Art and Science: A Natural Mix

As a biologist and artist eagerly awaiting the Art of the Plant exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature (May 10 to October 14, 2018), I’m reminded again how much the worlds of art and natural history overlap.

Art is constantly inspired by nature and its diversity of forms. One need only visit the Nature Art Collection in the museums’ archives to see how nature inspires great art. And, in turn, great works of art guide and awe scientists.

But there is more uniting the fields of natural history and art than one inspiring the other. They are often combined in one and the same person and fuelled by a singular love of nature.

Framed paintings and photographs hanging on a wall.

The museum’s Nature Art collection contains a diversity of nature-based artwork, including paintings by Allan Brooks and prints by John James Audubon. Image: Cassandra Robillard © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Last summer, I participated in the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Dumoine River Art Camp and Bioblitz, an event which combined an artists’ retreat with a biological survey of the Dumoine River watershed. (Follow the link to apply for this year’s Art Camp by May 1).

At the Dumoine River event there were several of us participating in both the natural history survey and art.

Biologist Fred Schueler recited poetry on Canadian tree ecology, the museum’s botany curator Jennifer Doubt captured stunning macro photographic images of mosses, and meteorologist Phil Chadwick paused from painting to note and explain the science behind particular cloud formations.

A woman paints near the river, another woman examines photographs on her camera

Artist Angela St Jean paints while blog author and museum botany technical assistant Cassandra Robillard takes stock of her moss and lichen photos after a day of surveying at the 2017 Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Dumoine River Art Camp and Bioblitz. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Indeed, some of the most incredible biological artwork has been created by scientist-artists. Examples include John James Audubon’s prints in The Birds of America (1827-1838), zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s lithographs in Kunstformen der Natur (1904), and in Canada, the paintings and sketches of botanists Faith Fyles and Sylvia Edlund.

A woman collecting plants in the Arctic. On the right several of her colour sketches of Arctic plants.

Botanist Sylvia Edlund made coloured drawings of Arctic plants for her publication Common Arctic Wildflowers of the Northwest Territories. Left to right, clockwise: marsh fleabane (Tehproseris palustris subsp. congesta), alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus), cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). Image: © Geological Survey of Canada (photograph) / Sylvia Edlund, © Geological Survey of Canada (drawings).

Beyond these practical aspects, what I think also binds natural history and art together is that they are both often experienced more as a way of life than as a traditional job.

A frequent discussion among the artists and naturalists at the Dumoine River event was how difficult it can be to make a living pursuing their passion, and yet how in spite of this, they wouldn’t give up the journey for anything.

And this is a good thing, because the more common ground that’s found between artists and naturalists, the more they’ll inspire others with the wonders of nature!

A botanical illustration of the cones of a red pine tree.

See more botanical art like this red pine (Pinus resinosa) at the Art of the Plant exhibit, May 10 to October 14 in the museum’s Stonewall Gallery. Image: Kathryn Chorney © 2017 Kathryn Chorney.


Posted in Art, Botany, Exhibitions, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

The new Arctic Gallery: Reconciliation, humans and natural history

The new Canada Goose Arctic Gallery marks an important moment at the museum. It’s the museum’s only gallery at present that includes substantial anthropological material and themes. In other words, it’s the only one that significantly includes the human story in natural history.

In addition to highlighting many aspects of the northern polar region, including geography, geology, flora, fauna, and ecosystems, the gallery also profiles human artifacts and exhibits centered on Arctic languages and cultures.

As a paleontologist and archaeologist, I’m very pleased to see this. After all, humans are part of nature, and we often can’t fully tell a natural history story without including our role.

So, why are humans largely absent from the majority of the museum’s other exhibits?

Artifacts on display in the museum.

The new Arctic Gallery discusses the human presence in the North through a number of exhibits, including a selection of both prehistoric and historic artifacts. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Artifacts on display in the museum.

Items from the ill-fated 1845–1848 Franklin Expedition highlight the history of European efforts to map a route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Artifacts on display in the museum.

Palaeo-Eskimo tools and other objects represent the various pre-Inuit peoples who initially colonized the Arctic. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Exhibit panel

The diversity of modern Indigenous Arctic cultures is illustrated through maps that present the ranges of various languages and dialects traditionally spoken in northern Canada and the broader circumpolar region. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In part, the answer lies in the museum’s history. Our precursor, the museum of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), which in 1927 became the National Museum of Canada, collected it all: everything from minerals to fossils and archaeological artifacts.

