In the Amazing Business: Museum Collections

Science is often the subject of the news. The science that is most often reported is the super-popular, like reports about birds, the mega-sciences like space exploration, health issues like disease outbreaks or cures, the amazing, new technology applications that change our lives, and the reports of species that are bizarre in one way or another.

The museum recently opened Animal Inside Out to show visitors something bizarre— because you just don’t get the chance to see this kind of thing: the actual biological systems that exist beneath a thin cloak of skin. But amazing doesn’t only come in a travelling exhibition; we have natural-history specimens in our collections that will blow your mind, even without dissecting them.

Heads and tusks of several narwhals above the surface of the water.

Narwhals tusking. Image: Glenn Williams, National Institute of Standards and Technology © Public domain

Imagine an animal that has a canine tooth that can be up to 3 metres long, weighs up to 10 kilograms and unlike the other teeth that point into the mouth, grows through the upper lip to point forward. The narwhal has an extensive, northern distribution, and can be found in the eastern part of the Canadian Arctic. When the males are mature, at least one of their canine teeth (usually on the left side), gives them a unicorn-like appearance.

A close-up of a sea star's tube feet.

A sea-star arm. The tube feet that can open prey are clearly visible. Image: Mokele © Mokele (licensed: CC BY 3.0)

Live clams, mussels and scallops are impossible to open unless you have a hammer or a knife. Some animals are specially adapted to prying them open with their feet. Sea stars have hundreds of tube-feet that apply a small amount of suction and act together to create an unbeatable force. Once the shellfish weakens and is open the slightest crack, the sea-star slowly pushes its stomach outside its body and into its prey to begin digesting and absorbing its meal. (Watch a video).

Some photosynthetic organisms are as small as the red blood cells that course through your veins. Diatoms are protists (not true plants or animals) and distinguish themselves by living in an intricate glass covering. Each species has a unique design that gives protection, allows it to grow, and permits enough light and nutrients to pass to it so it can produce energy and thrive.

A diatom seen through magnification.

Amphora copulata is a freshwater diatom found in the Arctic. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

When you visit the High Arctic, there are a couple obvious features. First, where are all the trees? The second is the wind. But if you look closely toward your feet, there are woody plants all around. The Arctic willow is one of the most northerly, hugging the ground, often with a network of branches, avoiding the worst of the strong, steady wind above. These remarkable trees are also adapted to reproduce and grow in an extremely short summer season, and to survive severe cold.

A ground-level view of woody branches and leaves growing along the ground.

A network of willows (Salix sp.) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in the High Arctic. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history makes it into our lexicon in many ways. For now, let’s focus on “rock-solid”. But in nature there are lots of exceptions, flexible sandstone (itacolumite) being one of them. Itacolumite is a rock named after Itacolumi, Brazil, where it was first discovered. Hollow spaces between the quartz grains of this sedimentary rock give it flexibility. If you hold a long, thin section of itacolumite at its middle point and move it sideways back and forth, the rock will wriggle like a fish tail swimming through the water. (Video).

Collage that shows a long, thin slice of rock bent one way and the other.

A sample of itacolumite that is bendable. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Pterosaurs existed 66 million to 228 million years ago. These reptiles were remarkable because they could fly—a feature not common then or now. (Pterosaur means “winged lizards”). Flight was possible with wings made of a membrane that stretched across the forearm to the tip of a greatly extended 4th digit and down to the ankle of the hind limb. Some pterosaur species were the largest flying creatures ever.

A pterosaur with wings extended.

This illustration of a pterosaur (Sordes sp.) shows the membranous wing structure. Image: Dmitry Bogdanov © Dmitry Bogdanov (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0)

These are examples of the more that 10 million specimens that have been collected and studied at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I could have easily mentioned the parts of a camel that we found in the Arctic, or the new species of crustaceans found in the deep sea, or the micro-algae found in polar sea ice, or the new tourmaline mineral that we just described.

The truth is, when you hang out with natural-history experts, you find that just about everything they study has an amazing story attached to it. Species discovery is a big part of what natural-history museums do, and our findings are shared with our science colleagues and the general public.

Posted in Animals, Collections, Fossils, Plants and Algae, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Plastination and Taxidermy: Which is Best for a Museum?

In a previous blog, I had the chance to give my general impressions on the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition currently being shown at the Museum. I was particularly entranced by the technique used for this exhibition: plastination.

The dried skin, skeleton and jar with internal organs of a green frog.

This green frog (Lithobates clamitans, CMNAR 16855), along with almost one million other vertebrates, is preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature in three different forms: dried, flattened skin; complete skeleton; and formalin-fixed internal organs preserved in alcohol. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Specimen of a Canada Jay.

A close examination of the inner skin of this Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and many other birds preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature makes it possible to describe the original structural layout of bird skins, thus creating an anatomical characterization of the taxon. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are several methods in existence for preserving animal tissues. One technique akin to plastination, called paraffinization, is in use since the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of injecting paraffin into soft, fresh tissues from which water has been extracted. But the results in terms of handling and long-term conservation can hardly be compared to plastination. Just how widespread is the use of this plastination technique, particularly in natural history museums?

The digestive organs of a river otter in a large glass jar.

These digestive organs of a river otter (Lutra canadensis, CMNMA 55582) are preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature in large glass jars containing alcohol, for anatomical comparison purposes. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history collection curators have a battery of different conservation methods that can be adapted to various uses and specific goals. For example, the Canadian Museum of Nature vertebrate collections that I manage as curator include tens of thousands of complete or partial skeletons. There are almost just as many skins preserved in various forms: round, flat, naturalized, dried, preserved in liquid, refrigerated, and frozen. Over one million complete fish, amphibians and reptiles are preserved in 70% ethanol or 10% formalin. We also have internal organs, though they generally make up a small portion of our collections.

