch a national bioblitz network in 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday—including one hosted by your Canadian Museum of Nature. Stay tuned for details!

*In 2013 we had our record of eight. You are invited to join us… if you can take the (glacial) pace!

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

All Fired Up!

As the administrative assistant for Research and Collections, I work with a group of scientists, research assistants, curators, collection managers and collection technicians at Canada’s national natural-history museum. My job is never boring. It actually keeps me on my toes and I learn something new every day.

A while ago, I wrote a blog article about my adventure in the field with the assistant curator of mineralogy. This time, I thought I’d share my adventure at a firing range.

A man aims a rifle while another looks on.

Noel Alfonso practices with a .45/70 lever-action rifle. Alan McDonald, a technician for our palaeontology collections and our firearms safety officer, stands by. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

What’s an administrative assistant of the Canadian Museum of Nature doing at a firing range? For that matter, what’s a group of scientists doing at a firing range?

I’m getting first-hand knowledge and experience on how to prepare for field work in the Canadian Arctic. Our botany team is heading out to Arviat, Nunavut, for four weeks to collect plant specimens and learn more about the biodiversity of Canadian Arctic. Their field studies are part of our large project called the Canadian Arctic Flora. Two more scientists are preparing for the 2016 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition.

Besides the endless paperwork for permits to collect specimens in the Arctic, the food preparations for a team of five, field-gear purchases, and first aid and wilderness training, there are also gun-safety requirements.

Knowledge of gun safety is important because when scientists work in the field in the Arctic, they become part of the food web; they have to be prepared to protect themselves from polar bears. After successfully taking a firearms course and obtaining a gun permit from the RCMP, practising how to properly use a firearm is a must.

Men standing at tables take aim while others observe.

Left to right: Mark Graham, Troy McMullin, Paul Sokoloff and Geoff Levin practising at the firing range. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

So on a hot Friday afternoon, I drove out to the firing range and met up with my colleagues who are preparing for this part of their field work. I signed in and was equipped with safety glasses and ear protection. My colleague and our Safety Officer Alan McDonald showed me how to load and unload a pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun. The phrase “red is dead”—referring to a red dot near the trigger—still sticks in my head to help me remember when the gun’s safety switch is on/off.

I practiced a few rounds using birdshot (a type of load for a shotgun shell), and then moved to slugs (the load used for bear protection).

Men approach their targets, which stand in front of a hill.

Left to right: Kieran Shepherd, Mark Graham, Paul Sokoloff, Troy McMullin, Geoff Levin, Alan McDonald and Noel Alfonso checking the targets after a practice round. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

My aim seemed to be way off. I shot too high, then too much to the left. The shotgun had a mighty kick and left my shoulder red, which progressed into a lovely purple bruise.

I tried the .45/70 lever-action rifle. It’s another popular gun choice for self defense against bears. It had less kick than the shotgun. I put my elbow on the table in front of me to steady my arm and help my aim.

After the practice round was over, I put the gun down with the action open and walked the 25 yards to view my target. It didn’t have a single mark on it! I needed more practise, but wasn’t sure my shoulder could take it.

A sheet of paper printed with a grid and some text.

My target sheet. 🙁 Not a mark on it . Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

When I signed out from the range later that afternoon, I left knowing a little more about what goes on in Research and Collections at the museum and what it takes to do research in the vast North of Canada. I have new admiration and respect for my colleagues.

Posted in Tools of the trade | Tagged | 2 Comments

Museum Metabolism

One of my favourite descriptions of natural history museums is as “organisms that ingest and never excrete” [1]. At times, this biological metaphor underscores the curse of museum curators and administrators who continually try to find space for growing collections; yet this definition doesn’t tell the whole story.

All museums collect, but there is much, much more that goes on. Let’s review some natural history museum basics. Each year, scientists discover and describe about 15 000 new species of plants and animals [2], and about 100 new minerals [3].

In 2015, the scientists at the Canadian Museum of Nature described 34 new species.

A mineral specimen.