But in 1956, the National Museum of Canada was split literally down the middle into what are now the Museum of Nature and the Museum of History. They remained in the same building, but the conceptual separation of humans from natural history had begun, with the Museum of History solely responsible for anthropology.

Men sitting around a table with exhibits in the background

Geological Survey of Canada staff in the 1880s seated around a table in the GSC museum that once occupied a building at the corner of Sussex and George in downtown Ottawa. The red circle encloses a display case containing First Nations artifacts that went on exhibit in 1862. Image: © Natural Resources Canada, Source: Natural Resources Canada/82263

But this institutional separation of humans from natural history is only part of the story.

Another key part is that it coincided with a growing awareness of how natural history museums perpetuated colonialist and racist ideologies, both in exhibits of non-Western cultures, and behind the scenes.

Examples involving Arctic cultures abound. They include the story of Minik, a native Greenlander who was brought to New York in 1897 as a child by the American explorer Robert Peary. Delivered along with five other Inuit, including his father, to the American Museum of Natural History for study, Minik grew-up to face many challenges. For example, when Minik’s father died from tuberculosis, his body was placed in the museum’s collection and Minik fought to recover his father’s remains for a proper burial.

Canada did not escape such episodes.  Several Labrador Inuit died in Europe in 1881 after touring the continent in what have been referred to as “human zoos”.

Thus, without archaeological staff or mandate, and with sensitive political issues in the public consciousness, the museum had little incentive to more fully integrate humans and nature in exhibitions.

The outside of American Museum of Natural History building.

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has numerous halls devoted to the natural history of humanity. With a large anthropology department, the AMNH counts among the long list of major natural history museums that conduct research in and develop exhibits about human evolution, archaeology, and ethnography. The Canadian Museum of Nature is one of the few large natural history museums without an anthropology division. © Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, we are biological organisms and cannot be separated from critical thinking about natural history, regardless of the institutional, political and cultural challenges of including us.

We represent an important and influential component of the biodiversity of our planet.

The Arctic region in particular clearly demonstrates that our very existence as a species has had a profound effect on the world around us, and vice versa.

Outside view of the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building

View of the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, which until the end of 2017 housed the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. The museum will reopen in a new building in 2019 but will do so without its long-standing dioramas depicting pre-contact life among Michigan’s Indigenous peoples. In 2010, the museum’s administration decided to remove the 50-year-old exhibits following a controversy concerning the extent to which the dioramas contributed to visitors perceiving Indigenous cultures as being stagnant, extinct, or inferior to Western societies (for a good overview of the issues involved, read this online piece concerning the episode). The American Museum of Natural History has also had to deal with such controversies. Image: © Andrew Horne (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In pushing further and further northward, our species, evolving initially in the hot climate of Africa, experienced both biological and cultural developments that enabled people to conquer the cold, unforgiving Arctic environment.

Our advancing technologies and patterns of resource usage are now altering the very polar climates that drove our adaptations to life in the cold. For example, the new gallery highlights the impact of human-influenced climate change in the Arctic.

The gallery also contains a map that details lands and waters now protected by Arctic nations, a positive sign of the way humans are influencing the region.

Thus, the role of people in shaping the natural history of the northern polar region had to be included in the Arctic Gallery in order to portray an accurate and complete picture of the region’s natural history.

Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic Gallery includes a designated space for temporary exhibits developed in collaboration with northern organizations, the photo above showing the inaugural Inuinnauyugut: We Are Inuinnait display curated by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society. Such partnerships are essential to developing richer and more authentic material, as is the inclusion of European societies as a focus of museum exhibits, an approach succinctly argued for here regarding the American Museum of Natural History (and by a 16-year-old student no less!). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

For me, the new Arctic Gallery is an example of how the integration of anthropology exhibits in natural history museums can act as both a vehicle for reconciliation and a more holistic understanding of the Earth’s natural history.

The recommendations for museums and archives in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action implores museums to comply with the tenets of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

These tenets include recognition of the fact that Indigenous peoples have the right to control their cultural heritage.

Thus, in the development of the Arctic Gallery, the museum partnered with Indigenous groups, and individuals living and operating in Canada’s north, in order to blend their voices and perspectives into the gallery.

The result of this partnership is an impressive gallery that incorporates scientific data, cultural insights, and the personal perspectives of a diverse group of individuals, including researchers, politicians, artisans, and hunters–all of whom speak through “people capsules”.