The museum’s freeze dryer.

This freeze dryer at the Museum is used to extract water from an organism. Our phycologists most often use it to dry sediments that contaminate field samples. Once the operation is completed, they can more easily separate the two, just like separating the wheat from the chaff. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Canadian Museum of Nature also owns a freeze dryer for extracting all the water contained in an organism. This produces a dry specimen that keeps its natural appearance and is supposedly easy to preserve. About forty years ago, tests were done to use freeze-drying techniques as a less costly alternative to taxidermy. Our phycologists also prepare diatoms in this manner to reveal their inner structure—similar to what plastination is seeking to achieve.

Mount of an American Robin.

This American Robin (Turdus migratorius), with its naturalized look, was in fact preserved in its integrity, including skin, skeleton and all internal organs. Only the water contained in the body was extracted by freeze-drying. It was unfortunately the only surviving specimen from a series prepared at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, unlike the ease of handling associated with plastinated specimens, museum specimens prepared or preserved using the above techniques have a few drawbacks. Mammals and birds prepared using freeze-drying techniques are now too fragile and brittle to be handled extensively. In addition, body fats seep through the skin and damage the fur or feathers, making the specimens more prone to insect attacks. From the specimens in our bird collection prepared in this way, only the American Robin was saved from these destructive agents. Specimens kept in alcohol or formalin pose some challenges because of the dangerous nature of these chemical preservatives, likely to cause serious health problems in humans.

Plastination would be of great value in exhibitions because it produces realistic specimens. Museums would greatly benefit from it because specimens no longer need any maintenance. Why isn’t it being used? Is it because this technique is too costly that museums are so reluctant? Note that preparing the giraffe for the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition required almost 30,000 person-hours of work. An elephant not shown at the museum in Ottawa required 65,000 person-hours. In other words, if I set out to prepare this elephant by myself, I would need 33 years of full-time work to complete the project. It would then be the only project I would complete in my entire career! That’s much too long for a single specimen.

The giraffe specimen in Animal Inside Out.

The giraffe in the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Amy Zambonin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Plastination is better adapted to the needs of teaching general anatomy. It is not used in natural history museums. There is however one point in common between plastination and taxidermy in a museum setting. While in the first case the skin is removed to show the original structural configuration of the body’s internal organs, the animals are reconstituted at the museum with the skin back on, in an artistic and often theatrical fashion to exhibit them as naturalized specimens. In this way, specimens in both cases are no longer simply corpses, but creatures that come to life. They are shown in all their splendour to foster an appreciation of, and profound respect for, living things.

(Translated from French)

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Species Discoveries in 2014 at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Bob Anderson in a hilly landscape, holding collecting equipment.

The author in Venezuela on a field trip to collect new species of weevils for identification. Image: Steve Ashe © Canadian Museum of Nature

When I was a child, one of the first books I received was one on farm animals: how to recognize them, what they were called and, of course, what sounds they made. In fact, if you think about it, you probably spend the first three years of your life learning what the various things around you are called, and often, by trial and error, which of them you can eat. Some things tasted bad, most things your mother took away before you could get a good bite of it, and a few tasted good. In everyday life, it’s important that all those things have names.

From the scientific side of things, it’s not much different. One of the most important research activities at the Canadian Museum of Nature is describing and naming species: the science of taxonomy. Rather than give simple, common names to species, we use a system implemented in 1758 by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. This is a binomial system that uses two names: one is the genus, or group, to which the species belongs, and the second is the actual species name itself.

A portrait of Carolus Linnaeus.

Carolus Linnaeus. The scientific naming system that he developed has stood the test of time for 257 years. Image: © Public domain

The key to the system is that there is only one valid combination of a genus name with a species name. Consequently, there is no ambiguity in knowing what that species is, and from there, where it lives and what it does. If, for example, I say “Acer saccharum“, one knows that this can only be the sugar-maple tree, a species of maple that is native to eastern North America and best known for its bright autumn foliage and for being the primary source of maple syrup. And so it goes for all species: one name, one species. Once you know the scientific name for something, you can access all known information about it.

Each year, museum scientists carry out research activities worldwide in their quest to find and name new species. These new species can be animals, plants, minerals or fossils.

The year 2014 saw museum scientists involved in the naming of

  • 33 new weevils
  • 1 new amphipod
  • 1 new diatom
  • 1 new mineral
  • 3 new fossil reptiles.
A diatom specimen.

The strangely sculptured marine diatom Entomoneis calixasini. Image: Michel Poulin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Michel Poulin and colleagues discovered Entomoneis calixasini, a very unusual and curiously architectured marine diatom recovered from deep sediment cores in the Mamara Sea, Turkey.

Ed Hendrycks described Ptilohyale brevicrus, a marine amphipod collected in the intertidal zone amongst algae, cobble and sand off the coast of South Korea.

Joel Grice described a new species of mineral, Telluromandarinoite, which occurs in Coquimbo Province in the Chilean Andes, about 640 km north of Santiago.

A prepared weevil specimen.

Tylodinus rufus, one of the 32 new species of Tylodinus weevils from Chiapas, Mexico. Image: Robert S. Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Aside from a single species, Sphenophorus spangleri, that I named from Sinaloa, Mexico, I teamed up with Mexican Ph.D. student, Jesus Luna Cozar, to describe 32 new species in the weevil genus Tylodinus in the Mexican state of Chiapas that we collected there over the past number of years. Most of these were from leaf litter, but some were found on black, crusty fungus living on the undersides of large rotting logs. Luna Cozar carried out the naming part of the project and chose to name one of the species after me.