The main crystal in this image is the new mineral arisite-(Ce). It was discovered by museum researchers Paula Piilonen, Joel Grice, Ralph Rowe and Bob Gault. It is from the Aris carbonatite in Namibia in June 2010. The field of view is 2 mm. Co-author William Lechner took the photo. Read the paper. Image: William Lechner © William Lechner

Every discovery and investigation is based on finding the best example for the species, often the first one found—the type specimen. For the new species to be accepted by the scientific community, the description has to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and the type specimen must be stored safely in a museum collection.

In addition to the type specimen, there are often many other specimens of the same species that are collected at the same time and place. These good examples are often presented to other museums to share the knowledge and for safe keeping. In addition to the essential “ingestions” of type material by natural history museums, other specimens are deposited in the collections to establish the findings of thousands of scientific studies from all over the world.

Natural history collections grow, all the time. Based on an ongoing survey done by the Canadian Museum of Nature, the collections of 17 major natural history museums in Canada increased from 35 million to nearly 38 million from 2014–2015.

Bob Anderson digs in a forest floor.

Museum entomologist Robert Anderson recently searched through the leaf litter in Cuba to discover new species of beetles, especially weevils, his specialty. Bob has discovered and described dozens of new species during his career. Image: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

As one of the institutions in the survey, the Canadian Museum of Nature acquired 435 000 of those specimens. The data associated with those specimens are freely available to the science community.

Specimens That Travel

The ingestion part of the story is huge. And it is true that we as museums rarely “excrete” or get rid of specimens, but it does happen in limited amounts and under controlled conditions. Our specimens are regularly used in the research done by our staff, by dozens of scientists and students that visit us each year, and through loans to other research institutions.

Last year we sent out 38 loans throughout Canada and an additional 56 to 12 other countries. A total of 5300 specimens that were ingested by us went on the road to be used in other studies, most of which will eventually be sent back.

A woman stands working at a table with herbarium sheets.

Micheline Bouchard (now retired) is seen here preparing botanical material for loan. This activity happens regularly in our herbarium. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Even though we go to great lengths to conserve our collection for as long as possible, some parts are used in destructive ways for research that adds to our understanding of the natural world.

For example, we often use a tiny part of plant or animal specimens for DNA analysis, one of our powerful tools to help identify and describe our specimens. Pieces of other tissues such as bones, feathers and scales, and pieces of fossils are used in studies to determine age, the level of contaminants or other elements that tell a story about ecological significance. In other cases, fragments of minerals are often taken from specimens to define crystal structures and chemical composition.

A woman sits working at a table with a specimen on it.

Museum volunteer Carol German samples the feathers from an Eider Duck for stable isotope analysis. The process generates valuable data, but destroys the sample. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

While all of those examples don’t exactly equate to museum “excretion” in our biological model, you can at least see that the description of the normal, healthy, dynamic museum has an active metabolism.

Many examples of our steady diet of specimens are on display at the museum, including our most recent meal, Judith the dinosaur (Spiclypeus shipporum). Information about the other parts of our collection can be found at, the museum’s website, in the Research and Collections section.


[1] Keene, S. 2005. Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections. Oxford: Elsevier, Butterworth-Heinemann.

[2] Thomson Reuters. 2016. Index to Organism Names (ION). Data gathered from the Zoological Record. Website consulted on June 20, 2016.

[3] International Mineralogical Association. 2016. List of Minerals.

Posted in Collections, Species Discovery and Change, Tools of the trade | Tagged | Leave a comment

Summertime Fieldwork in Canada’s Accessible Arctic

Everyone has a summertime ritual. Some go to the beach; others soak up the sun on a patio. Our botany team, as usual (2014, 2015), will pack up our plant presses and head north in search of Arctic plants.

This year finds us traveling to the community of Arviat. Their tourism motto is “Canada’s Accessible Arctic” and true enough, this Hudson Bay hamlet is Nunavut’s southernmost mainland community and a relatively short hop north from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A map showing the Arviat area and a map showing Canada and Greenland.