This myriad of voices presents the diverse splendor of the natural history of the Arctic–humans included.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Exhibitions, History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Visitor-turned-volunteer ushers museum’s fern collection into the 21st century

with Jennifer Doubt

Three years ago, I came to the Canadian Museum of Nature’s herbarium searching for a fern species native to Quebec. I ended-up discovering far more than I’d expected!

Museum herbarium curator Jennifer Doubt helped me with my request, and then suggested that, given my fern knowledge and enthusiasm, I help with a slightly bigger project. Over the years, fern scientists had improved our understanding of how various species are related to each other, and as a result many species now possessed new scientific names. Now, the museum’s entire fern collection needed to be reorganized to reflect current botanical understanding.

This would be a major job: the herbarium’s international collection of ferns and lycophytes (clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts) fill more than 400 cabinet shelves. But I’ve been a museum visitor for almost 50 years, and here was a chance to deepen my involvement with two things I love: the museum and ferns.

So, in response to my modest initial request, Jennifer turned me from a visitor into an official volunteer, one with the responsibility to drive this 21st-century fern reorganization plan.

A woman sits at a computer with herbarium specimens.

Part way through her three-year long update and reorganization of the museum’s fern collection, Botany volunteer Erica Eason remained undaunted. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

To start, we updated the Canadian ferns with current botanical names.

Determining the correct name for older or unusual specimens was often a multi-step process. This could involve searching traditional databases, on-line resources, historical sources, as well as tapping into the expertise of museum botanists and other local and national experts.

A hand-written label.

Updating the scientific name of a specimen in the fern collection often required hours of dogged detective work to decipher the original hand-written label. The name on this label is still a mystery. Any ideas? Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Next, I updated the names of the international specimens. Although the herbarium has fewer of these than Canadian ones, there are vastly more international genera and species, resulting in a more intensive specimen-by-specimen update.

Simultaneously, I created four new geographically specific folder colours to replace the blue folders previously used to identify all specimens from beyond Canada and the United States.

A live plant and a pressed plant on herbarium sheet.

Botany specimens are collected fresh and preserved by drying to serve herbarium users for hundreds of years. Catalogue number: CAN 10004164. Image: Erica Eason © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Finally, we reorganized the entire fern collection to reflect the latest fern DNA sequencing research.

We began this by creating an Excel file with an updated list of each shelf’s current contents, and adding new family names and numbers (Christenhusz 2011)1 for each genus. Then, the file was reorganized by new family number.

Presto: we’d created a revised order indicating where each specimen would be shelved in the new system. Without this meticulous preparation, the two days of work it required to physically reorganize the specimens — including a lot of bending, stretching and lifting — might have taken weeks, significantly disrupting access to the fern collection.

A woman removing folders in the collections.

University of Ottawa co-op student Rachel Bergeron removes specimens from the museum’s newly updated and reorganized fern collection. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.


Carleton University summer student Brigid Christison poses with a museum horsetail specimen during the digital imaging of the museum’s Arctic fern and lycophyte collection, all of which will be shared on-line. Collection number: CAN 10004196. Image: Brigid Christison © Canadian Museum of Nature.

No sooner was the reorganization finished than we began the digital barcoding and imaging of the collection’s ferns and lycophytes from the Canadian Arctic.

And wonderfully, not only do we know where the Arctic specimens are in the collection, but now they’re all properly named and organized!

1 Literature cited: Christenhusz, M.J., Zhang, X.C. and Schneider, H., 2011. A linear sequence of extant families and genera of lycophytes and ferns. Phytotaxa, 19(1), pp.7-54. (pdf).
Posted in Botany, Collections, Our visitors, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

The teething of the shrew

Last year, I spent three months identifying and cataloguing small mammal skulls in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s mammal collection.

Most of these skulls were from mice, voles, and shrews. These are the little animals that sound a lot bigger when heard at night rustling underneath leaves, though they are rarely seen due to their nocturnal habits — unless you have the eyesight of an owl!

A shrew, vole and mouse.

Three small mammals in Canada that are often confused: the shrew (Sorex), the vole (Myodes) and the mouse (Peromyscus). The vole and mouse pictured here have ear tags used in mark-recapture studies. Images: Shrew and Vole: Patrick Moldowan, © Patrick Moldowan. Mouse: Jonathan Gagnon, © Jonathan Gagnon.

So, using just a skull, how do you distinguish a shrew (Sorex), from a vole (Myodes), from a deer mouse (Peromyscus), and go on to identify the particular species?

Look at the teeth.

As furry little creatures they may look pretty similar, but when it comes to a dental perspective they’re distinct, particularly shrews.

