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

Spiclypeus shipporum, the New Dino in Town


It’s been well over a year in the making, during which time I’ve had to remain patient for one of the most exciting moments of my young career! This week, with the publication of the official scientific paper, I get to introduce to you the latest addition to the fossil collection of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 76 million year-old quadruped from Winifred: Spiclypeus shipporum!

An illustration of the dinosaur in its habitat.

Judith (Spiclypeus shipporum) limps across a Late Cretaceous floodplain in what is now Montana, U.S.A. Illustration: Mike Skrepnick

Spiclypeus shipporum (spic-LIP-ee-us ship-OR-um) is a new species of horned dinosaur whose name is Latin for “Shipp’s spiked shield”. The species name honours Bill Shipp, Ph.D., and his family, on whose land near Winifred, Montana, the fossil was found in 2005. What sets Spilcypeus apart from the other horned dinosaurs are the laterally pointing brow horns and the uniquely ornamented head frill, in which some of the adorning spikes curl forward and others project outward.

View Judith from different angles by manipulating a 3D rendering of the skull reconstruction.

The holotype specimen (nicknamed “Judith” after the Judith River rock formation where it was found) is also notable for having a highly diseased left humerus or upper arm bone. The humerus shows extensive signs of arthritis and bone infection. A massive hole developed near the elbow to drain the infection. Judith almost certainly lived a life of pain and would have been reduced to hobbling about on three legs because the left forelimb was rendered useless.

The fossil bone.

The disease-riddled left humerus of Judith. The large opening near the elbow (red arrow, inset) served to drain a nasty bone infection. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Spiclypeus is a fantastic addition to the Canadian Museum of Nature, which already houses one of the best collections of horned dinosaurs in the world. However, our collections are strongly biased toward dinosaurs from Alberta, so Spiclypeus fills a clear gap in our geographic coverage.

Four dinosaur skulls on shelves.

Spiclypeus shipporum is a natural fit for our already vast collection of horned dinosaurs. Left: Centrosaurus apertus (collection #CMNFV 348). Top: Styracosaurus albertensis (CMNFV 344). Bottom: Monoclonius lowei (CMNFV 8790). Right: Centrosaurus apertus (CMNFV 8795). Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Moreover, having this important specimen in our possession helps us to better understand related species in our collection. For example, Spiclypeus appears to be transitional between more primitive horned dinosaurs in which all the spikes at the back of the frill radiate outward, and those such as our own Vagaceratops irvinensis, in which they all curl forward. Our new species therefore clarifies the evolution of display features in horned dinosaurs.

I’m also excited to report that Spiclypeus will be on display in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery of the Canadian Museum of Nature for the summer starting on May 24, 2016.

Learn more about the story behind the species’s discovery and the science stemming from it.

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Hey, You Stole My Chloroplast!

Like all natural-history collections, the National Herbarium of Canada—a library of nearly 1 000 000 dried plant specimens at the Canadian Museum of Nature—is a powerful tool for research. Thanks to the collective effort of thousands of collectors over hundreds of years, scientists consulting the collection can examine specimens of nearly any plant species imaginable from across Canada and around the world.

In the effort to unravel botanical riddles, the herbarium is a cost-effective, low-tech way to travel through space and time. This invaluable resource has come in handy over the last few years as museum student Colin Chapman, research scientist Lynn Gillespie, and I worked to understand a curious case of hybridization in the Canadian Arctic.

Cabinets of shelves piled with herbarium sheets.

The National Herbarium of Canada contains hundreds of Pedicularis specimens from across the Canadian Arctic that were collected over the last few hundred years. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Louseworts (genus Pedicularis) are a group of parasitic plants found in many Arctic habitats. Two lousewort species, the hairy lousewort (Pedicularis hirsuta) and the Arctic lousewort (Pedicularis langsdorffii subsp. arctica), are sister species found primarily in the eastern and western Canadian Arctic respectively.

A plant in bloom.

The hairy lousewort, true to its name, is covered in woolly white hairs that keep the plant warm during the cool summer months. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Within the main part of their ranges, these species have sometimes been easily distinguished from one another based on their flowers: the hairy lousewort commonly possesses relatively small, pale pink flowers surrounded by insulating white hairs, while the Arctic lousewort has larger, darker pink flowers without these hairs and possessing two small “teeth” near the tip of each flower.

