The Brock Award for 2013

The Canadian Museum of Nature has a long history of research with expertise and leadership in species discovery and work in the Arctic.

Collage: Three people hold down a yellow tent as a nearby helicopter takes off, and a view of a mountain.

Top: Rybczynski and fellow team members keep their tent from blowing away as the helicopter that ferried them to even more-remote sites on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, takes off. Bottom: A nearby mountain shortly after a summer snowfall. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Reginald Walter Brock.

Reginald Walter Brock. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

We continually produce new knowledge that is published in the scientific literature. Our scientific productivity in botany, zoology, mineralogy and palaeobiology result in 50–60 manuscripts each year; a full list is in our annual report.

We ask our research experts to have their best publication considered for the annual Brock Award, the museum’s internal prize for excellence. This healthy competition has gone on for over two decades and is named after a former leader of the museum, Reginald Walter Brock, Ph.D.

As a past Director (1907–1914), Brock was responsible for moving the early collections into the museum’s then-new building, and for recognizing and rewarding excellence in his scientific teams. One of Brock’s rituals was to award a can of tomatoes for great accomplishments in field work. We carry on this charming tradition.

Collage: A can of tomatoes in front of a polar-bear mural, and Natalia Rybczynski sitting inside a tent with a satellite radio beside her.

Left: The emblem of the Brock Award: a can of tomatoes. Non-perishable and easy to use, canned food is of great value on a field expedition. Right: The winner of Brock Award 2013, Natalia Rybczynski. Images: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature, Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

The Brock Award for a scientific publication in 2013 was awarded to Natalia Rybczynski, Ph.D., for her publication Mid-Pliocene warm-period deposits in the High Arctic yield insight into camel evolution (produced with colleagues J. Gosse, R. Harington, R. Wogelius, A. Hidy and M. Buckley).

In this paper, the team reports their discovery of 3.5 million-year-old fossil material from the Strathcona Fiord area of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in the High Arctic.

Collage: The fossil bone fragments of the High Arctic camel, laid out on sand, Natalia Rybczynski holding a small fossil bone in one hand and examining it using a small magnifying glass, a man standing on a sandy slope and digging a hole to collect samples, and a rocky outcrop with hills in the background.

Top: The 30 fossilized bone fragments belonging to a leg of the giant camel discovered in the High Arctic by Rybczynski and her team. Centre left: Rybczynski scrutinizes a fossil. Centre right: Team member and geologist John Gosse of Dalhousie University collects samples. Bottom: The area near Strathcona Fiord where the fossils were found. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Rybczynski knew they had found a piece of the right tibia (lower leg) of a large mammal, but it took the help of new technology (called collagen fingerprinting) to be sure that they had found the remains of a relative to modern-day camels.

An illustration depicting three camels and four flying birds in a landscape with trees.

Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about three and a half million years ago. The camels lived in a boreal-type forest. The habitat includes larch trees and the depiction is based on records of plant fossils found at nearby fossil deposits. Image: Julius Csotonyi © Julius Csotonyi

The findings add significantly to our data on the evolution of camels and help us understand the origin of anatomical specializations seen in modern camels. The work of Rybczynski and her team also adds to our knowledge of this ever-changing region of our country.

Collage: Four people hiking up a sandy slope, Natalia Rybczynski looking closely at the ground while lying on slope, and a view of the sandy, hilly terrain where the camel bones were discovered.

Top: The palaeo team surveying the upper reaches of the site where the camel was found. Middle: Rybczynski collecting samples at the site. Bottom: Team members are dwarfed by the terrain as they work at various levels of site. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Visit the museum’s website for a full account of this award-winning research, including wonderful images and videos.

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Build Your Own Museum

What do colourful stamps from Tannu Tuva, a vintage 1926 Marmon, human teeth and pencils have in common? They are all things that people collect.

Stamp and antiques collecting are fairly common, but did you know that Peter the Great collected teeth? In addition to being a professional czar, he was also an amateur dentist.

A scientific illustration of human teeth.

Peter the Great liked to perform surgery on passers-by and amassed a considerable collection of human teeth. Image: Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body © Public domain

And as for pencils, there is even an American Pencil Collectors Society.

The tip of a sharp pencil.

One collector in North Dakota, U.S.A., has accumulated over 25 000 pencils. Image: Thomas Wydra © Public domain

This human desire for collecting is so common that the Russian scientist Pavlov (dogs, bells, conditioned response) thought it was a basic and universal human instinct.