Unlike mice and voles, shrews are insectivores — they feed primarily on insects, rather than the seeds, stems and leaves mice and voles consume. This difference in diet is reflected in shrew’s teeth. They have pointed canine teeth that are used to catch and eat worms, beetles, and spiders.

Ok, so this quick ID tool narrows an identification to “shrew”. But this is just getting started. There are 19 different species of shrews in Canada. A number of these species, including the barren ground shrew (Sorex ugyunak), live as far north as the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut.

illustration of 19 shrews

The 19 species of shrews found in Canada. Shrew images: Brenda Carter, Julius Csotonyi and Paul Geraghty, © Canadian Museum of Nature

These diverse Canadian shrews can be hard to tell apart using external characters, but again, the teeth tell the species tale.

For example, the cinereous shrew (Sorex cinereus) and the dusky shrew (Sorex monticolus) are almost indistinguishable when placed side-by-side, and they’re often found together since their ranges overlap throughout most of western Canada.

However, a careful look at their teeth, especially their unicuspids, teeth with a single point, tells them apart. As you move back from the snout, the unicuspids in cinereous shrews gradually decline in size, while a dusky shrew’s third unicuspid is clearly smaller than the fourth.

Photo montage of two shrew specimens and their teeth.

A. Side-by-side comparison highlights the close outward resemblance of the cinereous shrew (Sorex cinereus, left) and dusky shrew (Sorex moticolus). B. The upper teeth of the cinereous shrew. C.  The upper teeth of the dusky shrew. The tell-tale dental identifier of the dusky shrew is that its third unicuspid is much smaller than the fourth. Image: Elliott Schmidt, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, after an autumn of looking at small mammal skulls, I became very familiar with their different teeth, and was also glad I wasn’t identifying shrews based on another unique characteristic — they mark their territory using pungent scent glands which give off a strong, unpleasant odour.


Posted in Animals, Collections, Mammals, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Discovering species on the shelves

Museum collections are a thing of beauty.

I am constantly in awe of the rows upon rows of specimens, some in boxes or drawers, and others in jars of fluid that preserve their delicate tissues.

Few specimens, in my palaeontologist’s opinion, are as jaw-dropping as those in fossil collections. The shelves and drawers at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and in other museum collections, house some of the most bizarre and interesting specimens known to science.

A woman standing next to a fossil, Arsinoitherium zitteli andrews, Catalogue number: CMNFV 8183

Museum paleontologist Danielle Fraser with a cast of Arsinoitherium, an ancient mammal that resembles something more extraterrestrial than terrestrial. Arsinoitherium lived during the Eocene and Oligocene of Africa, about 56 to 23 million years ago. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8183

Collections play a pivotal role in science by allowing us to study and re-study critical specimens, particularly type specimens, those on which species are described and named.

Remarkably, museum collections are also great places to discover entirely new species.

Every palaeontologist hopes to discover new fossil species in the field. But many, perhaps even most, new fossil species are found hidden away in existing museum collections, the result of careful collection by past scientists. Each potentially new species waits patiently, often for decades, overlooked until a careful, mindful scientist happens across the right drawer, cabinet, or shelf.

This new species is then adorned with a name and becomes part of the vast, growing catalogue of ancient life, serving as a cherished scientific treasure for comparative study.

A woman measures antlers.

As part of a scientific study, museum paleontologist Danielle Fraser takes measurements of Pleistocene fossil caribou antlers in the museum’s collection. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Along with type specimens, museum collections contain large numbers of specimens from the same species. But why does a museum need dozens of Pleistocene caribou antlers, or any other fossil for that matter?

The biology of species is complicated and changes through time. Individuals of a species are variable, and populations are often separated by hundreds of kilometers. For example, Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) are considerably smaller than their caribou relatives to the south.

Thus, having numerous specimens for each species affords us the opportunity to understand variation within species and fill knowledge gaps.

For example, recently museum palaeobiologist Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and colleagues added a lot to what we know about the primitive bear (Protarctos abstrusus), by describing skeletal remains in the museum’s collection. Most of these fossils were collected in the 1990s in Nunavut by emeritus museum paleontologist Dr. Richard Harington.

Until now, the species description was based on a single fossil tooth from Idaho. Thanks to the description of the fossil skeleton housed in our museum collection, we now know much more about the evolutionary history of modern bears, and an ancient Arctic ecosystem.