Xiao-Chun Wu described three new fossil reptiles, perhaps the most interesting of these being Atopodentatus unicus, a new marine genus and species from the Triassic Period of China, with a highly specialized filter-feeding adaptation not seen before.

Prepared cranial and post-cranial fossils.

The fossil reptile Atopodentatus unicus. Note the highly specialized fine, elongate teeth for filter feeding. Image: Xiao-chun Wu © Canadian Museum of Nature

Scientists have named about 1.5 million species already, but there are many more to be found. Sometimes these can be found in the large collections of our museum or in one of the many other museum collections around the world, but the most exciting way to discover these new things is to be out there in the field finding them ourselves. Past blog articles will tell you lots about our field work; please read them.

And remember, cows go moo, an apple tastes good, and you should not eat dirt.

Species Discoveries at the Museum in 2014

Crustaceans
Ptilohyale brevicrus

Diatoms
Entomoneis calixasini

Fossil Reptiles
Atopodentatus unicus
Funlusaurus luanchuanensis
Largocephalosaurus qianensis

Minerals
Telluromandarinoite

Weevils
Sphenophorus spangleri
Tylodinus andersoni
Tylodinus branstetteri
Tylodinus buchanani
Tylodinus coapillensis
Tylodinus complicatus
Tylodinus dominicus
Tylodinus elongatus
Tylodinus exiguus
Tylodinus gibbosus
Tylodinus immundus
Tylodinus intzin
Tylodinus ixchel
Tylodinus jonesi
Tylodinus kissingeri
Tylodinus kuscheli
Tylodinus leoncortesi
Tylodinus lum
Tylodinus mutabilis
Tylodinus noctis
Tylodinus pappi
Tylodinus parvus
Tylodinus pinguis
Tylodinus porvenirensis
Tylodinus pseudocavicrus
Tylodinus pusillus
Tylodinus rufus
Tylodinus rugosus
Tylodinus sepulturaensis
Tylodinus spiniventris
Tylodinus triumforium
Tylodinus variabilis
Tylodinus wibmeri

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Cabinets, Cabinets Everywhere: Getting Ready to Welcome New Collections From Geological Survey of Canada

I’m standing in Warehouse 2 in the museum’s research and collections facility looking at 225 stacked metal cabinets. Lane cabinets, to be exact. It took five trucks to haul them up from the US. The warehouse, which looked so huge when it was empty, is now so tightly packed, I can barely see the walls!

A man stands beside towering ranges of stacked boxes.

Warehouse Manager Stephane Gratton organized the transfer of the 225 cabinets from the trucks to our warehouse. Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lane cabinets are heavy-duty cabinets that are each 74 × 76 × 81 cm (29″ × 30″ × 32″) with 10 shelves. They are made specifically for storing natural-history specimens.

These cabinets will potentially be home to tens of thousands of fossil specimens and minerals at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Where did these specimens come from and why? To answer this, we need to take a trip back in time.

A portrait of a man sitting in a chair.

William Logan, 1856
Artist: George Theodore Berthon
Gift of the Geological Survey of Canada
Canadian Museum of History, 2007.171.223, IMG2008-0209-0057-Dm

Back in 1842, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC)—Canada’s first scientific agency—came into being. William Logan, its first director, had the ambitious goal of the GSC undertaking a geological assessment of the complete Canadian landmass. Not long after, several geologists—including Logan—were scattered throughout Canada, mapping geological formations and collecting rocks, minerals and fossils.

During this Age of Exploration, so many minerals and fossils were collected that Logan established the Geological Museum in Montréal, Quebec, for their storage and display to the public.

Eventually, the GSC headquarters and museum collections moved to Ottawa, and in 1911 the museum collections found a “permanent” home in a newly constructed building, known as the Victoria Memorial Museum Building (VMMB). Here, their spectacular collections could be displayed to a large audience.

A fossil exposed in a flat rock.

A trilobite (Olenoides serratus) from the Late Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park, British Columbia. Specimen at Geological Survey of Canada (W.E. Logan Hall, 601 Booth Street, Ottawa). Image: Jean Dougherty © Geological Survey of Canada

The VMMB and its collections were an instant success with the public. Continued success resulted in expanding collections, but increasingly less space. In 1959, the GSC moved its collections and staff to its present location on Booth Street in Ottawa. The National Museum of Natural Sciences, having been separated from the GSC in 1927, remained in the building. (The National Museum of Natural Sciences is a precursor to the Canadian Museum of Nature).

The move meant that big decisions needed to be made on dividing the geological and fossil collections between the GSC and the museum. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall for those discussions! In the end, most of the rock, mineral, fossil invertebrate and plant collections went with the GSC. The botany, zoology, fossil vertebrates and cultural collections remained with the museum at the VMMB.

Three mollusc fossils and a leaf fossil.

Plant and mollusc fossils collected by G.M. Dawson in the 1880s. Image: Jean Dougherty © Geological Survey of Canada

Today, the GSC collections remain at the Booth Street complex, under the umbrella of National Resources Canada (NRCan). Recently, for various reasons, it has been decided that these buildings will be vacated. In late 2013, the NRCan Assistant Deputy Minister expressed NRCan’s interest in having the Canadian Museum of Nature curate their fossil invertebrate and mineral collections. A Memorandum of Agreement was drafted, stating in part that NRCan and the museum would collaborate to “ensure that the geological national collections are curated and managed to modern standards”.

A group of people pose for the camera.