However, where these species meet in the High Arctic, such as on Axel Heiberg, Ellesmere and Devon islands, the difference between these species gets muddled, with some populations containing a mix of characters. To quote our very own A.E. Porsild in his 1957 Illustrated Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, for example: “In N.W. Greenland and in Ellesmere and Baffin Island, a form intermediate between P. hirsuta and P. arctica [P. langsdorffii subsp. arctica] is found. It has the general habit of P. hirsuta but has the larger flower and minutely dentate helmet of P. arctica“.

A flowering plant.

The Arctic lousewort has large, showy flowers that attract pollinators. Because of their movement between the flowers of the Arctic lousewort and the hairy lousewort, these insects (such as bees) are responsible for the cross-pollination, and therefore hybridization, of the two species. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

By studying the morphology (shape and form) and DNA sequences from across the range of both of these species, with a focus on these overlapping regions, we found that certain populations were, in fact, hybrids, with an intermediate morphology between both species.

Importantly, we found that most hairy louseworts do, in fact, have “teeth” on the flowers, so we wrote a paper about differentiation of the species based on flower size and whether or not the style protruded from the flower.

In each of these hybrid populations, the plants that we sampled for DNA contained the nuclear DNA from the Arctic lousewort and the chloroplast DNA (which is inherited from the mother plant) of the hairy lousewort.

Interestingly, we found populations of “good” Arctic lousewort (plants clearly identifiable as such, and without hybrid characters) that also possessed the chloroplast DNA of the hairy lousewort.

This is likely the result of hybrid individuals backcrossing with the Arctic lousewort (which has showier, more-attractive-to-pollinator flowers) for several generations, until there are no more hybrid characteristics left in the resulting plants. In this way, the Arctic lousewort has “captured” the chloroplast of the hairy lousewort.

This paper, based on Colin Chapman’s Honours project at the University of Ottawa, is now available from the journal Botany.

A map showing northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland.

This map shows the location of all of the Pedicularis specimens that we DNA-sequenced:

  • Orange triangles: Arctic louseworts
  • Blue circles: Hairy louseworts
  • Red hexagons: Hybrid populations or introgressed populations (Arctic louseworts with the chloroplast-DNA genotype of the hairy lousewort).

Image: Paul Sokoloff et al. © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Cave Weevils in North America

An insect.

Baldorhynchus amicalis (Osella), a species of troglobitic weevil from Grotta di Case Vecie, Verona, Italy. This is an example of one of about 200 known European cave-adapted weevil species. Image: Courtesy of Cesare Bello, Italy

When I think of caves I think of bats. Being an entomologist, I also think of bat droppings and the many insects that feed upon the droppings (more properly termed guano) that accumulate in caves under the bats’ roosts. This guano provides a moist, constantly replenished source of repugnant sustenance in an otherwise rather barren environment. As might be expected, most cave insects are detritivores: scavengers feeding on decaying organic material brought into the cave from an outside source.

There are also a number of predators feeding on the other insects with which they share the cave. Certainly, because of the lack of light, there are no plants and thus, none of the multitude of above-ground insects that rely on plants or plant products for their livelihood. But maybe it’s not that simple?

Insects cling to a cave roof.

Talk about creepy! This photo shows hundreds of the cave cricket Ceuthophilus secretus Scudder on the roof of a cave in central Texas, U.S.A. Like bat droppings, the droppings from the crickets (which forage above ground at night) provide a food source for a diverse community of insects and other arthropods that live in caves. Image: Courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas.

I specialize in the taxonomy and biology of weevils, perhaps the most diverse family of living things, and a group almost wholly dependent on plants or plant products for food. There are around 60 000 formally named species of weevils throughout the world. In Europe, surprisingly, there are around two hundred or so weevil species that have been found only in caves.


While many caves are best known for their wonderful geological structures such as these stalactites, the real richness of caves lies in their emerging biodiversity. Image: courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas

These weevil species show all the traditional traits of cave-adaptation such as reduced pigmentation, reduced or absent eyes and long appendages. How is this possible? What do these cave-adapted (or troglobitic) weevils feed on?