The community of Arviat sits on a small peninsula on the west coast of Hudson Bay (inset map). The site proposed for Nuvuk Territorial Park (roughly outlined by the orange box) occupies the eastern half of this peninsula. Image: © 2015, IBCAO, Landsat, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO; map data © 2015 Google (modified by P.C. Sokoloff)

Just outside of Arviat is the currently proposed Nuvuk Territorial Park. This park will protect a wide range of habitats, from coastal shorelines to freshwater ponds and shrub tundra, which, in turn, likely harbours a diverse flora.

Five people smile at the camera.

caption The Arviat field team. Left to right: Lynn Gillespie, Troy McMullin, Sam Godfrey, Geoff Levin and Paul Sokoloff. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

This year’s expedition team, including museum botanist Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., research associate Geoff Levin, Ph.D., lichenologist Troy McMullin, Ph.D., grad student Sam Godfrey, and myself will catalogue the vascular plant and lichen diversity of Nuvuk to provide park managers with a comprehensive baseline inventory.

A field of cottongrass.

Cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) sways in the wind near Arviat, Nunavut. Image: Mike Beauregard © Mike Beauregard (CC-BY-2.0)

Unlike many previous expeditions, this year we will be primarily based out of Arviat, staying in a research station owned by the Nunavut Research Institute. This will give us the chance to work closely with both Nunavut Parks and members of the community—an amazing opportunity to learn from and share knowledge with Nunavummiut (the people of Nunavut).

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Mammoth, Mammoth, Tusked and Hairy, How Does Your Garden Grow?

With the recent opening of the Landscapes of Canada Gardens on the museum’s property, visitors to the Canadian Museum of Nature now have the opportunity to explore some of the diverse plant communities that characterize the Great White North. One component of the gardens, though, is seemingly incongruous. While strolling along the pathway, you will eventually encounter three woolly mammoths!

Three woolly mammoth sculptures in a park.

First appearing on the museum’s grounds in 1987, these woolly mammoth sculptures have an interesting history that will be the subject of my next blog. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

There are no mammoths wandering the Canadian tundra or woodlands today, so it’s understandable to question what these animals are doing in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens. The life-size replicas surround a very special component—in their midst is a narrow bed of plants that represent species that once grew on the mammoth steppe, an Ice Age ecosystem with features of both steppe and tundra environments. One of the best fossil records documenting this prehistoric biome is found in the Yukon, which 25,000 years ago was a very different place.

The shadow of a woolly mammoth beside a bed of plants.

The planting bed of the mammoth steppe section in the morning sun. It is partially covered by the shadow of the ever-vigilant male woolly mammoth. Only recently planted, the grasses and flowers are not yet fully established. The bed will be expanded in the future to occupy the space in the background now overgrown with ornamental wheat and local weeds. Image : Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

While most of Canada was under massive ice sheets, parts of Ice Age Yukon remained open terrain comprising a mosaic of grasslands, rocky tundra, and arid scrublands.

A map shows vegetation zones during the the Ice Age.

This world map displays the primary vegetation zones during the Last Glacial Maximum (25,000-18,000 years ago). Ice sheets are in grey, with surrounding areas representing wetter (light pink) and drier (dark blue) regions of the mammoth steppe. It stretched from Europe and Asia into North America via the Bering Land Bridge—representing the largest terrestrial biome during the Ice Age. © Credit : Nicolas Ray and Jonathan M. Adams (CC BY 3.0).

Colder, drier, and with deeper soils, the moss carpets that cover much of the present-day tundra were largely absent as were sizeable trees, but numerous graminoids (grasses and sedges) and low-growing forbs (non-graminoid herbaceous plants) were present. Patches of woody shrubs and isolated stands of stunted trees would also have dotted the landscape.

An artist’s illustration shows animals in a mammoth steppe landscape.

Artist’s reconstruction of the mammoth steppe in northern Spain. The landscape and animals would have been similar in North America, minus the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), whose range was restricted to Eurasia. The massive glaciers of the Ice Age altered patterns of wind flow and atmospheric moisture levels to create a zone that was drier than modern tundra and colder during the winter than the steppes of central Asia. Yukon during the Ice Age experienced frigid winter temperatures but received less snowfall. In contrast, the summer seasons were often warmer, saw less cloud cover, and had greater depths of thaw above the permafrost. This resulted in a longer growing season and a deeper sediment base in which plants could set their roots. © Mauricio Anton (CC BY 2.5).

