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.

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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!

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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!

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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

Small pond holds big fish diversity, and drama

Some of the smallest bodies of water, such as a pond, can contain an unexpectedly high number of different species of fishes, the most diverse of all vertebrate animals.

At the Canadian Museum of Nature’s research facility, there’s a naturally populated pond — about the size of an Olympic-size swimming pool — which surprisingly is home to 15 species of fishes. By comparison, the museum’s little pond has almost a fifth of the species found in the entire Ottawa River watershed, which has about 80 fish species.

Aerial view of the museum’s research and collection facility. Inset: a woman standing in the pond.

It’s a small pond. The museum’s research facility is the large, white roofed, rectangular building in lower, centre-left. The pond is in front of it. In the inset, Emma Lehmberg, a museum summer student, collecting specimens in the pond. Aerial photo: Chuck Clark, © Chuck Clark. Inset: Cassandra Robillard, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Of these fishes, eight species belong to the minnow family (Cyprinidae). Although often overlooked because they’re small, minnows have fascinating behaviours.

For example, the Golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas) will sometimes lay its eggs in the nest of one of its natural predators, such as the Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides). Although this may seem dangerous, it benefits the Golden shiner because the Largemouth bass defends its nest from egg poachers, inadvertently protecting the Golden shiner’s eggs.

A Fathead minnow fish

A male Fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas) with prominent breeding tubercles. Image: Shalini Chaudhary, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas), another minnow species found in the pond, displays a dramatic physical change in the breeding season. Bony tubercles grow on the male’s head, which also darkens. The male will guard the eggs lain by its mate and drive off other fishes, sometimes even his mate!

A Pumpkinseed fish

The Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus) has markings and colouration that rival tropical fishes. Image: Emma Lehmberg, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A more familiar fish in the pond, especially to novice anglers, is the Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus). It’s one of the most colourful of local fishes and is found throughout North America. Did you know that depending on the prey available in a given body of water, the Pumpkinseed will have different body part shapes and structures? For example, Pumpkinseeds in waters with large shelled prey, such as snails, have stronger jaw muscles and crushing bone parts in their mouths than Pumpkinseeds in ponds without these molluscs.


A Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus) with its barbels fully extended to sense its aquarium environment. Image: Francesco Janzen, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Lastly, the museum’s little pond is home to the Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), a common catfish.

Brown bullheads, and catfish generally, have facial taste receptors with a high concentration of them on their whiskers, or barbels. This, along with its keen sense of smell, enables the bullhead to detect food in its murky habitat where visibility is poor.

Even more amazing is the fact that bullheads and other catfishes have specialized receptors embedded in their skin that can detect electricity. This includes the minute electrical activity produced by the contracting muscles of a swimming minnow, which could lead the Brown bullhead straight to its next meal.

It may be a small pond, but the fish stories it holds are truly remarkable.

Table listing the common names and species names of the fishes found in the pond.

A list of the 15 species found in the pond at the museum’s research facility. Eight species are from the minnow family, the bass and sunfish family has two representatives, and all other species are the sole members of their respective families. © Canadian Museum of Nature.


Posted in Animals, Nature Inspiration, Water | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Moss and Lichen: Wait, what’s the difference?

I love talking to the public about mosses and lichens. The two are intricate, fascinating, and underappreciated. But a common question I get is: Wait… what’s the difference between moss and lichen?

Lichen on a tree

Oak Moss, Evernia prunastri, is actually a lichen. Image: R. Troy McMullin © Canadian Museum of Nature

It’s no wonder that people confuse the two groups. Historically, the term “moss” has often also been applied to lichens. After all, they are both small things that grow in shaded places and resemble neither a mushroom nor a vascular plant. They are both also cryptogams, meaning they reproduce without seeds or flowers.

So, what’s the difference? In short, a moss is a simple plant, and a lichen is a fungi-algae sandwich.

Mosses are multicellular organisms with leaflets made of photosynthetic cells, just as with trees, ferns and wildflowers.

But unlike these vascular plants, mosses don’t have specialized tissues that actively transport water and nutrients, such as sap, from the ground to the leaf tips, and vice-versa.

Instead, like a leafy, green sponge, mosses simply absorb water and nutrients. This means they can’t grow too tall or they risk drying out at the top.

A collage of mosses.

Mosses come in many different forms. They are usually green, except for a few species that are yellow, brown, or purple. Image: Cassandra Robillard, © Cassandra Robillard

Lichens, conversely, are a mix of at least two different organisms, a fungus and alga, living together as one.

In the simplest case, a fungus surrounds a colony of algae. The algal cells provide food for the fungus via photosynthesis, while the fungal partner protects the algae from drying out and sun damage.

When wet, the algae become visible through the top fungal layer, giving the lichen a green colour that can resemble moss. But when dry, lichens are rarely green, and instead come in many vibrant colours. Lichens also have diverse growth forms, but lack leaves of any kind, which helps to tell them apart from mosses.

(As an aside, liverworts, which are related to mosses, sometimes resemble wet lichens, but never mind that for now!)

A collage of lichens

Lichens come in a wide variety of forms and colours. Cassandra Robillard, © Cassandra Robillard.

So, do you think you can distinguish a lichen from a moss?

The only way to know is to test yourself and go looking for them in a backyard or park near you!

Lichen and moss on a branch

Can you see the difference between the lichen and the moss on this branch? Image: Cassandra Robillard, © Cassandra Robillard.

Posted in Botany, Plants and Algae, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Hunting for Mammal Fossils in Grasslands National Park

Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan is well known for its rolling hills, breathtaking badlands, and inquisitive prairie dogs. One sign instructs visitors to “shoo the prairie dogs away with enthusiasm”. But the park is also one of the best places in the world to understand how this little mammal, and all its furry mammalian relatives, came to replace the dinosaurs.