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC)–Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) Collections Transfer Working Group.
Back row, left to right: Kathy Stewart (Research Scientist and Section Head, Palaeobiology, CMN), Ann Therriault (Manager, Earth Materials Collections, GSC), Scott Ercit (Research Scientist and Section Head, Mineralogy, CMN), Kieran Shepherd (Curator, Palaeobiology Collection, CMN).
Front row, left to right: Cathryn Bjerkelund (Sub-Division Head, Geology and Metallogeny, Central Canada Division, GSC), Michelle Coyne (Curator, Organic Materials, GSC), Shannon Asencio (Head, Collections Services and Information Management, CMN). Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

From there, the ball started rolling quickly. A working group was set up. From the first meeting it was clear that the GSC staff loved their collections and were reluctant to see them leave the GSC. But, it was also clear that the building that housed these collections had deficiencies that put the collections at risk. The Canadian Museum of Nature, with its much newer collections facilities, could provide a better standard of care for the collections. The idea of transferring at least some of the GSC collections to the museum—as a loan or permanently—took shape.

The working group has met frequently, hammering out the steps to be taken in the transfer. This is not a job for the faint of heart! The total fossil invertebrate and mineral collection occupies something like a whopping 2600 cabinets at GSC, far more than can be accommodated at the museum’s collection facility. The working group has chosen for now to focus on a more workable number of 500 cabinets. These would include the type collections and several smaller orphan or at-risk collections.

A large room filled with stacks of boxes.

The receipt of 225 empty cabinets is the first step in the transfer. Next, we will move the first specimens, the equivalent of 35 cabinets, and carefully store them here at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

Right now, we are celebrating the first step in the actual transfer: the receipt of the new cabinets, mentioned above. Our next challenge will be to carry out a preliminary dry run of packing, transporting and unpacking about 35 cabinets of specimens, some highly fragile, and then moving them into the new cabinets. The number of people and the amount of time and resources involved in this pilot project will allow us to estimate what is needed for the much larger project.

We’ll keep you posted how things go…

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Creating a Better Future for the Arctic: The Role of Natural-History Museums

May 8 to 10: Meeting of the Arctic Natural History Museums Alliance

A few years ago, during Sweden’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the director of its national natural-history museum and I met in South Korea during the IUCN World Conservation Congress. We decided that the national natural-history museums need to step up and actively share our knowledge of the Arctic regions and to be more ambitious in our sharing of that knowledge with scientific colleagues, public-policy decision-makers and the general public.

We did a call out to the directors of the national natural-history museums of the eight Arctic Council states to get things started. We met in April 2013 and again in May 2014. Our focus was determined to be collections access, research collaboration and public outreach.

Three people pose together, one holding a narwhal tusk.

Left to right: Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Natural History Museum; Meg Beckel, CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature, holding the Narwhal Mace; Jan Olov Westerberg, Director General of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Image: Kirk Johnson © Kirk Johnson

For the May 2015 meeting, our plan was to meet with all eight national natural-history museums from the Arctic Council states. And then the reality of changing leaders and conflicting schedules kicked in. The willing and available carried on with reports from our colleagues and spent three days in Washington with other national natural-history museums of the Arctic Council states. Our focus during this meeting was on collections digitization, research contribution and collaboration, and impactful public programming and outreach.

The first day began with a tour of the Smithsonian natural-history museum’s off-site collection facility. Mark Graham, Ph.D., our VP of Research and Collections, was available for this part of our gathering. I was mid-air at the time, making my way from Ottawa to Washington. Following an informal lunch that included a front-row view of the World War airplane fly-by, our meeting opened with a panel discussion about the need for a human perspective when speaking about the Arctic.

The panellists and moderator during the presentation.

The meeting began with an expert-panel presentation on the need for a human perspective in discussions about the Arctic. Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

The panel presentation included speakers from science, public policy, indigenous governance, the Arctic Council and natural-history museums (yours truly). The panel was followed by a magical dinner for major donors (and museum colleagues) in the atrium of the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum.

Tables set up in the atrium.

The atrium of the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum set up for the donor evening. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Saturday morning we were back to business. The morning’s focus was collections access. Like other museums around the world, we are challenged to prioritize which collections to digitize with our scarce resources so that we make the data that are most needed available in a form that is useful.

Also, we need to determine which data management sites are most used, and are thus a place for our data. From Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) to Scientific Collections International (Scicoll), we have many existing tools that we can continue to post our data to, and some new ones are being discussed.

We are suggesting an Arctic portal be created for both EOL and GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) so that visitors to those sites know that Arctic data are available and that new data are welcome. With the challenges to the environment in the Arctic, we must step up and play our part in creating and sharing knowledge about the Arctic so that better and more-informed decisions are made in the future.

Collage: Visitors in an activity room.

Q?rious at the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum, where organizations presented their perspectives on the Arctic during the meeting. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

During our discussions, we took a break to visit Q?rious, the Smithsonian’s discovery centre. Arctic organizations were stationed throughout to share their perspectives with visitors, while the education team tested an Arctic board game on visitors.

Arctic research is another area of focus for our group. The questions we asked were “Which research forums are the most relevant to our work? And where can our research add the most value?”

At this stage, we have decided to focus on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW) and the Arctic Council working groups. Most of the Arctic natural-history museums are already involved in one or all of these, so it makes sense to build on what we are already doing and where we already have some presence.

People looking at the floor map.

Our first project for engaging the public will be the creation of a giant floor map that shows the circumpolar region. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Outreach, public programming and visitor engagement are areas where we can support each other, share content, share learnings and collaborate to contain costs.

Our first project will be the collaborative production of a giant round floor map of the circumpolar region.