The widespread grasses and nutritious forbs supported herds of large herbivorous mammals such as the Yukon horse (Equus ferus lambei), steppe bison (Bison priscus), and of course the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

View of an Iceland Poppy in the garden.

More than 250 species of plants have been identified in the fossil record for the mammoth steppe, including this beautiful Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) in our mammoth steppe garden. Forbs such as this had a significant presence on the landscape. They were more nutritious than grass, allowing a diversity of large herbivorous mammals to thrive during the Ice Age. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These hairy elephants in particular played an important role as a keystone species, which is an animal whose behaviour strongly affects the structure of an ecosystem. The mammoth’s foraging activity and movements across the landscape likely contributed to the conditions necessary for maintaining the mammoth steppe as a distinct environment. The woolly mammoth can therefore truly be regarded as a gardener of sorts!

We can thus complete my alteration of a popular English nursery rhyme (“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”) and answer the question posed in the title of this post:

Tufted hairgrass.

Woolly mammoths once grazed on graminoid plants such as this tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), whose remains have been recovered from the digestive tract of frozen woolly mammoth mummies. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Mammoth, mammoth, tusked and hairy,
How does your garden grow?
With forbs for lunch, no moss to munch,
And tufted grass my trunk shall mow.

As a natural history museum, we take the long view on things, with our perspectives gazing out from the present to both the past and the future. The mammoth steppe display highlights the fact that ecosystems are dynamic and constantly evolving. Keeping this in mind will help visitors to the Landscapes of Canada Gardens better appreciate our modern countryside in learning about its history and in wondering about its future.

Photo of a modern steppe environment in Russia.

Although the mammoth steppe disappeared with the continental ice sheets as the Ice Age came to a close, some environments today bear a close resemblance, such as this high-altitude steppe of the Tuva Republic, Russian Federation. © Butorin (CC BY 4.0)

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Exhibitions | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ultimate Dinosaurs: Like Problems Inspire Like Solutions

In my last blog article, I hinted at the upcoming Ultimate Dinosaurs special exhibition here at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Today I’m excited to officially announce its opening—from June 11 to September 5, 2016.

The exhibition features dinosaurs from the southern hemisphere, many of which may appear strange and alien to our North American eyes.

One hundred and forty-five million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea divided into two landmasses: a northern one called Laurasia and a southern one called Gondwana. Ultimate Dinosaurs tells the story of dinosaur evolution on Gondwana.

Gondwana continued to divide into the continents we know today (namely, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica). During the subsequent 80 million years or so, dinosaur populations became increasingly isolated as the continents drifted apart, and evolution followed a very different path on each one.

A map.

Map of Earth as it appeared 150 million years ago, as Laurasia and Gondwana were beginning to separate from one another. Image: © Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.

The result was a diverse panoply of creatures that exhibit an endless array of bizarre adaptations. But the southern forms weren’t entirely devoid of analogues here in the northern hemisphere. In many cases, distantly related, yet similar-looking animals occupied both halves of the globe, a bit like North American placental wolves and Australian marsupial wolves of the modern era.

Take, for example, the South American Austroraptor and North American Utahraptor. Both dinosaurs were about the size of a large bear, and yet they appear to have evolved their large size independently, perhaps in response to hunting increasingly large prey on their respective continents.

Their earliest common ancestor was nearer in size to a dog—hardly something we’d consider terrifying today. But the large size, rapid speed, and killer claws of Austroraptor and Utahraptor would have made these animals feared in their time (and maybe a little today, too!).

Composite: Two photos of mounted dinosaur skeletons.

Austroraptor (left) and Utahraptor (right) were only distantly related raptor dinosaurs, yet they evolved large body size independently. Images: Jordan Mallon, Jim Kirkland © Canadian Museum of Nature

Another example of evolutionary convergence is between the North American tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus and the South American abelisaurid Carnotaurus. Both predators were massive (exceeding 9 m in length), had deep skulls that were reinforced for biting prey, and dinky little arms.