If you like collecting things from nature like rocks and fossils, or bugs and bones, you should come on down and check out the Trading Post at the Canadian Museum of Nature!

A museum educator shows specimens to three young visitors.

The Trading Post is located on the fourth floor of the museum. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unlike the more traditional, didactic museum displays with which we are heartily familiar (evolution from Eohippus to the modern horse), the Trading Post allows you to “build your own museum”. It connects visitors with their own experiences. Visitors trade what interests them, not what the museum wants or asks for. Nor do we tell you what to learn about what you collect—that is up to you.

Collage: A child looks at a rock, a child looks at a shell through a magnifying glass, a museum educator and a child use a microscope that is hooked up to a monitor.

By appealing to the five senses, the Trading Post promotes the use of multiple learning styles. Images: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

On a recent Saturday, for example, one little girl traded a mermaid’s purse, the jawbone of a sheep, a sea urchin, and some rocks that she found on a beach in Newfoundland during her summer vacation. She brought these specimens into the Trading Post, and through the point system, she was able to trade for some minerals that she wanted to make into jewellery.

A child looks at an array of mineral specimens in trays.

Rocks and minerals are the items most-often traded, followed by shells, fossils and insects (dead and prepared). Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

You don’t have to trade to make a “nature exchange”: you are welcome to just bring an object in and share with us the information that you have about it. (One woman said to me last Saturday, “I can tell that’s a beaver skull. My parents found one when I was a kid. I used to bring it to show and tell every year, ’till the other kids got sick of it”.)

Or, if you are a bird watcher, you can bring in pictures of the birds you spot. Or you can make a study project of object(s) you have found, just like a real naturalist would. To each his or her own… museum!

A child holds a specimen in front of a cabinet containing rocks and minerals.

To each his or her own museum. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Throat-Singing Karaoke?

While the connection between Inuit throat singing and the natural history of the Arctic may seem a little obscure at first, it is a story of synergy, opportunity and just plain fun.

During our Extraordinary Arctic Festival in April 2013, the Canadian Museum of Nature partnered with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. A variety of local Inuit singers, drum-dancers and Inuktitut language teachers from the centre presented aspects of Inuit culture to museum visitors.

The Inuit Youth Performers led by Lynda Brown participated in the festival. In addition to demonstrating the unique Inuit performing arts, Lynda explained a little of the history, tradition and playfulness of throat singing.

A pair of museum visitors face each other; one holds a microphone.

Museum visitors try throat singing. Image: C.W. Clark © C.W. Clark

Throat songs are usually done by pairs of singers. Some songs are lullabies, some imitate sounds in nature, and some are a game where the winner is the last person to laugh.

Throat singing was traditionally done by women while men were hunting. Today, both men and women throat sing and often weave throat-singing techniques into contemporary Arctic music.

As part of the performance, Lynda encouraged the audience to try throat singing. She taught us how to sing in a “monster voice”. The youth performers then helped us try to throat sing as a group. We sang, we laughed and we also learned about Inuit culture and traditions that are so closely linked to the Arctic landscape and wildlife.

Lynda Brown and Heidi Metcalfe-Langille demonstrate throat singing.


Soon after that festival, the museum had an opportunity to partner with Science North to create Arctic Voices, an exhibition about climate change in the Arctic. We were keen to share our expertise in Arctic natural history and showcase our extensive collection of Arctic plants and wildlife.

It was also important to make sure that the exhibition was relevant to visitors who have never been to this remote and largely inaccessible part of the world. As such, the exhibition development team wanted to know what we had learned during our Arctic Festival. What activities helped create unique and memorable experiences for our visitors? Not surprisingly, the throat-singing performance with the Inuit Youth Performers came to mind. Science North had experience programming interactive exhibition components with a record-and-play-back technique; they suggested trying to create a karaoke-type kiosk.

When we proposed this to Lynda, she was immediately on board and full of ideas. She enlisted the equally enthusiastic participation of her singing partner, Heidi Metcalfe-Langille.

Two women in traditional outerwear stand in front of a diorama.

Filming in our Mammal Gallery. Image: Laurel McIvor © Canadian Museum of Nature

During a day of filming in the Mammal Gallery at the museum, Lynda and Heidi demonstrated a number of traditional throat songs with great skill, comfort, humour and ease.