Second will be some form of web-based outreach from each other’s scientists to our school visitors, building on what we are each already doing within our own museums.

Third is a collaborative photo-based exhibition that we hope to inspire the Arctic Council to invest in, given the US chairmanship’s focus on public outreach and awareness of the challenges, opportunities and shared responsibilities in the Arctic.

All in all, it was a productive and inspiring gathering of fellow museum leaders committed to creating a better natural future for the Arctic. Kirk Johnson said, “Natural history museum can save the world.” I agree, so let’s get at it.

Lots ahead and more news to come.

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Odyssey under the Skin

The automatic door opens as I sweep into the special exhibitions hall on the fourth floor of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Inside, a giant squid kicks off the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition. Complete sea animals and skeletons stand waiting in the first section of the hall.

As I enter the second section, I am immediately taken up by magical scenes of dissected bodies. I see a bull with all its muscles hanging out in full splendour, followed by a galloping giraffe showing off its slender cervical muscles like a five-meter tall headdress. Just beside it stands a camel, half of its body exposed, nodding its head in a frozen gesture. Further down, the complex blood vessel system of an ostrich is on display with stunning accuracy.

The plastinated bodies of camels in the exhibition.

Many of the plastinated bodies showcased in Animal Inside Out reveal an organism’s constitution in a unique way. You can distinguish the internal organs in detail. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Organs belonging to the ten body systems are shown in eloquent detail. In particular, this includes astonishing insights into the cardiovascular and muscular systems. These fabulous bodies are undressed to show off their true nature!

View of a bull specimen from the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

On this bull, as with many of the specimens exhibited in Animal Inside Out, you can study the muscles that make up an organism with the help of an anatomical atlas. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

I have taught many subjects ranging from biology and genetics to animal behaviour. When I was teaching comparative anatomy, I made use of textbooks and anatomical atlases to show the structures that make up the body, but observing these phenomena on real animal corpses was much more convincing for the students. The word anatomy comes from the Greek word anatemnein which indeed means to dissect or cut up. Today, I am in charge of the Vertebrate Collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature, which include millions of various anatomical parts. This has allowed me to see and examine living organisms from all angles. Even so, this exhibit taught me a unique way of revealing the true nature of living beings.

An ostrich specimen, showing the capillary network.

Even the capillary network (very fine blood vessels) of an ostrich can be seen in Animal Inside Out in its original three-dimensional form…as if the rest of the body’s building blocks had been blown away to leave only this network in place. This feat would be impossible to do otherwise. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

My anatomical teachings would have been even more successful if I had been able to use plastination—a technique used to prepare the specimens shown in this exhibition. Among the 600 skeletal muscles that make up the body, only some were readily identifiable on the previously frozen skinned specimens that I was using; in this exhibition, they are almost all there. The spatial configuration of internal organs is true to life, making it easy to figure out the interrelations between body systems.

Cross-section view of an elephant.

One of the advantages of the technique used in Animal Inside Out is that once the bodies are plastinated, they can be cut up into very fine slices to reveal anatomical details that are otherwise invisible. Indeed, you can see the detailed internal structures in this cross-section of an elephant, right down to the histological level. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The introduction of plastination goes back to 1977 when an anatomist from the University of Heidelberg, Gunther von Hagens, came up with a more practical method of observing human internal organs in situ. The somewhat painstaking technique consists in replacing all the water and fat in the organism (up to 70% in fact) by injecting an epoxy/silicone polymer that hardens afterwards; this produces a dry, odourless specimen that can be handled easily and lasts a long time.

The giraffe presented in the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

Animals are presented in many forms. Here a skinned giraffe stands beside another life-size specimen that has been reassembled from a series of fine cross-sections. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The word plastination is derived from the Greek “plassein” which means to give form. A bargain for anatomists! Plastination has opened interesting perspectives in several disciplines, in particular teaching. In fact, human anatomy professors have greatly benefited from it. It was well received by the scientific community, as witnessed by the many scientific papers on the subject to date. The technique even broke into the public arena in 1995 with BodyWorlds, an exhibition on the human body.

Two caribou specimens.

Bodies exhibited in Animal Inside Out were mounted to reflect natural postures that show movement, such as these two caribou, or reveal a behaviour trait. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Animal Inside Out is a fascinating anatomy lesson! I see it as a mix of science, technology and art, not just pure and simple anatomy. Nature has so many wonders and there are so few opportunities to contemplate them! This exhibition is a must-see.

A human body in the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

The presence of a human body is an unhoped-for opportunity to make detailed comparisons between our own bodies and those of the various animals on display.
Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Text translated from the French.

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My Visit to a New York City Basement

Popping your leftovers into the freezer is your best bet for saving them for later. Keeping things cold is also the best method for preserving DNA molecules. To learn about the tools and techniques for the world-class care of tissue samples used for DNA research, I travelled to a basement in New York City.

The American Museum of Natural History looms large over the west side of New York’s Central Park. Behind its grand granite façade, creatures of all kinds are on public display. Walking through this museum—one of the world’s largest—is a rich experience of our planet’s animals, plants and minerals.

Exterior view of the museum entrance.

The American Museum of Natural History’s grand entrance on Central Park West in New York City, USA. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A mounted dinosaur skull, a mounted elephant, mounted mammal skeletons.

Dinosaurs, and elephants, and primates! Oh my! Just a few of the creatures on public display at the American Museum of Natural History. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Behind the scenes, however, there is much more to the museum than its impressive exhibits. Just like the Canadian Museum of Nature, the American Museum of Natural History (or simply “the AMNH”) houses large collections of animal, plant, fossil and mineral specimens. The museum’s research scientists—and researchers from around the world—use these collections to better understand the diversity of life on Earth.