In fact, the arms were so small that many palaeontologists consider them to have been useless. It seems that both these carnivores independently concentrated their killing power in their skull, and their arms, which were once used for prey dispatch, dwindled away from inactivity. Use it or lose it, fellas!

Composite: Two photos of mounted dinosaur skeletons.

Carnotaurus (left) and Daspletosaurus (right; collection #CMNFV8605) were separated by thousands of kilometres and millions of years of evolution, but both converged on similar body plans with deep skulls and highly reduced arms. Images: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

Finally, consider the North American hadrosaurid Edmontosaurus and the South American sauropod Nigersaurus. Really, these animals are from opposite sides of the dinosaur family tree and look nothing like each other. But look closer: they both have an unusually wide muzzle for cropping low-growing plants.

In the case of Edmontosaurus, the muzzle consisted of a horny beak; in Nigersaurus, it was a battery of straight, pencil-like teeth. With their faces pointed at the ground, each herbivore could easily decimate large swaths of herbage in record time, which is an important adaptation when you consider the large body they needed to feed.

Composite: Two photos of dinosaur skulls.

Similar low-cropping habits led to the independent evolution of square muzzles in the sauropod Nigersaurus (left) and the hadrosaurid Edmontosaurus (right; collection #CMNFV2288). Images: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

I can’t stress enough what a great exhibition this is. You can travel to no other place in the northern hemisphere to see this same parade of bizarre creatures.

If you’re anywhere near Ottawa this summer, be sure drop by the Canadian Museum of Nature to treat your eyeballs to Ultimate Dinosaurs. You may have to wait another geological age for this opportunity to come again.

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The “Martian” Flora: Extreme Life in Extreme Environments

While the first human visitors to Mars will certainly searching for evidence of past or present life on the red planet, likely by drilling into rocks in search of microscopic signs of life, the lack of vascular plants means that future astronauts won’t be packing a plant press in their capsule.

A man in a space suit walks in front of a rock face.

Crew 143 commander Paul Knightly walks through tall stands of rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Still, even in the most Mars-like environments here on Earth, such as at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southeastern Utah, USA, you can find a wide variety of vascular plants, lichens, algae and even fungi.

Documenting this diverse flora can help us understand these Martian analogs better, so when I spent two weeks in a simulated Martian mission at MDRS back in 2014, I focused each one of my “spacewalks” on collecting a wide range of “Martian” plants.

A plant growing in a rocky landscape.

The green ephedra (Ephedra viridis) is common in the deserts of Utah. The tough, jointed stems can be boiled to make tea. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

This study, recently published in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal, yielded 38 vascular plant species, 13 different lichens, six taxa of terrestrial algae and a mushroom. No doubt, if we had stayed till December we would have found the Martian equivalent of a partridge in a pear tree as well.

A large plant and several smaller ones grow in a rocky landscape with hills in the distance.

The flora of the Mars Desert Research Station includes alien invaders as well, like this introduced saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Utah contains approximately 3000 vascular plant taxa spread across a wide range of habitats, from the hot Mohave desert to cool alpine tundra. The cool deserts of southeast Utah, which do resemble Mars (if you ignore the plants, which I clearly did not), possess many plant species adapted to the dry conditions, from prickly-pear cacti (species of Opuntia) to a wide range of asters (Asteraceae family).

A boulder with lichen.

Crustose lichens, like Acarospora strigata (the white patches on the sandstone boulder pictured), are a common sight around MDRS thanks to adaptations allowing them to thrive in harsh environments. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lichens are well suited to life in the harsh desert environment. They are adapted to resist drying out and to resist the harsh UV radiation of the sun. These tough, slow-growing organisms are important members of the local biota; the 13 species that we found in our study are certainly a small sample of what is definitely a diverse lichen flora.

Two algae cells seen through a microscope.

Even when hiding from the desert sun inside sandstone soil crusts, endolithic algae, like the Trebouxia pictured here, rely on thick, gelatinous cell walls to prevent moisture loss. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

Conversely, terrestrial algae and cyanobacteria hide inside of desert rocks to beat the heat, surviving on whatever sunlight is transmitted through their sheltering stone. These species, and other microbial endoliths (rock dwellers), are excellent model systems for biologists searching out past or present Martian life. By identifying how these organisms alter the rocks they live in, astrobiologists can identify if these particular changes (called biomarkers) exist in Martian rocks.