Hands holding part of a bear fossil, Protarctos abstrusus, Catalogue number: CMNFV 54380

A 3.5-million-year-old specimen from Nunavut of the extinct bear, Protarctos abstrusus. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature. Catalogue number: CMNFV 54380

Now, museum collections are also playing an increasingly important role in understanding how human activity has changed species characteristics, from size to diet and genetics.

These data would be lost to pre-history if it were not for the hard work of the numerous collectors, cataloguers, preparators, and conservators that have built and maintained museum collections around the world.

And so, every time I walk into museum collections, I am struck by their incredible scientific beauty.

Posted in Collections, Fossils, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged | Leave a comment

World’s largest botany conference: “Care for Plants, Care for our Future”

This past summer, museum botany researchers Dr. Lynn Gillespie, Dr. Geoff Levin and I attended the XIX International Botanical Congress (IBC). It’s the world’s largest gathering of plant scientists, and by far the largest scientific conference I’ve ever attended.

A large wall covered in plants displays the name of a conference: “IBC 2017 XIX International Botanical Congress”

An impressive horticultural display at the XIX International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China, July 2017. Image: J.M. Saarela, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

For one week in July, more than 7000 botanists, from 77 countries and all disciplines, met in Shenzhen, China for this once-every-six-year event. The theme of the meeting was “Care for Plants, Care for our Future”. Meetings like this one allow researchers to share the latest advances in their science with their peers, to renew acquaintances with colleagues, to make new connections, and to establish new collaborations that advance the plant sciences.

Before the IBC’s main event, the scientific meeting, Lynn, Geoff and I participated in the five-day Nomenclature Section where we debated and voted on revisions to the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. “The Code”, as it’s known, is the set of complicated rules that govern how these organisms are named, and is revised every six years at the IBC.

Four people are presenting to a full auditorium. Conference attendees in the auditorium are voting on questions posed during the presentation by raising their hands.

Delegates of the Nomenclature Section at the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China, in July, 2017, vote on a proposal to amend the International Code of Nomenclature of algae, fungi, and plants. Image: J.M. Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the scientific meeting, I co-organized a symposium focused on the systematics and phylogeny of major lineages of grasses (Poaceae), economically the world’s most important family of plants.

Lynn and I each delivered symposium talks on our research about evolutionary relationships in different lineages of temperate grasses, bluegrasses and relatives in her case, and bentgrasses, reedgrasses, oatgrasses and their relatives in mine. Lynn and I also presented two posters on the biodiversity of Arctic plants in Canada.

Geoff, president of the Flora of North America Association, delivered a presentation about The Flora of North America project, a 30-volume work that includes taxonomic treatments of all the native and naturalized plants growing in the region.


Pavilions at the XIX International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China, July 2017. Image: J.M. Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the close of the conference, The Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences was released. The Declaration is a strategic call to action for the plant sciences in the context of rapid environmental change. It is focused on seven priorities that aim to unite all botanical disciplines in pursuit of a green, sustainable future with plants and people existing in harmony.

Performers dance on a stage in front of large images of plants.

A scene from the spectacular welcome performance at the opening ceremony of the XIX International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China, July 2017. The scene depicts flowers of peony (Paeonia, Paeoniaceae), which are native to China and have been cultivated there for centuries. Image: J.M. Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The museum’s botanical research, outreach and education activities align well with the Declaration’s seven priority areas, and we’ll continue to generate and share knowledge about plant biodiversity.

I’m already looking forward to the XX IBC, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2023.

Posted in Botany, Plants and Algae, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going digital: Putting the museum’s impressive library collection online

by Roberto Lima and Teresa Neamtz

Two women stand in front of a display of rare books.

Some of the museum library’s rare books on display during our Open House. Our Rare Book Collection consists of more than 4,000 pre-20th century monographs, manuscripts and periodicals. These cover expeditions, natural history, and biological and Earth sciences dating back to the 16th century. Image: John Davies, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As Canadian Museum of Nature library professionals, we want Canadians and visitors from around the world to have greater access to the museum’s impressive library. And, increasingly, this means not putting books in readers’ hands, but making them accessible to their screens.

This is why the museum is an active participant in the global digitization initiative.

We’re scanning and photographing key parts of our collection to make them available via the Internet.

Our digitization project is in collaboration with the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It’s an international consortium of natural history libraries that’s digitizing rare and historically important biodiversity literature and making it available online, for free.

With the help of summer student Teresa Neamtz, we recently boosted the museum’s online collection to approximately 80 publications.

A woman working at a computer.