A panoramic view of the badlands in Grasslands National Park

A view of the badlands in the East Block of Grasslands National Park. In the summer of 2017, a Canadian Museum of Nature-led team made its first foray into this area to scout for promising exposures of fossil-bearing rocks. Image: Danielle Fraser © Canadian Museum of Nature

That’s because the park is rich in fossils that tell us of the dramatic environmental and faunal changes that have occurred since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

This past summer, I led a small team of intrepid female palaeontologists exploring the park as part of my research into the evolution of mammals.

Five researchers posing for a photo in Grasslands National Park

The museum’s 2017 extinct mammals prospecting team, from left to right: Carleton University student Brigid Christison, museum technician Margaret Currie, museum research scientist Danielle Fraser, and University of Calgary student Abigail Hall. Far right is Emily Bamforth, a curatorial assistant at the T. Rex Discovery Centre in East End, Saskatchewan. Emily kindly provided an overview of the stratigraphy and topography of the East Block at the start of the fieldwork. Image: Joshua Erikson, © Joshua Erikson

Wherever we went in the East Block (the park is divided into separate eastern and western chunks), it was difficult to miss the coal seam that marks the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary (KPg), the end of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the age of mammals, about 66 million years old. At times we literally tripped over the moment in time that dinosaurs went extinct.

A close-up view of the coal seam in the earth

A small exposure of the coal seam that marks the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary (KPg) and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Image: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature

The rocks at the KPg boundary record an environment much more tropical than modern Saskatchewan and a mammal fauna very different from today.

On the very top of the hills, we uncovered the first 20 million-year-old fossil sites ever found in the park. These much younger rocks record an environment that would have looked more familiar to us today, with a mix of forest and grassland. It was an environment populated by a variety of mammals with hooves, including three-toed horses, rhinoceroses (yes, rhinos!), and relatives of the living pronghorn.

A hill in Grasslands National Park

The museum team prospects for fossils on a hill of post- Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary (KPg) rocks. Next summer, museum researcher Danielle Fraser will continue searching as part of a multi-year project to recover and describe the fossil mammals of Grasslands National Park. Image: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

On future expeditions to Grasslands National Park we will continue to search the rocks immediately after the KPg for fossils of early primate-like mammals (Plesiadapiformes) and other extinct mammal lineages.

Plesiadapis model and tooth of a three-toed fossil horse

Left: A model of the extinct early mammal, Plesiadapis. About the size of a squirrel, this little mammal belongs to an extinct group that’s perhaps ancestral to primates, including humans. Image: M. De Stefano, © MUSE-Museo delle Scienze (CC BY-SA 3.0). 
Right: Covered in lichen, the tooth of a three-toed fossil horse. This fossil likely represents a member of the genus Archaeohippus, a small horse, about the weight of a medium-sized dog, that lived about 20 million years ago. Field number: GNP2017-WM2-18-1. Image: Brigid Christison, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In comparing such specimens with fossils from the younger overlying layers we hope to paint a picture of how mammals responded to the extinction of the dinosaurs and to the extreme environmental changes that have occurred over the past 66 million years.

And how this all combined to produce the curious little prairie dogs.

Posted in Fieldwork, Fossils, Mammals | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Cracking the mystery of crystal structure

Portrait of the author

Joachim de Fourestier. © Canadian Museum of Nature

This past summer, as the Carleton University Harry Reid Cox Intern at the Canadian Museum of Nature, I worked with museum researcher Aaron Lussier, Ph.D., to identify how common elements, such as silicon and iron, combine to make up the structures of large numbers of minerals.

The ultimate goal of this ongoing research is to determine why certain types of crystal structures are more common than others. Is it because they are more stable, or is it because of other factors?

This is a big question in mineral sciences. Believe it or not, we still don’t really understand why most minerals exist with the shape, form, atomic structures, and chemical compositions that they have.

So, the origins of crystal structure is a huge gap in our understanding of how the Earth system works.

We do know that minerals have fascinating internal crystal structure.

Minerals are made up of atoms that are perfectly ordered, creating crystals. Even a crystal that is big enough to hold in your hand, for example one on display in the museum’s Earth Gallery consists of many trillions of atoms, each and every one arranged in a very precise location.

Interestingly, minerals that look unrelated can share common structural aspects. For instance, they may have silicon atoms arranged in sheets, or aluminum atoms arranged as part of a seemingly infinite chain (See Figure 1).

illustration of mineral structure

Figure 1. Mineral structures are often depicted using closed-form polyhedra with a metal atom at the centre and oxygen atoms at the points. This image shows how chains (a), consisting of edge-sharing octahedra, link to form sheets (b). This type of chain structure is found in more than 50 different natural mineral species, and in dozens of synthetic compounds. Image: Aaron Lussier © Canadian Museum of Nature

If we could answer the question of why minerals have a certain atomic structure, there would be many practical applications.

We could create better synthetic materials with specialized properties. We could engineer materials that interact predictably with local geology, or to aid in environmental remediation of harmful toxins, like lead and mercury, and even for the disposal of radioactive waste.

Just as with the diversity of mineral structures, the possibilities for their application could be endless!

Chromite specimen

A massive chunk of chromite from Tiébaghi, New Caledonia. Chromite is the main source of the metallic element chromium, used in creating stainless steel. Its atomic structure contains fragments of the chains shown in Figure 1. Catalogue # CMNMC 59740. Image: Joachim de Fourestier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Magnetite specimen

A beautiful specimen from Russia exposing well-formed octahedral crystals of magnetite. Catalogue # CMNMC 85016. Image: Joachim de Fourestier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Posted in Research, Rocks and minerals, Species Discovery and Change, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment