“Skeletons Out of the Closet” at the Museum’s Research and Collections Facility

Every year, the Canadian Museum of Nature hosts a popular open house for the general public at its research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec (Aylmer sector).

The building is several times bigger than the familiar downtown Ottawa museum building, and contains many research laboratories and nature collections.

People look at a mounted mastodon skeleton.

The entrance to the research and collections facility with welcoming Mastodon skeleton. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the open house, curators, scientific staff and volunteers are on hand to answer questions and share their knowledge. There are a number of activities for families with kids. The open house is very popular and typically gets about 3700 attendees.

Major exhibitions include dinosaurs, mammals, insects, minerals, aquatic creatures, botany, DNA and the Arctic. Many amazing and ancient things are revealed to the public.

The following photos document some of the highlights of the latest open house, held in October 2016.

Composite: Large vertebrate skeletons, the skeleton and a model of Tiktaalik roseae, a mounted muskox, dinosaur skulls and bones.

Skeletons out of the closet:
Top left: Some specimens of the museum’s vertebrate zoology collection, with moose, bison and seal skeletons.
Top right: Model of the “fishapod” (Tiktaalik roseae), a 375 million-year-old fossil fish discovered in the Arctic in 2004. It was the first fish species to venture onto land. Kieran Shepard, Curator of the palaeobiology collection, answered questions from attendees.
Bottom left: Two taxidermied muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus). Muskoxen originated in Eurasia, and probably reached North America across the Bering Strait. They are superbly adapted to Arctic conditions by their compact build and thick pelt as well as other adaptations.
Bottom right: Horned-dinosaur skulls and other dinosaur parts.
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Specimens in the fish lab.

An exhibition of aquatic specimens preserved in jars of ethanol. The museum’s fish lab lends out specimens to institutions around the world. As explained by Noel Alfonso, Senior Research Assistant in Zoology, a specimen is removed from its jar, wrapped in cheese cloth, put in a bag and flown to its destination (i.e., “flying fish”). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Rows of insects in a display case.

Do you love the beetle? The museum has hundreds of drawers with thousands of beetles and other varieties of insects collected from around the world. Bob Anderson, Ph.D. and Research Scientist in Zoology, was on hand to answer questions. Enlarged photos of scarab beetles are on display at the museum in downtown Ottawa. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Composite: In each image, a person behind a table with specimens talks to visitors.

Experts answering questions about fossils:
Top left: Palaeontologist Xiao-chun Wu, Ph.D., talks about early dinosaur skulls to some young attendees. Shelves behind hold hundreds of plaster-protected fossils from the field that have yet to be unwrapped.
Top right: Volunteer William McDonald, whose father Alan is a Collection Technician at the museum, describes the procedures involved in preparing fossils. In the foreground is an assembled ancient turtle shell.
Bottom left: Collection Technician Margaret Currie discusses origins of the ice ages and compares woolly mammoths to mastodons and modern elephants.
Bottom right: Research Scientist in Palaeobiology Jordan Mallon, Ph.D., explains a dinosaur skull and claw (and a T. rex skull, not in the photo).
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Composite: A visitor handles a fossil, a man stands beside a giant snail model.

Left: Attendee Ed Gregory handles a 70 million-year-old fossil from a herbivorous ornithopod dinosaur, with the assistance of two museum volunteers. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature
Right: Joe Holmes, a museum volunteer in the diatom lab, stands beside a large snail model in the corridor of the collection and preservation area. In this section, food and drink are banned to avoid attracting insects, which would also eat the collection specimens. Image: Ed Gregory © Canadian Museum of Nature

Composite: Tools, meteorites and a moon rock.

Tools, meteorites and a moon rock:
Left: Scott Rufolo, Ph.D. and Research Assistant in Palaeobiology, discusses archaeological sites in the Arctic, including those of the Franklin Expedition. His table displays prehistoric tools found in the Arctic.
Middle: Museum volunteer Christian Rochford shows off meteorites and a moon rock to curious onlookers.
Right: Plaque with moon rock collected on the Apollo 17 mission to the Taurus-Littrow Valley, plus a Canadian flag that was carried on the same mission. Inscriptions express hope for world peace from the people of America, and a dedication of the plaque to the Canadian people by President Richard Nixon in 1973.
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

View of the DNA lab.

Inside the popular DNA lab: “A fox in a box”. The sign above it shows some DNA sequences that distinguish the red fox from other mammals. Left is Roger Bull, a Senior Research Assistant in Botany, and Coordinator of the Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity. The museum does DNA research on plants, animals, algae and diatoms. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Collections, Education, Fossils, Mammals, Museum Visitors, Our visitors, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Arachnophilia: Spiders of the Museum Research Campus

Spiders are a diverse and amazing group of arthropods comprising the order Araneae. They are not insects. They often elicit strong reactions in people, but injurious spider bites are very rare.