A mushroom specimen.

Desert fungi (like the Tulostoma pictured here) are an important component of biological soil crusts – living, interconnected communities of fungi, algae, lichens, and bryophytes common in the Utah deserts. These fungi only produce mushrooms, their reproductive structures, when conditions are just right. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

While humans on Mars is still a few decades off, researchers from across the globe will continue to visit MDRS in preparation for that next great step. Hopefully, this study will prove to be a useful reference for biologists and Mars-hopefuls in Utah for some time to come.

Read the entire “Martian” flora, with over 40 photos of the plants, lichens, algae and fungi.

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Northern Plants in the Capital: Mer Bleue Bog

There’s no escaping the sun out on the boardwalk of Mer Bleue Bog. The leaves of stunted paper birch and tamarack provide little shade. So I’ll admit I was a little worried when I was slated to lead a Field Botanists of Ontario Hike there on a hot and muggy Saturday in May, when the temperature soared to 31°C.

My concerns were unfounded though, as the experienced participants showed up well prepared for a day in the sun. We thoroughly enjoyed the hike around the bog, braving the decidedly hot conditions in order to view Mer Bleue’s unique plants, many of which are normally found only in the boreal forest, and some of which can even be found in the Arctic.

Mer Bleue Bog, located in Ottawa's Greenbelt, is designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Mer Bleue Bog, located in Ottawa’s Greenbelt, is designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Mer Bleue is a large peat bog in Ottawa’s east end, and my go-to spot when I’m looking for a botanical change of scenery. The surrounding conservation area is laced with hiking trails through maple (Acer sp.) and aspen (Populus sp.) forests and an old red-pine (Pinus resinosa) plantation. A boardwalk takes visitors out into the heart of the bog itself. This is where you can really see the northern plants; the acidic bog conditions are similar to environments further north, such as near Hudson Bay.

Botanical diversity at Mer Bleue comes in many shapes and sizes, from the half hidden, ruby-coloured sundew (Drosera rotundifolia, upper left), to tall tamaracks (Larix laricina, right) standing sentinel over the hummocks, and to colourful sprays of black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, lower left). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Out on the bog, black spruce (Picea mariana) and heathlands (shrublands made up of members of the blueberry family) are common, but peat mosses (Sphagnum sp.) dominate the hummocky landscape, dotted with various other moss species.

Peat mosses (Sphagnum sp., upper right) are critically important to bog ecosystems. There are a variety of mosses at Mer Bleue, including neon moss (Aulacomnium sp., lower right) and the common haircap (Polytrichum commune, left). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

White cottongrasses (Eriophorum vaginatum) evoke Arctic sedge meadows. Bog rosemary, which bears delicate pink bells, was recently found for the first time in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Sedges (Cyperaceae family), are common on the hummocks—drier, raised sections within the peat—of Mer Bleue. Our group observed dense cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum, upper left), few-seeded sedge (Carex oligosperma, right) and meagre sedge (Carex exilis, lower left). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Members of the blueberry family (Ericaceae), seen here, are adapted to acidic environments such as peat bogs. Common species seen at Mer Bleue include bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia, upper left), leatherleaf (Chamaedaphe calyculata, upper right), and the velvet-leaved blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides, lower). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Mer Bleue is a unique site in the capital and a botanical gem in the Ottawa area. The next time you find yourself in the area and in need of a quick “Northern” fix, pay it a visit, just like our intrepid Field Botanists.

Cattails (Typha latifolia) are common in the open-water areas around the bog. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Fluorescent orange mushrooms (Mitrula sp.) stud the wet areas of Mer Bleue Bog. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Thanks to Scott Redhead for identification of the Mitrula, and to Cassie Robillard for her help with (and enthusiasm for) mosses.

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

Setting Up House: Acquiring and Caring for Live Beetles

Recently, I had the opportunity to acquire several new species of live beetles for exhibition at the museum.