Teresa Neamtz, a summer student in the museum library’s Scientific Training Program, edits a Biodiversity Heritage Library scan. Image: Roberto Lima © Canadian Museum of Nature

Digitizing our publications is done with modest equipment, a digital camera for bulky or fragile rare books, flatbed scanners for most other books.

It takes hours to scan, edit, and upload each book. With limited resources, we can’t make everything in the museum’s library available online. How do we set priorities?

To start, if a publication is already online, we don’t redo that work but instead focus on gaps that we can fill. For example, much of the museum’s Syllogeus series has been digitized by other libraries, so we stepped in to digitize missing volumes.

A page of hand drawn butterfly illustrations.

A colourful illustration of butterflies, complete with handwritten notes, in 19th-century naturalist Philip Henry Gosse’s manuscript Entomologia Terrae Novae. Image: Philip Henry Gosse, public domain.

Next, digitization is a great way to protect fragile or unique items, such as 19th-century naturalist Phillip Henry Gosse’s wonderful Entomologia Terrae Novae. Having a digital version reduces handling of the original, and ensures that its valuable information will not be lost if the physical copy is ever damaged. Digitizing rare books also makes them much more accessible to the public.

Finally, in deciding what to digitize, we consider the level of interest and enduring usefulness of a publication. For example, The Native Flora of Churchill, Manitoba by H.J. Scoggan is a 1959 publication still used by museum botanists. Digitizing it means that multiple researchers can use the book at once.

Researchers can even download the book to a tablet and take this onto the tundra with them when doing fieldwork.

It will take years to fully curate the museum’s high-quality online library.

In the meantime, we always welcome in-person visitors to the library who wish to use the original paper copies of our scientific publications!

Posted in Collections, Research, Tools of the trade | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The best Saturday afternoon ever: Prepping out dino bones

by Alan McDonald and Kathlyn Stewart

As Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologists, there’s one question we get asked more than any other: “How do you get dinosaur bones out of the rock?”

In 2013, one of us (Kathlyn Stewart, museum palaeonotogist and co-author of this blog post) concluded that the best way to respond to this question would be to show, rather than tell, the answer.

Thus was born what’s become the hugely popular fossil preparation station in the Fossil Gallery.

A woman standing over fossils on a table talking with museum visitors.

Museum palaeontologist Kathlyn Stewart explaining the process of fossil preparation to visitors in the Fossil Gallery. Image: Hanna Stewart, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Here, every Saturday afternoon, museum visitors can watch and talk with a palaeontologist who’s preparing, or prepping out, a real dinosaur fossil at the demonstration table. The scientist is often the other half of this blogging duo, collections technician and head of our fossil preparation laboratory, Alan McDonald.

We work on real dinosaur specimens from our collections, some of which were collected more than 100 years ago. The specimens are still in their historic, unopened field jackets, the protective plaster cast that’s put on a fossil when it’s collected. Visitors see the tools and techniques involved in the often-intricate process of prepping out a real fossil.

A man poses before plaster jackets containing dinosaur fossils.

Museum Collections Technician Alan McDonald with some of the unopened plaster jackets stored in the museum’s collections facility. The field numbers written on the jackets reveal the date that the fossils they contain were found. Dozens of these field jackets await opening, so many more cleaned dinosaur fossils will be added to our collections in the future by our busy Saturday afternoon preparators. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A man, seated at a work table, cleans a fossil specimen.

Museum Collections Technician Shyong En Pan prepares dinosaur bones in a plaster jacket at the demonstration table of the fossil preparation station. This specimen, part of a duck-billed dinosaur’s skull, was originally collected in Alberta by a museum field crew in 1954. Catalogue number: CMNFV 57072. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

However, soon after starting the demonstration table, we realized that even better than demonstrating fossil preparation would be to allow visitors to participate.

Left: A man and woman assist children at a museum activity station. Right: A young woman supervises children cleaning dinosaur fossils at a museum activity station.

Volunteers Peter Sawyer and Hanna Stewart with young visitors at the children’s activity table. Here, eager kids, big and small, gear up with safety glasses, dental picks, and brushes to tackle prepping out a real dinosaur bone. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, the next year, we added an interactive component, the children’s activity station.

Here, visitors of all ages can take part in hands-on preparation of actual dinosaur fossils. The specimens, fossils of horned dinosaurs (ceratopsians) and duck-billed dinosaurs (hadrosaurs) from our teaching collection, are embedded in a simulated matrix and dressed in plaster like an authentic field jacket. Then visitors use similar tools to the ones we use to prep out the fossils.

A woman and a boy examine dinosaur fossils at a museum activity station.