Increasingly, scientists use information stored in DNA molecules to study biodiversity. Ideally, these DNA molecules are extracted from tissue samples specifically collected for this purpose. These tissue samples need special care and storage conditions to preserve the valuable molecular information. The key is cold temperature—MUCH colder than your home freezer can provide.

On the hunt for supercold freezers, I walked past the AMNH exhibits, through an inconspicuous brown door, and down a flight of stairs. Now in the basement, a maze of utilitarian hallways and workshops led me to the Ambrose Monell Cryogenic Collection.

Julie Feinstein, the manager of the collection, keeps careful watch over the large insulated stainless steel vats that house roughly 100 000 tissue samples. Eight inches of liquid nitrogen in the bottom of each vat keeps the samples at a seriously chilly −160°C. At this temperature, most molecular movement stops, which prevents the degradation of the samples. The information of DNA is preserved in perpetuity.

A row of metal tanks lines a wall.

These cryovats are used to store tissue samples at −160°C. At this temperature, the DNA in tissues is preserved. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: Two people at work in the collection.

Left: A technician at the Ambrose Monell Collection retrieves samples to send out to a researcher. Right: Julie Feinstein holding a very cold freezer rack. Julie is the manager of AMNH’s cryogenic collection. Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature, © AMNH/R. Mickens

This cryogenic collection, like other museum collections, is not a static assemblage of objects locked away for eternity. Specimens come and go, arriving with researchers back from the field or sent out to curious scientists anywhere in the world.

Keeping track of incoming and outgoing samples and the data associated with them requires meticulous care. I spent two days observing this careful work as I peered over the shoulders of Svetlana and Nisa, the collection’s technicians and frontline workers. They deftly handled the traffic of samples, which are stored in small, barcode-labelled, polypropylene tubes.

Collage: Hands manipulate tissue vials.

Tissue samples are stored in small, barcode-labelled tubes. These are stored in boxes that are then loaded into freezer racks. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Cold is the key for a good tissue collection, but so too is organization. This is one of many important lessons learned during my time in the New York City basement.

My visit was part of a knowledge-gathering process that is just getting started. The Canadian Museum of Nature would be a natural home for a cryogenic tissue collection.

Before we roll cryovats into our research and collections facility, we need to be well versed in the best way to establish and manage such a collection. If all goes well though, we will have the coldest and best organized freezers in the country.

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Bird Nests: A Little-Known Collection

People who get a chance to visit the museum’s Bird Collection at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus are often surprised by the scope of this collection. In addition to bird specimens, it also contains ancillary collections that document various aspects of bird biology.

In the 19th century for example, when egg collections were a popular (and legal) hobby, bird nests were sometimes collected, and some of these were later bequeathed to the Canadian Museum of Nature. Over the years, the museum put together a representative collection of nests for reference. This material also helps document the diversity of nesting habits among different species.

A woman stands by an open specimen drawer.

The nest of a Greater White-fronted Goose from Alaska, USA, is examined by museum volunteer Carol German. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A taxidermied bird specimen.

A Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) specimen. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Geese and ducks build their nests from down that they take from their belly. This operation leaves them with a patch of naked skin that facilitates incubation, creating a direct contact between the eggs and the bird’s body heat. When a bird that is incubating has to leave the nest, it covers up the eggs with down from the nest. This down serves as both camouflage and insulation.

Collage: Two bird nests.

Left: A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) nest. Right: A Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) nest. Images: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a common species in the Ottawa Region. Several species of hummingbirds build nests made of insulating plant fibres, like the one shown above. Then, they cover the outside of the nest with pieces of lichen glued together using spider webs. The green plumage of the female as it sits in the nest is a marvellous finishing touch to the camouflage, making it look like a simple growth on a branch.

The Red-billed Streamertail nest shown above is from Jamaica. In a tropical climate, thermal insulation is less critical and the nest of the streamertail looks like a crude plate, just big enough to receive the eggs.

Two hands hold an open box containing a nest.

A Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A taxidermied bird specimen.

A Chimney Swift specimen. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Swifts vaguely resemble swallows. The Chimney Swift—a widespread species in Canada—puts its nest inside a hollow tree trunk or a chimney. The nest is a simple platform made of dried twigs collected by the swift while in flight from treetops. These are then glued to a tree trunk or a chimney using the bird’s sticky saliva. Some Asian chimney swifts have nests that are entirely made of this saliva. These are sometimes used in oriental cuisine as a soup ingredient.

An overhead view of a nest in an open specimen drawer.

A Rufous Hornero (Furnarius rufus) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Rufous Hornero is a bird from South America whose name “Hornero” derives from the special shape of its nest, which looks like an old-fashioned oven. This bird is as big as a robin and builds its nest using mud, which dries to become hard as brick. The example shown here was given to the museum in 1986 by an Argentinian diplomat stationed in Canada.

An open specimen drawer containing nests and a boot.

The boot contains a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A taxidermied bird specimen.

A House Wren specimen. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are some 10 000 extant bird species that have colonized almost all parts of Earth. They have also developed extremely diversified nesting methods.

The House Wren can make its nest in all kinds of cavities, often near human dwellings—hence its common name. Back in 1935, one of them set up house in an old boot left in a woodlot. After the nesting period, the property owner donated this strange nest to the museum.

Two hands hold an open box containing a bird nest.

A Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Sedge Wren highlights another aspect in the amazing diversity of birds’ nesting habits. When he returns from its hibernating grounds, located in the southern United States, the male from this species builds several nests. The females arrive later, and when couples are formed, it is up to the female to choose the nest she wants to use, whereupon she lines the inside with feathers or fine plant fibres.