Then we tried filming the interactive component. We stumbled, filmed several takes, and were not exactly sure how or if it would work. Truthfully, I felt like I held my breath until Science North’s audio-visual magician Mike Palumbo showed us the final result. The throat-singing kiosk works and is almost as fun as singing with Lynda and Heidi in person!

Try it out and tell us what you think!

Three women stand beside the throat-singing kiosk.

From left: Heidi Metcalfe-Langille, Laurel McIvor and Lynda Brown. Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The exhibition Arctic Voices is on at the museum until May 3, 2015.

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Travelling Exhibitions Are the Best Way to Interact!

While I was busy taking down the Creatures of Light exhibition, with my hands deep in dust, I noticed that although the museum hosts a great many travelling exhibitions from various museums, few people know it also produces its own travelling shows! Have you ever noticed one of these exhibitions from the Canadian Museum of Nature in your vicinity? The exhibits department where I am completing my work term offers “turnkey” exhibitions that are ready to travel anywhere in Canada.

An exhibit module in the exhibition.

Our Feathered Friends, a full-sized travelling exhibition created by the Canadian Museum of Nature. See it in Brampton, Ontario, at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives, from March 1 to May 31, 2015. Image: Canadian Museum of Nature

One person’s discovery is another person’s windfall

As I worked on various travelling exhibitions, I realized they had a lot to bring to communities and institutions. Indeed, if you don’t get the chance to come to the Canadian Museum of Nature in person, these shows get around and keep you informed about our collections, research and expertise. They are considered a way of sharing resources throughout the country, and can also be seen as a way for institutions to interact between themselves. It makes things easier for those hosting our exhibitions, because they need only to plan the space required to host the event. Isn’t that a great idea?

In the following video, the director of the Peterborough Museum & Archives, Susan Neale, shares her views and speaks about the benefits and interest generated by the exhibition Canada’s Waterscapes.

See visitors to Canada’s Waterscapes interacting with the exhibits, and hear museum staff describe the exhibition’s success and impact and comment on the positive behind-the-scenes experience.

An impressive amount of work goes into creating a winning tour

This year (2014), the travelling-exhibition programme is celebrating its 41 years of existence, and its success can be attributed to Rachel Gervais, the programme coordinator.

Before working with Rachel, I never realized the amount of work put in over all these years to come up with content, modules, specimens and educational activities that can be adapted to various audiences and exhibition venues such as museums, libraries, interpretation centres and schools. This colossal task includes planning venues and ensuring that each travelling exhibition is delivered and returned in good condition with no parts missing.

Collage: An open suitcase with boxes and interpretive panels, and boxes and interpretive panels exhibited on a table.

The suitcase exhibition on minerals. Easy to carry, and ideal for hallways or small rooms. Posters, interpretive panels, specimens and educational activities showcase the diversity of the mineral world in a nutshell. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature

The exhibition set up in a gallery.

Thanks to the Canada’s Waterscapes exhibition, you can discover true-to-life specimens and impressive modules. This type of life-sized exhibition is great for any large venue and comes with all the structures needed to set up the exhibition in a flash. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Personally, when my work term ends, I’m going back to Montréal to check out the cultural venues in the area in the hopes of seeing one of these travelling exhibitions! With 16 full-size exhibitions and more than nine suitcase exhibitions on tour, you are sure to come upon one of them in your vicinity. Your municipal library might just be the next venue hosting one of our exhibitions in the near future!

Translated from French.

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Illustrations from Sir John Franklin’s 1823 Book

Last week, my colleague Elizabeth Debeljak showed us a book from the museum’s Rare Book collection, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the year 1819, 20, 21 and 22, by Sir John Franklin.

This week, I thought I’d give you a good look at some of the beautiful illustrations that this 190-year-old book contains. This is just a selection of the aquatint prints and engravings.

Plate titles are provided as they appear in the book’s List of Plates.

A scientific colour illustration of a fish.

“Plate 26, Back’s Grayling’s”. Facing page 711. Aquatint print. The species is now called Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus). Image: Drawn by J. Curtis; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A close-up of the head of the Arctic Grayling.

A detail of “Plate 26, Back’s Grayling’s”. Facing page 711. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by J. Curtis; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A colour illustration showing eight people sitting around a cooking fire inside a tent.