A close-up view of an Atlas rhinoceros beetle.

This male Atlas rhinoceros beetle (Chalcosoma caucasus) is 11 cm long. Males are usually about twice the size of females, and they have three large horns that are used to fight other males in competition for females. Males that develop in harsh conditions will have much smaller horns, while males in ideal conditions will grow large, fully formed horns. Image: Alex Macdonald © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over a two-year period, I had established contacts with insect breeders from around the globe. There are very few places you can acquire live Atlas rhinoceros beetles or rainbow stag beetles, just to name a few of the species.

Part of the process was fact checking with different zoos, insectariums and museums to see which species work well in captivity and can be acquired ethically. For the exhibition, we wanted not only awesome specimens for display, we wanted something sustainable. The beetles that we chose are all captive-bred from recognized breeders.

An Atlas rhinoceros beetle fills a man's palm.

This male is 11 cm long. A repurposed plastic water bottle makes a good, snug container when shipping Atlas rhinoceros beetles. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the Canadian Museum of Nature, we have a special licence that allows us to have certain species of live insects for display purposes. Under this license, we can apply for import permits and acquire species from other countries.

Finding a method of transportation can be a challenge. You cannot just simply ask the breeder to drop a box in the mail. There has to be a clear trail of documentation from the exporter and the importer. And, most carriers will not carry live cargo unless they are set up for it. That leaves very few options for shipments. Time is of the essence in shipping live beetles.

A beetle clings to a man's fingertips.

One of the rainbow stag beetles (Phalacrognathus muelleri) that we recently took into our care. Not only is it very colourful, it has very sharp, piercing claws. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

So our box is flying over the Pacific Ocean. Now what? Part of the process of selecting species of beetles for display is our ability to maintain the animals so that they can be healthy and possibly reproduce.

Each species has special requirements for its daily life. Of course, it’s important to figure out what each one eats and to make sure that we can get a supply of their food. Temperature, humidity and type of substrate also play a vital role in the beetles’ quality of life.

A beetle (Chalcosoma caucasus) on a piece of wood in its terrarium.

The Atlas rhinoceros beetles seem to like the locally collected apple branches that we put into their new habitats. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

We had to learn how make the substrates for each species. Some beetles prefer lots of decaying hardwood to burrow through, while others prefers compost. Even the moisture content of the media plays a vital role in their health. And we had to be ready before our beetle order arrived.

Shipping can take several days. When an order has arrived, we are notified. For one shipment, I received a phone call from a concerned attendant asking if we could come right away. Upon arriving at the shipping-company office, a number of curious people were wondering what was in the box because it was gently rocking back and forth, and the sound of the beetles scratching at the hard plastic beetle-shipping units inside was very audible.

The peculiarly behaved small box attracted a lot of interest! Folks were glad that I was able to retrieve the box so quickly.

The open cardboard shipping box containing transparent tubes and boxes of individual beetles.

The beetles were able to rock the shipping box despite being confined in individual containers. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

When a shipping box is brought back to our lab, we allow it to acclimatize to the room’s 25°C. By the time we opened the new box, the beetles were active and ready to be free. Each container was inspected for condition and beetle health, and inventoried.

The new houses/habitats were ready for each beetle, and the beetles placed inside. That sounds easy, but the reality is far from it. Every one of the beetles was not only very hungry, they were all very agitated. The sound of claws scratching away on the hard plastic containers was a constant reminder.

A beetle clings to a man's fingers.

This Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules) had no trouble holding on tight by digging its claws into my skin. It was responding defensively, trying to deter any further handling. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Removal of the beetles from the shipping containers proved to be much more challenging than anticipated. Try removing an agitated Hercules beetle that can lift 85 times its own weight from its snug transport container.

Not only are they very strong, they have incredibly sharp claws that hook right into skin. After some gentle manipulation, I was able to place the beetles in their new houses and then feed them their first meal at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

A room with terraria and shelving.

The animal-care lab behind the scenes in the museum. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Come see these beetles and other invertebrates in June 2016 in our new Nature Live zone.