Two visitors at the children’s activity table discussing their strategy for removing a dinosaur vertebra from a simulated rock. Throughout the year, new field jacket replicas are made to replace the ones prepared by our hundreds of palaeontologist-for-a-day visitors. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

While aspiring palaeontologists diligently work to free the dinosaur bones, museum palaeontology staff, or our dedicated and indispensable volunteers, explain the many steps required to remove fossilized specimens from the ground, cover them with plaster field jackets, transport them to the lab, and prepare them for study.

Since 2013, numerous museum specimens have received professional treatment at the demonstration table, making the museum’s scientific collection more accessible and contributing to some very interesting research projects. This includes a recently completed study concerning why armoured dinosaurs (ankylosaurs) are usually fossilized upside down.

A man uses a pneumatic tool to remove rock from a dinosaur fossil.

Research Assistant Scott Rufolo working on the tail club from an armoured dinosaur, or ankylosaur. He is using an air scribe, a pneumatic tool akin to a mini-jackhammer, to carefully remove rock from the surface of the fossilized bone. This specimen contributed data to a study organized by museum palaeontologist Jordan Mallon. Catalogue number: CMNFV 31074. Image: Jonathan Huyer, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The fossil preparation station has been enormously popular. We average around 330 visitors to the fossil preparation station every Saturday afternoon, and we hit a record number of more than 900 people during the 2017 Canada Day weekend.

As the station begins its fifth year of operation, we look forward to further engaging our visitors and inspiring future scientists.

And, together, we all anxiously wait to see what new fossil discoveries lie buried beneath the plaster!

Posted in Education, Fossils, Museum Visitors | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Back into shape nature in 2018!

Pop quiz: Which of the following do Canadian Museum of Nature research and collection staff do in their daily work?

a) Discover, identify, and file specimens important to Canada’s natural history.
b) Shoot minerals with x-rays, and DNA with lasers, to learn about how species differ.
c) Wrangle live dinosaurs back into their displays.
d) Share research and collections stories with the world, including through this blog.
e) All of the above.

If you answered e) All of the above you’re right (ok, except for c, but we wish it were true!)

In addition to this blog’s wonderful authors, there’s also an editorial team who manage to squeeze in time between their normal tasks to cajole their colleagues, edit text, and track down photos to bring these stories to life.

Since September 2017 the blog’s editorial team has been drawn from our research and collection staff, and at this special time of year, as we reflect on the future, we’d like to introduce ourselves and share our 2018 back-to-nature New Year’s resolutions.

Noel Alfonso, Zoology Editor

Collage of a man standing in a pool of water and looking at a tree.

Museum researcher Noel Alfonso collecting Herrington’s fingernail clams (Sphaerium occidentale) in a vernal pool, a temporary body formed by spring melt water. Image: Graham LaRose © Canadian Museum of Nature.

My main work at the museum is in ichthyology, the study of fishes, though I also get involved in malacology, the study of molluscs, such as clams. I’ve also worked at the museum’s Canadian Centre for Biodiversity. Next year, I’d like to spend more time in the natural world to try to understand and appreciate a wide range of organisms and places, from tiny fingernail clams to entire ecosystems.

Erika Anderson, Mineralogy Editor

A woman standing in falling snow.

Those crystals of snow make museum mineralogist Erika Anderson wish she was at the famous Tucson Gem and Mineral Show®, the world’s largest such event. Image: Thomas Cullen © Thomas Cullen.

I am the Curator of the Mineralogy Collection at the museum. My New Year’s resolution is to find something beautiful and unique at a mineral show to add to the museum’s National Mineral Collection.

Shannon Asencio, Collections Services and Information Management Editor, English Copy Editor

A woman standing in front of bushes in Guangxi, China.

The museum’s Shannon Asencio in Guangxi, China during an ethnobotanical field study trip. Image : Shannon Asencio © Shannon Asencio.

I am the museum’s Head of Collections Services and Information Management. My New Year’s resolution is to improve my knowledge of the plants and fungi of the Ottawa-Gatineau region. My previous botanical field work has taken me to Hawaii, China, southern Mexico, and the Canadian prairies. Ottawa-Gatineau region: You’re next!

Susan Goods, Blog Coordinator, production

A young girl looking at Mallards in the river.

Nature can be found in urban areas. The Thames River runs through London, Ontario and like many urban rivers is accessible to most residents. Image: Susan Goods, © Susan Goods.