Collage: Two taxidermied bird specimens and two nests.

Top: A Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) specimen and nest. Bottom: A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerine) specimen and nest. Images: Martin Lipman and Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Baltimore Oriole nest shown above was collected in Ottawa in April 1926. Instead of the plant fibres normally used by orioles, you can see that this nest is made of mop strands and a little horsehair. What’s more, the mop strands are completely blackened by soot. This simple nest conjures up the bygone days of Ottawa when coal was used for heating (and for running locomotives into downtown), and horses were widely used as a means of transportation.

The Chipping Sparrow nest above was also collected in Ottawa, though in 2014. Here the bird used nylon fibres from nets used to protect evergreen trees in winter. Other times, other means…

A hand holds a stick from which a nest hangs.

A Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Weaver nests are among the most elaborate bird nests. Above, we show the nest of a Baya Weaver from the Indian sub-continent that was donated to the museum several decades ago. The bird (actually only the male in this case) must collect almost 1000 plant filaments in order to weave the nest and create a maze inside, which is basically used to outsmart predators.

Translated from French.

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Dinos of Canada gets my Stamp of Approval

Well, it’s official! It’s been a year in the making, but I’m finally able to talk about it: Canada Post’s sensational new stamp series, Dinos of Canada.

I got involved with the project early on, when Canada Post asked me to be the scientific advisor for the stamps. My duties were twofold: to help decide which prehistoric animals would be featured on the stamps, and to vet the artwork and related text for accuracy.

Pictures of the five Dinos of Canada stamps

The new Dinos of Canada stamp lineup. From left to right, the featured prehistoric animals are: Euoplocephalus tutus, Chasmosaurus belli, Tyrannosaurus rex, Ornithomimus edmontonicus, and the marine reptile Tylosaurus pembinensis (a mosasaur, not a dinosaur). Image: © Canada Post

I initially came up with a list of 24 dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms as possible contenders for the stamps. These contenders ranged from all parts of Canada, all branches of the Tree of Life, and all periods of the geologic timescale. Narrowing down the contestants to just five species was difficult, and there were many worthy animals that did not make the cut.

Closeup of the stamp featuring Ornithomimus edmontonicus. Visitors to the museum’s Fossil Gallery can the skeleton of this dinosaur. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

Closeup of the stamp featuring Ornithomimus edmontonicus. Visitors to the museum’s Fossil Gallery can see the skeleton of this dinosaur. Image: © Canada Post

For each of the finalists, I benefited from having direct access to superb fossil remains from each one, all held in our museum’s national fossil collection. The Canadian Museum of Nature, in fact, has the type specimens for Ornithomimus edmontonicus, Chasmosaurus belli, and Euoplocephalus tutus. These are the first of their kind used to describe the species, and have immense scientific and historical value.

We wanted to be able to say something interesting about each of the featured species, and to draw a connection to Canada—to the places where they were found and to the people they honour.

For example, the ostrich-mimic Ornithomimus edmontonicus is named after a rock unit called the Edmonton Formation where it was found, which itself is named after the city of Edmonton.

The name of the horned dinosaur Chasmosaurus belli likewise honours Robert Bell, a former natural sciences professor at Queen’s University, and administrative head of the Geological Survey of Canada.

Jordan Mallon holding part of the frill of Chasmosaurus belli.

It’s always important to do your background research when advising for a project as big as Canada Post’s new Dinos of Canada stamp series. Thankfully, many of the dinosaurs featured on the stamps are also part of the collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Here I am holding part of the frill of Chasmosaurus belli. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are many scientific subtleties on the stamps that I hope won’t go undetected. Did you notice that the Ornithomimus has wings? Or that the Tylosaurus has a tail fluke? Or that the nostril of the Chasmosaurus is positioned forward on its face, as opposed to back towards its nasal horn? These are all scientific findings that have only come to light in recent years.

Of course, my work as scientific advisor was made easy by collaborating with one of the most renowned palaeo-artists in the world, Julius Csotonyi. Julius’ sharp eye and aesthetic sense do justice to these great beasts in a way that simple scientific descriptions never could, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pay him tribute.

Designer Andrew Perro is likewise deserving of accolades for his well-executed contribution. How much more realistic do those dinosaurs appear popping out at you from those stamps? It’s as if the badlands in the background (expertly photographed by Judy Arndt) have given up their deathly grip so that the dinosaurs (and one mosasaur!) could burst forward with life once again.

One of the perks about being a palaeontologist with the museum is the chance to do advisory work like this, but working with Canada Post and the associated talent has made this project stand out for me. I even got to promote the stamps last week on the national TV morning show, Canada AM! If you’d like a set of your own stamps, they’re available for purchase now in the gift shop at the Canadian Museum of Nature, or of course, at Canada Post outlets.

Jordan standing with Canada AM anchor Marcia MacMillan and stamp designer Andrew Perro.

Here I am with Canada AM anchor Marcia MacMillan and stamp designer Andrew Perro (right). Image: Andrew Perro © Canada Post

NOTE: On Thursday, April 16 at 6:30 p.m. celebrate this new stamp series at the museum. Meet Dr. Jordan Mallon and palaeo-artist Julius Csotonyi. Hear how science and art bring to life the five creatures portrayed on the stamps. See large reproductions of each stamp and real fossils that match the featured animals. Stamps will be available for purchase.

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Preparing Diatom Samples: Part 2

Read Part 1, in which Joe Holmes provides an introduction to diatoms—what these microscopic organisms are and their importance.