“Interior of a Cree Indian Tent”. Facing page 169. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Hood, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A colour illustration of British tents near shore.

“A View of the Arctic Sea, from the Mouth of the Copper-Mine River, at midnight”. Facing page 361. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Back, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

Colour illustration of a man and child in period dress.

“Portrait of Akaitcho and his Son”. Facing page 203. Full plate. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Hood, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A black and white illustration of men portaging a large canoe past a waterfall.

“The Trout Fall”. Facing page 37. Engraving. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Hood, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

An incomplete map of coastlines in the Arctic Ocean.

“General chart of the Arctic Sea”. At the end of the book. Engraving. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

The book open to a black and white scientific illustration of a plant.

One of “The Four plates of Plants at the end of the Appendix and immediately preceding the Maps”. Engraving. Image: Drawn by J. Curtis; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

Title: Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the year 1819, 20, 21 and 22
Author: Sir John Franklin.
Printer/Publisher: John Murray, Albemarle-Street
Printing location: London, England
Date printed: 1823
Dimensions: 28 cm × 23 cm × 7 cm
Number of pages: Approximately 800
Illustrations: 26 aquatint prints, 4 hand-coloured engravings and 4 engraved maps

Read Elizabeth’s article about the recent conservation work to restore this historical book before we put it on display in the museum: A Rare Book by Sir John Franklin Expedition Receives TLC.

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A Rare Book by Sir John Franklin Expedition Receives TLC

Since September’s discovery of HMS Erebus, believed to be the ship on which Sir John Franklin died, one of our rare books has stepped into the spotlight.

Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21 and 22 was written by Sir John Franklin in 1823, after his first two expeditions in the Arctic.

In October, it made local news and was showcased during the museum’s open house of its research and collections facility.

A damaged book on a table, next to leather binding pieces.

The book by Sir John Franklin, Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21 and 22, before conservation. Published in 1823, after 190 years, it needs some care before it can be exhibited in the museum. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

As you might imagine, leather binding dating back some 190 years requires a little TLC. The book’s cover was detached and slowly deteriorating to powder (red rot); it would not stand up to much more handling without accelerating the deterioration.

A book on a table.

Franklin’s book after conservation. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A woman standing near a table on which is an old book.

Conservator Kyla Ubbink, who restored the book. Image: Laura Smyk © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although our rare books are kept in a climate-controlled room and handled with gloves, the preservation of these materials also relies on occasional special treatment. We commissioned Kyla Ubbink, an Ottawa paper conservator, to bring our book back to life.

Treatment was extensive. It included consolidating and treating the red-rotted leather, repairing tears, creases and fraying threads, refolding the maps to fit within the dimensions of the book, flattening the curled-in corners of the cover, surface cleaning and brushing to remove debris and dirt, and other binding repairs. Conservation treatment such as this takes time, glues require time to set and each step is meticulously completed before the next one can begin.

One of the maps unfolded from the book.

The book contains four engraved maps. They had to be folded to fit well inside the book and thus be protected. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

Beautifully encased and resting on a brass-accented support, the book can now be seen in the new exhibition Arctic Voices. Our exhibition team anxiously awaited the book’s return after conservation treatment to choose the plate that would be shown. They settled on “View of the Arctic Sea, From the Mouth of the Copper Mine River, Midnight – July 20, 1821″. It was not an easy choice; the plates are all so stunning.

A display case containing a book open to an illustrated page.

You can admire this beautiful illustration from Franklin’s book in the Arctic Voices exhibition until May 3, 2015. Image: Elizabeth Debeljak © Canadian Museum of Nature

Reading passages from the book, I was immediately immersed in a time long ago. The narrative and descriptions of time and place make it an easily consumable read, while the seemingly poetic free-verses add artistic expression in just the right amount.

The text can be found online, but I highly recommend seeing it in person. After Arctic Voices closes on May 3, 2015, you can make an appointment to see it at our library. You may even enjoy some of the other gems of the Rare-Book Collection.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Exhibitions, Tools of the trade | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Expedition to Davis Strait: Rough Seas, Cod-Liver Sandwiches and a Highly Diverse Marine Ecosystem to Study

The morning of October 21 was bright and cold in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, when I boarded the plane for Iqaluit, Baffin Island. This was the last leg of my trip home. It was −18°C in Iqaluit when we arrived and Baffin Island, like Greenland, was covered in a surprisingly thick blanket of snow.