Surrounded here at the museum by others also passionate about nature, it’s easy to forget that many people face barriers to experiencing nature. One of my duties involves the Canadian Committee for the IUCN which supports #NatureForAll, a global movement to inspire love of nature. Studies show that adults who are committed to conservation had meaningful experiences outdoors when they were young. My New Year’s resolution therefore is to help introduce a young person to nature.

Scott Rufolo, Palaeobiology Editor

A man wearing a blue-and-black checkered jacket, crouched down in the snow with his dog

Museum palaeobiology research assistant Scott Rufolo dislikes cold with a passion. But his dog, Flame, loves to play in the snow and is leading Scott to a new relationship with winter. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As an archaeologist and palaeontologist, I’ve worked in Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia. And if you know me, this is no surprise: I was born in Arizona, and I like the heat! My 2018 New Year’s resolution is to learn to enjoy nature in the cold Canadian winter by cross-country skiing and hiking with my dog, who already loves the snow!

Paul Sokoloff, Botany Editor

A man standing on the tundra in Nunavut holding a lichen.

Museum botanist Paul Sokoloff collecting lichens in Bernard Harbour, Nunavut. Image: Ellie Clin © Ellie Clin.

In my role as an Arctic botanist, my field notes are filled with pages of detailed notes on flowers, and only passing references to “assorted lichens”. My New Year’s resolution is to learn more about lichens–the fascinating, steadfast organisms that are so important to the ecosystems of the North.

Stéphanie Tessier, French Copy Editor, Alternate Zoology Editor

Stephanie in the laboratory, looking at a preserved flatfish.

Museum collections manager Stéphanie Tessier examines a preserved flatfish collected in the Canadian Arctic. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

I manage the fish, amphibian, and reptile collections at the museum. I spend a lot of time looking at our exceptional diversity of preserved specimens. My New Year’s resolution is to spend more time outdoors to observe those fascinating animals not in pickling jars, but in their natural habitats.

What about you, dear reader? What’s your 2018 nature-inspired New Year’s resolution?

Posted in Collections, Nature Inspiration, Research | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Two Rare Species, One Big Trip

A researcher standing on the tundra and holding a plant specimen

During a search for the endangered hairy braya on Baillie Island, Northwest Territories, researcher Lianna Teeter holds a specimen of a related member of the genus Braya. Image: Paul C. Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

“Is this it?” asks Lianna Teeter, a researcher from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences in Victoria. In her hand she holds a small braya, an Arctic plant in the mustard family.

On this September day, we’re towards the end of the 11th leg of the historic Canada C3 expedition to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Our leg’s group, approximately 60 Canadians from across the country, is part of this coast-to-coast-to-coast ocean journey of reconciliation, unity, diversity, and science.

A small team of us have landed and are searching for an endangered plant species, the hairy braya (Braya pilosa).

“Close, but not quite,” I reply to Lianna. The specimen she found, a different species of Braya, still goes into a plastic bag that we’ll take back to our ship, the Polar Prince, for pressing.


The Canada C3 expedition vessel, the M/V Polar Prince, holding station in a bay on Sutton Island, Nunavut. Image: Paul C. Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our search team, a handful of expedition scientists and other participants, goes back to exploring the muddy plateaus of Baillie Island, just off the tip of Cape Bathurst on the Northwest Territories mainland.

This is the only place on the planet the hairy braya is known to exist, but we don’t find it that day.

We do however witness the dramatic erosion of the shoreline into the sea, a stark reminder of the rapid climate change that is threatening species, and a way of life, across Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland.


Erosion on Herschel Island. Image: Richard Gordon © Government of Yukon

However, just the day before our hairy braya search, we did find a different rare species near the tip of Cape Parry, the peninsula immediately to the east of Cape Bathurst.

Just over the hill from our landing spot, growing in cracks spreading across the mud, we found the Arctic orangebush lichen (Teloschistes arcticus).


The Arctic orangebush lichen (Teloschistes arcticus) growing on Cape Parry, Northwest Territories. Image: Paul C. Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This rare lichen is known in Canada only from this particular area in the Northwest Territories.

The specimen we take for the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collection will document the species’ existence in the Canadian Arctic in 2017, just as all the botanical collections made on C3 will serve as part of a scientific legacy for this epic voyage.

A purple flower among rocks and lichen

A late-flowering Arctic locoweed (Oxytropis arctica) gives the tundra a pop of purple. Image: Paul C. Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Quanaqqutit to our amazing hosts in Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region!

Posted in Arctic, Botany, Collections, Plants and Algae, Research, Species Discovery and Change | Tagged , | 2 Comments