Also, if there is a modest number of troglobitic weevils in Europe, why are there virtually no troglobitic weevils in North America? Despite there being thousands of caves, particularly in the southern United States, and a rich fauna of other beetles and insects associated with these caves, there are no weevils. Well, almost none.

A man's head and shoulders stick out of a cave opening.

The entrance to Spider Cave, Travis County, Texas. A new genus and species of troglobitic weevil has been found only in this cave. Some of the caves have very small entrance points and are difficult to access. Conservationists do not release the exact coordinates of the caves in order to avoid disturbances to these fragile habitats. Image: Courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas

Back in 2009, I was sent some specimens of a species of Lymantes from a cave that I thought at first was a species collected rather commonly in leaf litter (now named by me as Lymantes fowleri). I thought in this case that the leaf litter was likely collected from around the mouth of the cave. It wasn’t until I noticed that these new specimens entirely lacked eyes and when I dissected them and had differently shaped male genitalia and later found out that they were collected deeper in the cave, that I recognized them as a distinct species, which I named Lymantes nadineae. At that time this species was pronounced as “North America’s first and only troglobitic weevil”.

Two views of a weevil.

Lymantes nadineae Anderson, until now the only troglobitic weevil recorded for North America. It’s found in a number of caves in the Edwards Plateau of central Texas. Named after Nadine Duperre, a scientific illustrator and spider expert formerly of Granby, Quebec. The type specimen is housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature collection. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Since then, the lack of troglobitic weevils in North America and the question of what might troglobitic weevils feed on has puzzled me. Was the lack of weevils a matter of a lack of collecting? Or was it related perhaps to differences in the structure or history of the cave systems, perhaps allowing for the evolution of cave-adapted weevils in Europe, but not in North America?

Because almost all cave-adapted weevils have immature stages that very likely feed on plant roots, might the caves where they are found in Europe be shallow and more or less parallel with the ground surface, such that tree (or other plant) roots can penetrate the roof of the cave? These roots could be the plant material on which these troglobitic weevils develop. Maybe few North American caves fit this description? Or maybe it’s just that North Americans have not been looking hard enough for them? Well, the answer to this last question might be near.

A woman hangs in front of a cave opening.

The entrance to Midnight Cave, Travis County, Texas. In contrast to Spider Cave, this cave has a much larger opening; however, the steep drop and the need for ropes to lower oneself into the cave may be just as intimidating as the narrow squeeze into Spider Cave. Image: Courtesy of Mark Sanders, Austin, Texas

While in Austin, Texas, a few years ago, I met with James Reddell, now retired, but one of the foremost cave naturalists in the United States. James passed along a few vials of weevils that he had accumulated over the course of his career. Included were some exciting finds, most notably a single specimen of an obviously troglobitic (and new to science) weevil from Spider Cave, a small cave within the Austin city limits.

An insect.

A new genus and species of troglobitic weevil collected in Spider Cave, Travis County, Texas. So far, a single specimen is known. Formal scientific description is underway. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

James is now in the process of sending me additional specimens of this species, along with a variety of other weevils that he has accumulated that were collected “in caves”. I’ve not yet received the package, but perhaps the contents can help address the question that the lack of cave weevils is from to a lack of collecting. As this package from James represents the best efforts of cave biologists over the last 50 years, might there be other finds equivalent to the Spider Cave beast? I sure hope so.

Christmas passed by a few months ago, but for entomologists, exciting gifts can be had at any time of the year. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

An unfinished story…assessing the status of Porter’s Twisted Moss

It’s fascinating to study rare species, a job that often involves rewarding detective work. Recently, I’ve been investigating a rare species of moss for COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

It’s the mandate of rare species authorities such as COSEWIC to identify species that may be at risk. They contract experts to gather the information needed for them to decide if, and to what degree, those species risk extinction. As the museum’s Botany Curator, I meet these sleuths when they check our collections for information on their target species. And as a status report author for COSEWIC, I’m also often on the trail of target species of my own.