This year, the Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP for short) of the Canadian Museum of Nature began to survey spiders on the 76 hectare property that comprises the museum’s research and collection campus in Gatineau, Quebec. Spiders have very diverse life styles: some dig tunnels, many use webs to catch prey, and some use their silk as a sail to get around. Some species even live under water!

A spider in a spider web.

Orb-weaver spider (Araneidae family) found on the museum’s research and collection campus in Gatineau, Quebec. Image: Carly Casey, Geoff Carter © Canadian Museum of Nature

The EMP students began collecting spiders in addition to continuing to collect beetles. The spiders were collected using the same pitfall traps that we use to collect ground beetles.

Composite: A man holds a sheet in a forest, and a man crouches in a forest o pour liquid into a sunken container.

Geoff Carter examining his sheet after beating the trees (left) and setting a pitfall trap (right) on the museum’s research campus. The pitfall trap, also used to trap beetles, guides the animals along a clear plastic barrier and into cups filled with propylene glycol, which kills and preserves them. Images: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

“Beating” is a second method of spider collecting that we tried out this season. This technique involves holding a sheet beneath a tree and shaking the tree vigorously. Any spiders that fall onto the sheet need to be sucked up quickly using an aspirator. This requires a lot more time and energy than the passive pitfall traps.

There is evidence that spider assemblages change as the environment around them changes. A change in the spider species that are present is reflective of an environmental change in our forest.

Once collected, we preserved our specimens in ethanol and brought them back to the lab for sorting. When trying to identify spider families, there are a few key features that are used. Often, eye arrangement indicates the appropriate family, such as the wolf spider family (Lycosidae), which has four large posterior eyes that form a rectangle if you look from the top, and four much smaller anterior eyes that form a row in front.

Close-up of a spider.

Male wolf spider (Lycosidae family) from a frontal view collected by EMP students in the 2016 field season. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

The crab spider family is easy to recognize by body shape with its longer first and second that resemble those of a crab. Other families can be much trickier to identify, requiring us to count the number of large hairs (macrosetae) on a segment of a specific leg.

Overhead view of a spider.

Male crab spider (Thomisidae family) from dorsal view collected by EMP students in the 2016 field season. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

To identify spiders to species, we would need to look more closely at their genitalia because these structures are very species-specific.

Before mating, males create a web where they deposit their sperm. They then collect the sperm in their secondary genitalia and store it near their head in specialized structures. Called pedipalps, they resemble ornate glasswork or sugar-work and are inserted into the female’s epigynum during mating. The spiders’ genital structures function like a lock-and-key mechanism.

After mating, some males leave in a hurry, leaving a palp behind. This effectively blocks any other males from mating with the female.

Close-up of a pedipalp.

Male fishing spider (Pisauridae family) pedipalp from ventral view collected by EMP students in the 2016 field season. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are over 100 families and 35 000 species of spiders in the world. When you take a closer look under a microscope, you can see how different these species really are.

Spiders may never win everyone’s approval, but now EMP students react with excitement, curiosity and appreciation when they see spiders.

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fieldwork, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Forever Business

One of the oldest and most respected international, non-government organizations that looks out for nature is the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Every four years, the IUCN calls its members together to a World Conservation Congress, and the invitation is extended to anyone else who wishes to contribute to the many activities on the topic of species and habitat conservation.

A building beside water.

The Congress Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, this September, the “anyone else” part of the equation took on significant proportions: 10 000 registered delegates from 184 countries, representing 1300 non-government organizations.

A large room with tables and displays.

Many of the member organizations and others have information booths at the meeting. There are also larger spaces, pavilions that were used for thematic presentations. The Nature for All Pavilion was co-sponsored by the Canadian Museum of Nature and featured activities aimed at engaging youth and others. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Meg Beckel, Robert Anderson and Mark Graham of the Canadian Museum of Nature were at the meeting representing some of our programmes (such as Nature Nocturne) through the Nature for All pavilion and through an electronic poster presentation about the importance of taxonomic research.

A crowd dances indoors.

The museum organized three successful Nature Nocturne events in the Nature for All Pavilion during the meeting. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

We attended meetings of the Commission on Environmental Management as a member of the Arctic Theme, Chaired the Governance Committee of the Assembly and participated in the Member’s Assembly as part of the Canadian Delegation.

View from the audience in an auditorium.