Upon my arrival in early 2013 as a volunteer in the phycology lab of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Gatineau, Quebec, I learned on the job how to prepare diatom specimens for storage and microscopic study.

An array of diatoms.

Several diatom species, seen through an SEM microscope. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because of all the steps and time involved, processing an individual sample—starting with a dried field sample and ending with it mounted on a microscope slide—may take two days. However, because there are usually dozens of samples to work on, they are processed together in groups of 12. Processing a box of 100 or more may take a week of full-time work, or a couple of months part-time (my speed at one day a week).

Acid Shell Cleaning

The first thing we do when receiving a sample is clean the microscopic shells (valves) of the diatoms of any lingering organic material, much like cleaning out a seashell.

From each sample (wet or dry), material containing thousands to millions of diatoms is added to a glass beaker and marked with the sample’s collection reference number. Powder-like dry material is scraped off filter paper from inside the sample bottles. Twelve samples are normally processed together as a group.

Beakers and bottles on a counter.

Beakers with dry material from sample bottles. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A small amount of acid mix is carefully squirted into each beaker and boiled on a hotplate for 25–30 minutes at high temperature. Afterwards, the beakers are allowed to cool for 15–20 minutes before the centrifuge process is started. Boiling in acid dissolves and separates diatoms and other organic matter, leaving the cleaned diatom shells, which are made of silica. The remaining particulates are like small pebbles and clay.

Equipment under a fume hood.

Acid-dispensing bottle and heater with boiling beakers. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Centrifuging Water Mixture

To separate the diatoms from other material, we use a series of deionized water dilutions. (Deionized water has had most of its mineral impurities removed).

Each boiled beaker mix is poured into a corresponding plastic centrifuge tube marked with the sample’s reference number. The tube is then filled within a centimetre of the top with deionized water.

The tubes are placed in a centrifuge and run at 3000 revolutions per minute for 10 minutes, the objective being to force the diatoms down into the cone-shaped bottom of the tube.

A look under the lid of a centrifuge.

Centrifuge with 12 tubes ready to run. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Once done, most of the liquid mix is removed using a narrow hose attached to a siphoning pump, leaving diatoms and some liquid at the bottom of the tube.

Tubes are then refilled with fresh deionized water and the centrifuge/siphoning/refill procedure is repeated five times to increasingly purify the diatom mix.

After the final run/siphoning, the remnant “button” of diatoms and remaining liquid are shaken from the bottom and poured into a new sample bottle. A metal scraper is often required to get at all the lingering material if it is sticking to the bottom. Lids are labelled with the corresponding reference number.

Each final sample bottle should be about a quarter full of the diatom/water mix. Bottles are placed in boxes of 100 and into cabinet drawers in the wet collection to await microscope-slide creation.

Personal protection is required during the above stages. I wear special neoprene rubber gloves and a face visor when handling any acids. Acid boiling is done under a fume hood that removes toxic vapours. For centrifuge and siphoning work, I use latex gloves. Waste water is disposed of in an environmentally safe manner.

A man wearing protective gear stands in a laboratory.

Joe Holmes working at a fume hood in the lab. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

Making Light-Microscope Slides

Light microscopes can magnify up to 1600 times and are used to look straight into the layers of diatoms based on fine focusing.

To create the glass slides of diatom samples for use in the microscope, the required samples are selected from the museum’s wet collection. A slide-warming table is laid out with small glass cover-slip blanks corresponding to the sample bottles to be processed. A drop of deionized water is added to each cover slip using a micropipette.

Each sample bottle is gently shaken to better mix the water with diatoms, and then two to three drops of the sample are added to its corresponding cover slip. The same micropipette is cleaned with deionized water between samples to avoid cross contamination.

Cover slips are allowed to dry, leaving a dried diatom smudge on each one.

Glass slide blanks are prepared for each cover slip by recording their reference number on the label portion of the slide (with a pen, label sticker or etching tool).

Next, we need to permanently “glue” the cover slip on top of the glass slide. To do this, a mountant (of similar colour and viscosity as honey) is used to fix each cover slip to its corresponding slide. The museum uses either Naphrax or Hyrax.

One at a time, each slide is heated on a hotplate at 300°C for three to four seconds. A drop of mountant is added to the slide using a glass rod. The corresponding cover slip (smudge side down) is attached to the bubbling mountant using tweezers. Using a small metal tool, air bubbles are gently forced out of the cover slip to make a tight fit with the slide.

Slides are allowed to cool for at least 15 minutes. Excess mountant is scraped off with a razor blade and then cleaned off with a damp cloth.

Once completed, the slides are ready to use under the microscope and can be filed in the museum diatom slide collection by reference number in wooden cabinets with thin metal drawers that hold 20 slides each.

An open cabinet with one drawer pulled out.

A cabinet for filing glass slides. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Making SEM Discs

A machine called an SEM is used for looking at precise details within diatom. It can magnify up to 100 000 times, but the magnification that we generally use for diatoms is up to 20 000x.

For preparing samples to be viewed by the SEM, a different procedure is used from that for light microscopes. Samples from the wet collection are dried on small pieces of aluminum foil that are then placed on metal discs, rather than drying them on cover slips.

To examine the sample in the SEM, further processing using a vacuum process must be done to apply an ultrathin amount of gold as a conductive coating before a sample disc is ready to use.

Because of the use of gold and initial equipment costs, the SEM is more expensive to use than light microscopes (which the museum has many of).

Data Storage

With both the light microscope and SEM, we have special cameras and software to take diatom photos.

The photos and specimen data are then copied into the museum’s phycology collection database, which is publicly accessible online.

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