Jennifer Doubt looks at a plant stored flat on a sheet.

Jennifer Doubt examines a plant specimen in the museum’s National Herbarium. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In 2013, I bid, with two co-authors, to write a Status Report on Porter’s Twisted Moss (Tortula porteri). In Canada, Porter’s Twisted Moss grows only in Ontario, only on limestone (and its cousin, dolostone), and only in the province’s most vineyard-rich, warm-wintered regions.

Close-up of a clump of Porter’s Twisted Moss on rock.

The rare quarry: close-up of Porter’s Twisted Moss. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The National Herbarium’s founding curator, John Macoun, picked up the first known Canadian collection of Porter’s Twisted Moss on Pelee Island (almost the southern tip of Ontario) in 1882. Between 1882 and 2013, it was also collected on nearby Middle Island, and on the Niagara Peninsula. The proof comes from voucher specimens in the National Herbarium and other North American collections in the herbarium network.

A close-up of a moss specimen and a collection label from 1882.

John Macoun collected this specimen of Porter’s Twisted Moss (CANM 197807) on Pelee Island. A specimen label from one of these collections (CANM 197808) reveals his handwriting. His mosses are housed in the museum’s National Herbarium. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These specimens helped me and my collaborators to piece together a picture of where, and how abundantly, Porter’s Twisted Moss may have grown over the past 100 years or so. The specimens also helped us to plan a fruitful (and fun) 2014 field search for current information.

With the help of other botanists (the more eyes on the ground and the more local experience the better!), we re-visited places where no moss botanists (a.k.a. bryologists) had collected in 50 years or more. We recorded how much Porter’s Twisted Moss we found (or not), what conditions defined its habitat, and what threats were present.

Six people, including Jennifer Doubt, stand along a fence.

It takes a team! In May 2014, Doubt and her fellow botanists pause before searching for Porter’s Twisted Moss along the Niagara River. (l-r): Albert Garofalo, Corey Burant, Jennifer Doubt, Linda Ley, Allan Aubin, Leanne Wallis. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

With a new understanding of its associations and preferences, we pinpointed other areas that seemed likely homes for Porter’s Twisted Moss, and visited them…until it was time to return to the Museum.

A woman in a forest crouches down to closely examine a rocky outcrop.

Linda Ley, a co-author of the status report on Porter’s Twisted Moss, examines an outcrop for signs of the rare plant during a search in the Niagara region. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It’s back in the lab and the office that the adventure of fieldwork becomes useful to others. We examined the collected specimens, and compiled our fieldwork results and background research on Porter’s Twisted Moss for a COSEWIC Status Report. In spring 2015, a long review period began. All COSEWIC members had a chance to make comments. Now, the report is on the review home stretch, with the third of three rounds underway.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I on the Mosses and Lichens Species Specialist Subcommittee, along with experts who know the species’ habitats and associated land uses, collaborated in a detailed assessment of threats. Information in the report was scrutinized against the criteria that COSEWIC will eventually use to develop its recommendations, to identify information that needed to be clarified or removed. Finally, we drafted a preliminary recommendation on how the criteria might be applied in the specific case of this little moss.

A rocky outcrop covered in mosses.

This outcrop on the Niagara Peninsula is home to numerous species of mosses, including Porter’s Twisted Moss (in middle of photo). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Sometime soon—probably in April—the reviewed (and re-re-reviewed!) Status Report on Porter’s Twisted Moss will appear on the agenda alongside reports about fish, terrestrial mammals, reptiles and more…all at the “big table” of a COSEWIC Species Assessment Meeting. Thoughtful discussion and a vote will result in a status recommendation. The latest recommendations are always made public in a press release.

Did you know that COSEWIC’s assessment and subcommittee meetings are open to all?  In recent years, the autumn meeting has been in Ottawa, and the spring meeting has been held elsewhere in Canada. The dates and locations of upcoming COSEWIC meetings are posted on their website.

Perhaps you’ll get to be a fly on the wall when Porter’s Twisted Moss comes up! The committee asks only that everyone present agree to observe the confidentiality of the discussions, in support of the open discussion required to achieve the best, impartial results.