Hundreds of members assemble to make decisions about the operations and governance of the IUCN. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

It is a big, dynamic meeting, and there is a lot to talk about, but one thing said in a session really resonated about the contributions of natural-history museums. Such a large and important meeting attracts high-placed decision makers. One of those was Sally Jewell, the Secretary for the Interior in the United States (in charge of their Geological Survey, National Parks and Land Management). She proclaimed that the US government is now including environmental sustainability as part of its decision-making process, because healthy ecosystem services will ensure our best chance for survival. “We are in the forever business”, was her comment—a very positive step forward and, I dare say, a sign of hope for the future.

Ms. Jewell’s comment reminded me that museums are also in the forever business. If you ask our curators and conservators how long they feel their collections will last once prepared, they will likely say “hundreds of years”. That is as close to forever as you get in most businesses.

And the really interesting part is that those collections, and the data attached to them, are often integral in helping Sally Jewell’s forever business and the many others like it. Natural history collections and the data shared about them are a relevant, dynamic part of the scientific community and the conservation efforts of non-government and government decision-makers.

Composite: Jane Goodall and an on-stage panel discussion.

Jane Goodall addresses the attendees about the importance of engaging young people in nature conservation efforts. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

All that aside, the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress also attracted some enviro-heroes. For example, E. O. Wilson, Ph.D., who coined the term biological diversity, was here to speak to the assembly and demonstrated powerfully that at 87 years old, he is still one of our guiding lights on how to think about these complex issues. We also heard from Jane Goodall, Ph.D., who at the age of 82 is still inspiring young people to care about conservation through the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots and Shoots programme.

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Where in the World Is Snow Grass? Part 2

Be sure to read part one of Where in the World Is Snow Grass?

We continued the search for my little Arctic grasses in Naujaat (previously known as Repulse Bay), a small hamlet in Nunavut that is located directly on the Arctic Circle.

We discovered our first population of ice grass within hours of landing in the community. The plants were considerably larger than those of Arviat and showed more diversity in the habitats in which they were found.

Composite of images showing plant specimens, some being held by a person.

Habitats around Nujaat where we located ice grass:
• top left: a sandy coastal area within the community
• top right: along a gravel road
• bottom left: completely submerged in a little pool on a rock outcrops (an unusual situation likely caused by excessive rain that occurred just prior to our arrival)
• bottom right: at the base of a late-melting snowbed.
Images: Lynn Gillespie, Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

But where was snow grass? Candidate specimens of snow grass from Canada are superficially similar to ice grass, and without a microscope, we were stuck relying on our hand lenses and general observations of plant form and habitat.

We found several plants with stems that grew semi-erect rather than sprawling out along the ground—a trait indicative of snow grass. However, the hand lens revealed what seemed to be typical ice-grass florets.

Composite of images showing a person crouching while taking a photo, and plant specimens.

Ice grass plants of Naujaat:
• top left: the smallest plant we collected
• top middle: the largest plant we observed
• right: showing off the incredible root length of one little plant
• bottom left: a mixed population of bright green plants and purplish plants
• bottom middle: close-up of an inflorescence (the flowering part of the plant).
Images: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

We also searched frost boils (upwellings of mud) out on the tundra, a habitat more suited to snow grass, but came away empty-handed. With growing doubts about the presence of snow grass in Canada, we left Naujaat for our final destination: the capital of Nunavut.

With only three collecting days in Iqaluit, we had to carefully plan which habitats we wanted to target. On the first day, we found several populations of ice grass in disturbed, wet sandy habitats in and around town. Plants were quite large with dense inflorescences (the flowering part of the plant), with nothing standing out as possible snow grass.

Composite of images showing a person crouching while taking a photo, and plant specimens.

The last collection of ice grass we made in Iqaluit:
• left: photographing the population
• middle: a typical plant from that population
• right: close-up of an inflorescence.
Images: Lynn Gillespie, Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The next day, I (reluctantly) wrapped my arms around a researcher I had just met, as we hitched a ride down the Road to Nowhere on the backs of a couple of ATVs. We hiked across hilly tundra, scouring every snowbed and generally wet sandy habitat, but there was neither an ice grass nor snow grass to be found. How could this be?

With time running out, we spent our last day combing the shoreline of the bay just east of Apex, a village near Iqaluit. I was confident we would find more ice grass, at the very least. But as we hiked further and further into the bay, my confidence withered away. Alas, the time had come to head home to Ottawa.

A woman with an exaggerated frown.