Posted in Animals, Animals in Our Galleries, Exhibitions, Live animals at the museum, Tools of the trade | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dinos of Canada stamps Stampede into Canada Post Outlets

They say bad news comes in threes. That may be so, but good news can come in threes, too. Especially if you’re a dinosaur fan.

Last week, I was happy to announce the latest addition to the Canadian Museum of Nature’s fossil collection: the new horned dinosaur Spiclypeus shipporum. This week, I’m excited to be involved in yet another cool dino-related announcement: the release of Canada Post’s second Dinos of Canada stamp series.

A set of five stamps.

The set of five stamps in the new Dinos of Canada series. Image : © Canada Post.

Once again, I served as the scientific advisor for the stamps. This year, Canada Post and I decided to offer up a more diverse assortment of prehistoric animals, including not just dinosaurs, but also marine reptiles, mammals, and mammal-like reptiles from all parts of our country. Here are this year’s featured creatures.

Cypretherium coarctatum: Hailing from the Saskatchewan of 35 million years ago, Cypretherium coarctatum is a classic case of a face only a mother could love. This pig-like beast had two bony prongs under its chin that likely served some sort of display function. The different-shaped teeth were equally capable of cutting up meat or plants, meaning Cypretherium coarctatum probably wasn’t too fussy about what it ate.

The stamp featuring Cypretherium coarctatum.

The stamp featuring Cypretherium coarctatum. Illustration : Sergey Krasovsky © Canada Post.

Acrotholus audeti: The most recent find on this list, Acrotholus audeti was only discovered in 2008 in Alberta. It is the earliest example of a dome-headed dinosaur (pachycephalosaur), dating back 84 million years. The dome was over two inches thick, and may have allowed the animal to butt heads with its rivals.

The stamp featuring Acrotholus audeti.

The stamp featuring Acrotholus audeti. Illustration: Sergey Krasovsky © Canada Post.

Comox Valley elasmosaur: This animal is still awaiting a scientific name, perhaps because palaeontologists are reluctant to get too near its toothy maw to study it. Elasmosaurs “flew” beneath the ocean somewhat like a penguin, using their large, paddle-like flippers. The long neck stretched up to 7 metres in front of the body. This allowed the elasmosaur to surprise schools of fish from a distance, before the large body of the animal was in sight. The Comox Valley elasmosaur lived in what is now British Columbia, some 83 million years ago.

The stamp featuring the elasmosaur.

The stamp featuring the elasmosaur. Illustration : Sergey Krasovsky © Canada Post.

Dimetrodon borealis: Once mistaken as Canada’s first known dinosaur, this species is now known to be a mammal-like reptile, more closely related to living mammals than to dinosaurs. Why do we think this? One clue is in the teeth, which vary in shape along the animal’s jaw line. Such variation in tooth shape is typical of mammals, but not of dinosaurs. Dimetrodon borealis lived 270 million years ago, in what is now Prince Edward Island.

The stamp featuring the Dimetrodon.

The stamp featuring Dimetrodon borealis. Illustration: Sergey Krasovsky © Canada Post.

Troodon inequalis: A small, swift omnivore that lived in Alberta around 75 million years ago, Troodon inequalis had large eyes for its size. For this reason, it is often thought to have been most active at night. Evidence in support of this hypothesis is that Troodon is most abundant in Arctic locales, where low light regimes dominated for much of the year.

The stamp featuring the Troodon.

The stamp featuring Troodon inequalis. Illustration: Sergey Krasovsky © Canada Post.

So there you have it: the line-up for the latest Dinos of Canada stamp series from Canada Post. Be sure to pick up a set at your nearest Canada Post outlet and join the ranks of « palaeophilately ».

Oberservant readers may have noticed that I mentioned three pieces of good news. So what’s the third? Well, the Ultimate Dinosaurs travelling exhibition is coming to the Canadian Museum of Nature starting June 11. If you haven’t had your fill of dinosaurs after Spiclypeus and the stamps, Ultimate Dinosaurs will be sure to hit the spot. Watch for more about this as the date approaches.

Posted in Animals, Fossils | Tagged , , | 1 Comment