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

The Museum of Nature as a rare species hub

Many roads to identifying and protecting endangered Canadian species pass through the Canadian Museum of Nature. Some days, it’s a pretty busy intersection! One important reason is our many connections to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (a.k.a. COSEWIC).

You may have already heard about COSEWIC’s work without knowing it. About twice a year, stories pop up in the media about the latest species to be listed as threatened or endangered in Canada, signalling that COSEWIC has assessed another batch of wildlife species.

Jennifer Doubt looks at a magnified image of a plant on a screen.

Jennifer Doubt, the museum’s Curator of Botany examines a plant in the museum’s botany lab. Doubt, a specialist in mosses and bryophytes, shares her expertise as a member of COSEWIC. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Together, committee experts first decide which species seem most likely to be at some level of risk. Then, once the best available information on those species is compiled, they use specific criteria to assess a species’ status (e.g. Extinct, Endangered, Not At Risk) in the eyes of Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Three Peary Caribou on the tundra.

At the fall 2015 COSEWIC meeting, the Peary Caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) was reassessed as “Threatened” due to ongoing concerns about the animal’s future welfare. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, how does the Museum factor into all that? Well, for starters, the Canadian Museum of Nature is one of the founding partners of COSEWIC. Some of its scientists were COSEWIC pioneers, deeply involved even before the first formal meeting in 1978.

Also, natural history collections like ours give hard evidence that particular species lived in certain places at specific times. When searching for new information on rare species, researchers often compare what is present today with what history and collections tell us existed there in the past. So, among the visits and requests we museum curators welcome every day are those of rare species detectives: researchers in search of clues.

A man standing in a creek holding electrofishing gear.

Museum scientist Claude Renaud, an expert on lampreys, served as a representative on COSEWIC. He used his expertise to author a report about the status of the Chestnut Lamprey. Renaud was co-chair of the freshwater fishes subcommittee for COSEWIC from 1999 to 2007. Image: Noel Alfonso
© Canadian Museum of Nature.

To reward their investigations, these researchers end up with new information. For COSEWIC, this info gets packaged into a “Status Report” that summarizes knowledge about the species and threats to its persistence. This information can come from finding the species in the field, or from collections, publications, or conversations with diverse experts. Authors of these status reports are graduate students, expert amateurs, academics, government scientists…and also museum experts like ours.

Two men looking at a map in a small boat.

Museum biologist André Martel (right) and Mark Graham, the museum’s Vice-President of Research, study a map of the Ottawa River in 2014. They were choosing a diving site to search for populations of the Hickorynut Mussel (Obovaria olivaria), recently listed as endangered by COSEWIC. Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature. Inset: Something very few people get to see live in its habitat: a rare Hickorynut Mussel, which is partially buried in sand in the Ottawa River. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Museum experts also serve on COSEWIC’s specialist subcommittees (SSCs). Subcommittee members help to identify and propose species for assessment, and vet draft Status Reports. There are ten SSCs, covering arthropods, marine mammals, birds, plants and more.

There are 31 votes around the COSEWIC table, and each vote can be shared by up to two experts. So, when it finally comes time to meet—usually twice a year—to discuss and apply the information in the Status Reports, the table is huge! Although COSEWIC members may belong to provincial/territorial wildlife organizations, federal agencies (such as our museum), and other groups, no one formally represents any organization or region. COSEWIC is charged with providing impartial advice; only objective interpretation of the evidence and the assessment framework are permitted.

A group shot of about 30 people standing outside on a beach.

COSEWIC experts assemble at the 25th anniversary meeting in May 2002 at White Point Beach Resort, Nova Scotia. The group included museum scientists Claude Renaud and Lynn Gillespie as well as Research Associate Erich Haber. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Two experts from the Canadian Museum of Nature share a vote at the COSEWIC table. Today, that’s Dr. Bob Anderson, our zoologist who directs the Museum’s Centre for Species Discovery and Change, and me, the Botany Curator. When our terms are up, other Museum experts will take their turns. It’s hard work—as it should be for important decisions. And worth every single minute!

In a subsequent blog, I’ll tell you about one fascinating rare species on the COSEWIC path: Porter’s Twisted Moss.