Taken after arriving back in Apex, sweaty and with nothing to show for it—this self-portrait is entitled The Saddest Botanist Ever. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

What now? Probably a few long nights crying into a microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass. Luckily, I also have several loans from herbaria around the globe that have already begun to arrive. The loan from Svalbard, Norway, where ice grass and snow grass are morphologically distinct, should be especially invaluable.

I’ll be sequencing several DNA regions of these specimens to screen for genetic markers that can be used to separate the two species without a doubt. I’ll then be able to check for those markers in the specimens that I collected on my trip, as well as other North American and Greenlandic material.

Then, just maybe, we’ll finally be able to answer the question “Where in the world is snow grass?”

Pieces of paper on the floor, covered with plant specimens.

Ice-grass collections from our Nunavut trip, pressed and ready to be studied under the microscope. Left to right, the rows of specimens are from Iqaluit, Naujaat and Arviat. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Where in the World Is Snow Grass? Part 1

A grass is a grass is a grass—or is it?

In fact, grasses are a family of over 12 000 species! As a budding botanist, I wouldn’t have touched the grasses with a 10-foot pole.

A diagram.

Anatomy of a grass inflorescence. (The inflorescence is the flowering part of the plant). The basic unit of the inflorescence is the spikelet (shown in red), which contains one or many florets (blue). Specific parts include
a) upper glume
b) lower glume
c) lemma
d) palea
e) awn
f) anther
g) filament
h) stigma
i) ovary (matures into fruit known as grain or caryopsis). Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The grass family, called Poaceae, is characterized by reduced floral characteristics and simple linear leaves. Pair that with frequent hybridization between species, and it’s a recipe for long nights spent crying into the microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass (ok, maybe I’m being slightly dramatic).

But when you decide to do a Master’s thesis with the Canadian Museum of Nature’s grass expert, Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., there’s a chance you’re going to have to strap on your big-botanist boots and plunge into the grasses.

So here I am, studying a small grass genus composed of two species: ice grass (Phippsia algida) and snow grass (Phippsia concinna). They are extremely closely related—both are small, tufted, perennial grasses that are found in late-melting snowbeds and other wet, sandy habitats, and reproduce primarily through self-pollination—and thus far, little genetic variation has been found to separate the two.

Composite: Two sheets of paper with dried plants attached.

Herbarium vouchers of ice grass (left; Phippsia algida) and snow grass (right; Phippsia concinna) from Svalbard, Norway. A common characteristic that is used to distinguish the two species is the shape of the flowering part of the plant (inflorescence): narrow and dense in ice grass and diffuse with spreading branches in snow grass. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Ice grass occurs in the circumpolar Arctic with disjunct populations located in the North American Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, U.S.A.

Snow grass is well documented in Eurasia, but its presence in Greenland and North America has been debated since the 1950s. So where in the world is snow grass?

In order to answer this burning question, I joined a team of four other botanists from the museum and hopped on eight planes over 30 days to survey plants in three Nunavut communities: Arviat, Naujaat and Iqaluit.

The hunt for my grasses began in Arviat, the southernmost mainland community of Nunavut. Neither species had been previously reported from this locality, but a collection of ice grass from approximately 60 km north of the area left me hopeful.

We hit pay dirt just a few days into the trip and I’m embarrassed to say that, despite having spent the weeks prior studying my grasses under the microscope, I had no idea what I held in my hand.

Composite: A hand holds a plant specimen, the ground, a plant.

Ice grass from Arviat. Left: Our very first specimen. Middle: Second population, locally common and dominant on wet sand. Right: Close-up of an inflorescence. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The ice grass plants of Arviat were small—around the size of a toonie ($2 coin) or ever-so-slightly larger—which was surprising considering how far south we were. We collected from three populations of ice grass, all from sandy, coastal habitats.

A woman sitting on the ground.

Getting low to photograph tiny ice grass plants on the sandy shore of Hudson Bay in Arviat. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lynn Gillespie and I then headed north to two regions where both ice grass and snow grass had supposedly been collected.

Did we find the elusive snow grass in our great Canadian Arctic? You’ll have to read the second installment of this article to find out.

A sign that says "Welcome to Naujaat" in English, French and Inuktitut, with a helicopter and building in the background.

The adventure continues in Naujaat. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A Green Tour of Rideau Hall for Museum Botanists

On the morning of August 16, 2016, a group of 14 scientists and volunteers from the Canadian Museum of Nature’s botany team were given a special guided tour of Rideau Hall and its greenhouses.

Located in Ottawa, Rideau Hall is the principal residence of the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston.

The tour was organized by Roger Bull, the coordinator of the museum’s Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity (DNA laboratory) and a member of the museum’s botany team that studies plant diversity in the Canadian Arctic. As a high-school student, Roger spent a summer working in the Rideau Hall greenhouses.