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fieldwork | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Hunting the Urban Diatom in Vancouver, B.C. (Part 2)

This article is a continuation from Part 1 about our December 2015 family vacation to the Vancouver, British Columbia, area.

The trip was also an opportunity for me, as a Canadian Museum of Nature volunteer for Paul Hamilton in the museum’s diatom lab, to collect Western Canada and “urban” freshwater diatom samples in the Vancouver area.

The following are some of the best sample locations and examples of diatoms found, from 20 samples overall.

Stanley Park: Lost Lagoon
Our kids Sheila and David again assisted me with sampling, this time in Stanley Park and West Vancouver. We entered the park and took a sample from the picturesque Lost Lagoon Lake and the creek that flows into it from the west.

117848 1-30 Gyrosigma attenuate

In Stanley Park, Sheila and David Holmes at Lost Lagoon Lake. The sample contained a Gyrosigma accuminata—our target diatom (size: 95 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A portion of the creek, a diatom.

In Stanley Park, ducks unlimited along Lost Lagoon Creek that flows east to the lake. A sample contained a Stauroneis cf. gracilis diatom (size: 85 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Stanley Park: Beaver Lake
Beaver Lake is near the centre of Stanley Park. It is drained by a creek that flows east through dense forest to Burrard Inlet. The Ravine Trail follows the length of the creek. Samples were collected from both the lake and the creek.

Collage: View of the lake, a diatom.

Beaver Lake near the centre of Stanley Park, complete with beaver lodge. The diatom is a Gomphonema insigne (size: 38 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: The creek, a diatom.

Beaver Lake Creek in Stanley Park, flowing east from the lake through dense forest. The diatom is a Brachysira serians (size: 85 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

West Vancouver: Capilano River
Because of a wrong turn in Stanley Park, we found ourselves crossing the famous Lion’s Gate Bridge into North and West Vancouver. It provided an opportunity to get a sample from the Capilano River, which divides the two cities.

Collage: View across the river, a diatom.

Looking south across the Capilano River from West Vancouver to the Lion’s Gate Bridge and Stanley Park. The diatom shown is a Cocconeis placentula (size: 35 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Burnaby: Still Creek
On a rainy day, I took the SkyTrain southeast to Burnaby where, according to the map, there appeared to be some more interesting lakes and creeks. Once above ground, the SkyTrain gives you a feeling of travelling in a low-flying airplane. From the Sperling-Burnaby Lake station, I crossed a pedestrian overpass over a railway line to the Sperling Bike Trail. I took samples from the nearby Still Creek and from drainage ditches along the trail and Sperling Avenue.

Collage: A bend in a creek, a diatom.

Still Creek, where a sample with an Aulacoseira ambigua diatom (size: 48 μm) was taken. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sperling Avenue Ditches
Further south on either side of Sperling Avenue were drainage ditches with plenty of water. There was also a swamp. These were all ideal places for diatoms.

Collage: A ditch running along a residential road, a diatom.

Drainage ditch along Sperling Avenue at Roberts Street. This Cymbopleura inaequalis (size: 65 μm) diatom was found in the ditch. Roberts St. leads to Burnaby Lake. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Burnaby Lake
I took two samples from Burnaby Lake. The first sample was at the Rowing Pavilion. Because of swampy ground and elevated walkways, I took a sample from under weeds by the shore. A second sample was taken just off the Southside Trail in a more accessible spot. There, the bottom was rich with black muck—perfect for diatoms. Both Burnaby Lake samples contained many diatoms of various species and were the best of the trip.

Collage: A boardwalk, a diatom.

Sample was taken from the weedy area in the foreground of the Burnaby Lake Rowing Pavilion. The Gomphonema coronatum diatom (size: 73 μm) was found here. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A lake, a diatom.

Burnaby Lake, near where the second sample from the lake was collected. A diatom from here is this Eunotia tetraodon (size: 43 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Overall, we had a very enjoyable family trip to Vancouver, as well as a successful one collecting diatom samples. I am planning a future trip there for live diatom samples, with possible side trips to Victoria and Mission. Sheila may also be able to send us live diatom samples from B.C. in the spring or summer for analysis.

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