View of the building from outside temporary fencing.

Rideau Hall is currently undergoing exterior renovations in preparation for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Inside the Residence
For the first part of the tour, the group was shown the residence ballrooms and sitting rooms. There were many beautiful paintings, including portraits of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II and previous Governors General. There were also some interesting landscape paintings and aboriginal art.

A dozen people stand inside a grand room.

The group inside the Tent Room, so-named because it mimics an outdoor tent. A copy of a portrait of Queen Victoria (originally by artist George Hayter) is on the back wall. There are also portraits of former Governors General, including Lord Stanley—of Stanley Cup fame (not shown). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Chairs circle the walls in a very large room.

The main ballroom with a recent portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Government cabinet members are sworn in here. The ceiling has a 1951, Irish-made Waterford crystal chandelier with 12 000 crystals. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man stands beside a painting on a wall.

Joe Holmes with a portrait of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (by Newfoundland artist Mary Pratt). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Inside the Greenhouses
The second part of the tour was inside the Governor General’s greenhouses. They were filled with plants from all over Canada and elsewhere, in a controlled environment. The greenhouses are administered by the National Capital Commission. A staff member was present to discuss the operation and answer questions.

People walk between botanical displays.

Inside the Governor General’s greenhouse with many kinds of plants from Canada and other parts of the world. Some have been meticulously trimmed into interesting shapes. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

An area of the display garden.

Some Boston ferns amongst other lush plants and manicured shrubs. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A view of a large botanical-display room.

Palm trees are farther inside the greenhouse. There is also a large bowl with some aquatic plants (not shown). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Outside Grounds
Outside, group members walked around the arboretum where many dignitaries have planted trees on their visits to Ottawa over the years. When they were planted, the saplings were—no doubt—just sticks, but over the years, they have grown to be quite large.

A tree outside with a plaque planted in the ground near its base.

This special tree, a red oak (Quercus rubra) was planted by U.S. President John F. Kennedy more than 55 years ago, on May 16, 1961. There is also a tree planted by his wife Jacqueline Kennedy (not shown). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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How Did Those Mussels Get to the Museum’s Pond?

Around 2005, Noel Alfonso, coordinator of the Environmental Monitoring Program at the Canadian Museum of Nature, started finding mussel shells strewn around the edges of the pond at the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec.

In 2015, these large mussels—known by their common name giant floaters—were formally surveyed for the first time by Environmental Monitoring Program summer students. For the second consecutive summer, we have been doing a lap around the pond every few weeks to collect specimens that the local muskrats have fed on and left on the shore.

The regular collection and analysis of specimens can give us approximate population and age estimates.

A hand holds an open mussel shell.

A giant floater (Pyganodon grandis) collected from the shore of the museum’s pond. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The pond did not exist before 1997; somehow, giant floaters made their way there in a very short time frame, given the age of some of our samples.

The discovery of giant floaters in 2015 was quite remarkable because, among the giant floater specimens (Pyganodon grandis) in the museum’s collection, the nearest was found in Lac des Fées in Gatineau Park, Quebec.

So how does a mussel get up and move several kilometres to a new pond? This is no easy task for animals that move by dragging themselves across the lake or river bed with their extendable “foot”.

View of the pond.

The pond is on the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec, close to the facility that hosts the museum collections and research activities. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

As it turns out, they get a little help from some friends. Giant floaters release larvae into the water, which then attach to the gills and fins of a fish. Once developed into their juvenile form, they detach from the gills and settle into the bottom substrate, where they will reach adulthood.

The giant floater is a generalist species that can sustain low dissolved-oxygen levels and a variety of substrates. The same can be said for its choice of larval-host fish species.

Of the 27 or so potential host fish species, five can be found in the museum’s pond. The most likely scenario is that giant floater larvae hitched a ride on some of these fish, which transported them to the pond.

Small fish in shallow water.

Fish travelling upstream in the ditch along Pink Road, on which the museum’s research and collections facility is located. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

A trip to Lac des Fées renewed our confidence that giant floaters are still present there. In this case, for the fish to get from Lac des Fées to the pond is no easy task because they must make their way up Betty’s Creek against the current.

From Betty’s Creek, they then travel west—again upstream—along the Pink Road ditch before reaching the pond. This ditch is usually flooded, but nevertheless, some parts of the journey are quite difficult to navigate, especially in a dry summer like this one.

The POV (point-of-view) video below shows the route through the “waterway” to the pond.

A Mussel Larva’s Journey Down the Pink Road Ditch

A map.

Map showing the most likely route of colonization of the pond by giant floaters. Image: Geoffrey Carter © Canadian Museum of Nature. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Earthstar Geographics, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS user community

Giant floaters can be dated fairly easily and in a similar fashion to trees, each growth season being marked by a dark stripe on the shell of the mussel. This counting technique can underestimate a mussel’s true age by up to half. As a result, some of our specimens could be up to 20 years old. Their potential maxium age means that the period between the creation of the pond in 1997 and its colonization could have been very short indeed.

The pipe opening and water.

A culvert along Pink Road that would be difficult for fish to pass through during this dry summer. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

What a journey! The lengths that fish and mussels will go to colonize new areas can leave many of us wondering how on Earth that species got there.

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

“Royal Canadian” Diatoms from the Rideau Hall Pond in Ottawa

A man poses in front of a building and fountain.

Joe Holmes in front of Rideau Hall. The Canadian flag flies on the roof when the Governor General is out of town. Otherwise, his Royal flag (purple with a lion) is flown.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a volunteer with the Canadian Museum of Nature, I have been involved since spring 2016 in a project to collect diatom samples from more than 80 sites around Ottawa.

We visit lakes, rivers, canals and ponds to collect diatoms that will then be processed, photographed and added to the museum’s collection of 120 000 samples.

Preparing the samples, identifying the species and entering related data and photos into the museum’s phycology database are ongoing.

Visiting Rideau Hall
Our diatom project has involved looking for interesting places around the city from which to collect diatom samples. In June, I visited Rideau Hall, the principal residence of the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston.

An open gate in an iron fence beside a road.

At Rideau Hall, the south entrance off MacKay Street provides public access to the grounds.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

While touring the grounds (Rideau Hall is on a 31.6 hectare property), I found out from a staffer that there is a pond on the premises. However, it is located on the private grounds, requiring special permission to visit. Because Rideau Hall is an interesting place of national significance, I decided to go ahead and ask at the Visitor Centre for approval to access the pond and collect diatoms there.

A diatom viewed under a microscope.

This diatom was collected at Rideau Hall. It is a Caloneis silicula (size: 47 µm × 7 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Diatoms are microscopic one-celled algae that have a silica shell and come in many different species, shapes and sizes. They are found in all bodies of water, in the mud on the bottom.

At the bottom of the food web, diatoms convert sunlight into energy and CO2 into oxygen. They are a primary food source for small creatures, which pass the energy further through the food web.

Scientists and botany students use diatoms to study DNA, climate change, evolution, water quality and the environment.

Not long after my request, the Rideau Hall maintenance staff contacted me and graciously arranged a visit to the pond. In July, I was escorted there by a helpful staff member to collect mud samples. The pond is horseshoe-shaped and in a wooded area called the Sugar Bush. It is just west of where the Governor General’s outdoor skating rink is placed each winter. The pond appears to be isolated, so its water likely comes from rain or the water table.

A pond.

The Rideau Hall pond, located in the woods in the private area of the grounds.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sampling Results

Back at the lab, I processed the mud samples, made microscope slides and photographed the diatoms using a camera-mounted light microscope with magnification of up to 1600 times. Overall, our results were very good; some diatoms even matched species that I found in Ireland and in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Composite of diatoms viewed through a microscope.

Some additional interesting diatoms found in the Rideau Hall pond (1 µm = 1 micron = 1 millionth of a metre):
1. Diploneis ovalis (17 µm × 7 µm)
2. Gomphonema acuminatum (51 µm × 10 µm)
3. Gomphonema insigne (44 µm × 10 µm)
4. Pinnularia viridis (73 µm × 15 µm)
5. Rhopalodia gibba (65 µm × 7 µm)
6. Placoneis abiskoensis (44 µm × 10 µm)
7. Reimeria sinuata (36 µm × 7 µm) 8. Frustulia rhomboides (59 µm × 15 µm).
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because the Governor General is the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, the Rideau Hall diatoms will add a “Royal Canadian touch” to our Ottawa diatom project, which includes locations such as the Rideau Canal, the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers, Mud and MacKay Lakes, Mer Bleue and many other sites.

Overall, our venture will benefit students and scientists worldwide who are interested in diatoms from the Ottawa area and North America. The museum frequently works with botany students who are researching diatoms from Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and other universities and research institutions.

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Windswept Wonders: Collecting Plants and Lichens in Arviat

“How was the Arctic?” is often the first question I get after returning home from our annual summer expedition. My typical responses are “fun”, “buggy”, and “amazing”. While Arviat was all that and more, I’d have to add “flat” and “friendly” to give an accurate depiction of this amazing Arctic community located on the shores of Hudson Bay.

Two women sitting on the tundra colleting plants.

Ruth Kaviok and graduate student Sam Godfrey collecting plants in the proposed Nuvuk Territorial Park in Arviat, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In fact, there’s a sign on the airport road into town proclaiming Arviat to be “Nunavut’s Friendliest Community”, and we certainly felt warmly welcomed! We connected with community members through trailside chats, shared meals on the tundra (made all the better with local bannock), and a workshop where Elders shared their knowledge about local plants. A teacher, once she heard the “plant experts” were walking past her house, came out to show us her own collection of pressed and dried plants.

Lyyn Gillespie holds a plant she collected in one hand, while leaning on a table with documents on it.

Expedition leader Dr. Lynn Gillespie examines the day’s collections. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As for “flat”, the tundra surrounding Arviat is, well, very much so…which gives rise to ferocious winds and spectacular long sunsets, and lets you spot polar bears a long way off.

Closeup of a plant with red berries.

Whether you call them Atungaujat, Kimminait, Mountain Cranberries, Lingonberries, or Partridgeberries, the red fruits of Vaccinium vitis-idaea are a tangy treat. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Working out on the land with Ruth Kaviok, our local field assistant, and David Beamer, the regional parks coordinator for Nunavut Parks and Special Places, our team collected over 150 species of vascular plants in the proposed Nuvuk Territorial Park, and over 50 more in different habitat types from around the Arviat region.

Three people in a semi-circle stand on the tundra.

Museum lichenologist Dr. Troy McMullin discusses the lichens of the proposed Nuvuk Park with Nunavut Parks regional coordinator David Beamer and graduate student Sam Godfrey. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Adding Troy McMullen’s lichens, and myriad moss and algae collections to the mix will give us a comprehensive overview of Arviat’s windswept (and therefore diminutive) flora.

Closeup of two species of liches on the tundra.

Many tundra locales near the proposed Nuvuk Park are dominated by lichens, such as the long, sinewy Whiteworm Lichen (Thamnolia vermicularis) and the pale yellow Crinkled Snow Lichen (Flavocetraria nivalis). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

While we didn’t find many plants new to Nunavut (though we haven’t finished determining them all yet), we did find many low Arctic plants that few on the team had collected before, including the small-flowered lousewort (Pedicularis parviflora), and Wettstein’s eyebright (Euphrasia wettsteinii).

Closeup of a lousewort plant.

Over 200 species of flowering plants, including colourful louseworts (Pedicularis parviflora), can be found growing on the western shores of Hudson Bay. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A researcher crouches on a hillside to collect ferns.

Research Associate Dr. Geoff Levin collects ferns on a hillside near Arviat. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Now that we’re back home in Ottawa and our plant presses are put away, we’ll work on finalizing the identifications of our 700+ plant collections, and preparing the specimens to be included in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada. Each of these specimens is proof that that plant was found growing in Arviat in 2016 (useful data for future researchers); for me they’ll also be nice reminders of a month well spent.

Arviat houses in the foreground, with a sunset in the background.

At over 500 km south of the Arctic Circle, Arviat treated our team to many spectacular sunsets over our month-long expedition. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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Making Mammoths Come to Life

For children growing up in the Ottawa area, the Canadian Museum of Nature is a special place for school trips or family outings. Many cherished memories have been formed within the exhibit halls and education rooms, and most of our recurring visitors are able to cite specimens or displays that made a lasting impression. For many, our woolly mammoth replicas top the list of favourites. Standing on the museum’s grounds, the three life-size sculptures of two adults and one baby have become a much-beloved sight for museum-goers and passers-by.

Three woolly mammoth sculptures on the museum’s grounds.

Our woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) as now displayed at an entrance to the museum’s new Landscapes of Canada Gardens. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I recently discussed the new mammoth steppe botanical display that accompanies the hairy beasts at their new location in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens. In this blog, I will focus on the story of the replicas themselves, which are based on real fossils found in Alaska, Yukon and Siberia.

The statues were designed and built in the museum’s workshops. They were unveiled in August 1987 to coincide with the 12th International Congress of the International Union for Quaternary Research, which was hosted in Ottawa that summer by the National Research Council and two other Canadian organizations.

A view of the three mammoth sculptures from 1998.

This image from 1998 shows the replicas at their original site on the west side of the museum’s property. When installed in 1987, a row of trees formed a backdrop to create the feel of a prehistoric forest. Grasses representative of the mammoth steppe environment were planted on the berm supporting the mammoth scene. When this photo was taken, the mammoths were already museum “stars” and copies had been made for display at the grand opening in 1997 of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The creation of the sculptures involved three phases: the production of 1/12-scale models in modelling clay; the making of scaled-up versions in wood, foam, and plaster from which life-sized moulds were generated; and the setting of fibreglass casts in these moulds to produce the final pieces for display.

A man seated on a chair looks at notebooks on a table.

An important early step in bringing our woolly mammoths to life was creating accurate scale models based on real mammoth fossils. Here, model-maker Doug Watson is consulting references in order to produce a 1/12-scale sculpture of Dima, the baby mammoth. Image: Rick Day © Canadian Museum of Nature.

C. Richard (Dick) Harington, then Chief of the Palaeobiology Division and now one of the Museum’s Research Associates, ensured that—in addition to merely being life-size—the replicas would also be realistically lifelike in appearance. Concept sketches and detailed scale drawings were first created based on fossil remains and descriptions in the scientific literature. Then the model-making began, with the stages shown in these images.

Three images of stages in the construction of a mammoth model.

(left): Making the scale models involved first crafting a miniature skeleton using wire, foam, papier-mâché, and epoxy putty. The internal framework of the male mammoth is shown here. (centre) Working with a museum taxidermist and palaeontologist to estimate muscle placement and mass, Doug Watson then fleshed out the mammoth skeletons using modelling clay. (right) The final result of imitating soft tissue on the male mammoth skeleton, which now awaits surface detailing. Images: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Each of the replicas is based on real fossil material, including the mummified remains of a male woolly mammoth calf whose frozen carcass was found in Siberia. The external features (musculature, fur, trunk shape, etc.) were modelled in consultation with British and Russian palaeontologists. This international ensemble considered both the published scientific literature as well as depictions of woolly mammoths in prehistoric cave art preserved at sites in the Dordogne department of France.

(left) Doug Watson sculpting the fine details of a furry coat on the 1/12-scale models. Image: Rick Day © Canadian Museum of Nature. (right) Scale model of the male mammoth once the surface had been sculpted to provide the appearance of its woolly pelage. From these final forms, a silicone mould was created in order to produce polyester resin casts from which the models could be scaled up to life size. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A resin cast of the male mammoth.

Polyester resin cast of the male mammoth being outfitted with a three-dimensional grid in preparation for scaling up. The casts were sectioned vertically into slices, each slice being enlarged into a plywood template. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Three images, one showing plywood templates for a life-size version of the mammoth, and the others showing people adding styrofoam and sculpting the plaster of the mammoth model.

(left) Plywood templates being assembled for the life-size version of the male mammoth. Once all the templates were in place, they were bonded together and covered over with styrofoam. (middle) Doug Watson (on ladder) and Grant Laturnus shapes the styrofoam coating of the core of the life-size male mammoth. (right) The last stage of working with the foam-coated cores was providing an additional covering of drywall compound. Here, Doug Watson (on scaffolding) and Sandra Taylor are sculpting fur details into the plaster. Once completed, these full-scale models served as the basis for making moulds for producing the final replicas. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Creating such accurate replicas was a significant undertaking at the time, and represented a major technical accomplishment which had not been attempted before in Canada.

Two images of the male and female woolly mammoth sculptures.

(left) The attention to detail can be seen in the completed version of the male mammoth, which was modelled on the skeletal remains of several mammoths found in Alaska. Ron Séguin, the taxidermist and artist who had supervised the phase involving the creation of the life-size models, continues to do touch-ups on them as necessary. (right) The wind-blown fur and broken tusk of the female mammoth add a sense of motion and realism. This sculpture is based on the nearly complete skeleton of a mammoth found in 1967 along the Whitestone River in the Yukon by museum palaeontologist C. Richard Harington. The fossil skull displayed a snapped right tusk, likely due to the animal having attempted to lift a heavy object. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sculpture of the baby mammoth, and the real remains on display in Russia.

(left) The mammoth calf was sculpted to match the details of the mummy of a frozen baby mammoth found in 1977 on the banks of a tributary of the Kolyma River in Siberia. Nicknamed Dima, the carcass represents a young male, approximately 8-months old when he died. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature. The remains of Dima on display in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Image: Andrew Butko © Andrew Butko (CC BY 3.0)

With efforts underway to recreate the mammoth steppe on a large scale in Russia, and discussion within the scientific community concerning the feasibility of cloning a woolly mammoth using the genetic material preserved in the frozen tissues of Arctic mammoth mummies, it may one day be possible to experience woolly mammoths and their habitat in a very direct way.  Until then, our replicas will continue to provide the experience on a smaller scale to museum visitors and additional generations of residents of the National Capital Region.

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