Aerial view of a snowy coastline.

Arriving—at last!—at Baffin Island, Nunavut. This is the last leg of my trip home after a thirty-two-day trip; most of it spent at sea in Davis Strait. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

I was very glad to be heading home after thirty-two days away, almost all at sea in Davis Strait on a former commercial trawler retrofitted with a science lab. I was there at the invitation of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the company of Greenlandic and Danish/Faroese crew and officers, as well as five other Canadians who made up the science team.

We were there to assess the population of Greenland Halibut, the main objective of this expedition, and to generally study the fauna of the strait.

Close-up of the head of a fish on a scale for measuring length.

The Greenland Halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) is the most abundant fish predator in the northwest Atlantic since the collapse of the Atlantic Cod (note the large mouth and sharp teeth). The main objective of this research cruise was to assess the numbers and size distribution of the Davis Strait population. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man in hip waders stands at a counter measuring the length of a fish.

Noel Alfonso in the wet lab on board ship. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

The concerns I expressed in an earlier blog article were well founded. The seas on this year’s trip were very rough in the first few days. I saw waves off the stern of the ship that I estimate at 10 metres. The anti-nausea medications I had were ineffective and Gravol simply put me—instantly—to sleep. I was extremely nauseous and yes, was sick a few times. But overall, I was fine.

I did, however, have a bit of trouble getting accustomed to the traditional Danish food on the ship. A typical supper was an open-faced sandwich of sliced raw onions, tomatoes, cheese, mussels and cod livers. Being on the ship and working twelve-hour shifts seven days a week for that length of time was sometimes challenging. While sitting in my 6′ × 6′ cabin, I would often think of my family and friends back home. However, the rich marine life I saw more than made up for the hardships.

In illustration of a fish.

Stoplight Loosejaw (Malacosteus niger). This species is not uncommon in Davis Strait and is caught at depths of 900 m to 1800 m, and as deep as 3400 m. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Trawls were done round the clock to make the best use of our time in Davis Strait and to further the objective of counting Greenland Halibut and generally study the fauna. There was always a science crew of three on duty, nights and days. My shift was from 6 AM to 6 PM. The timing between trawls varied from the distance travelled between sites and the depth of the trawl. The deepest one was 1500 m, so getting the net down took more than twenty minutes and bringing it up could take forty-five minutes.

A man measures fish at a lab counter.

Unlike most other sharks, Arctic Sharks have an anal fin. The biology of this species (Deepsea Cat Shark, Apristurus profundorum) is almost entirely unknown. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Close-up of the head of a fish.

White Barracudina (Arctozenus risso). This striking species reaches 30 cm in length and feeds on small fishes, squids and crustaceans such as shrimps. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

When the trawl came aboard, the contents of the net would be dumped into the below-decks processing area, where everything—Greenland Halibut, other fish species and all invertebrates—would be weighed and measured. DNA samples were taken for Greenland Halibut and some shrimp species.

Collectively, this will be masses of data that the Canadian department of Fisheries and Oceans will use in managing fisheries, present and future, in Davis Strait.

A squid specimen in the lab.

Rossia sp. This squid feeds on small crustaceans, as well as fishes and smaller squids. In turn, it is eaten by larger fishes and marine mammals. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

I had no idea that the benthic environment was so diverse in those cold dark waters. There are both small, delicate deep-water corals and large, robust ones. Cold-water corals do not contain symbiotic algae and so do not require light from the sun to live. They can be found as deep as four kilometres!

A coral specimen in the lab.

Bamboo coral (Keratoisis ornate). Its dense stands form structure and habitat for invertebrates and fishes. Image : Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Other invertebrate species included pink anemones, sea stars, basket stars and over a dozen species of sponges, ranging in size from coffee cups to beach balls. There are isopods, amphipods and many species of shrimps, squids and even octopuses! It is really hard for us terrestrial humans to imagine this rich ecosystem down there, but it exists and I have had a part in documenting it.

Collage: Four invertebrate specimens in the lab.

Top left: The polar shrimp (Sclerocrangon ferox), with its impressive exoskeleton. Top right: Steromastis sculpta, a deep-sea, blind, lobster-like crustacean. Bottom left: Along with other corals, this gorgonian coral species, known as the bubble-gum coral (Paragorgia arborea), provides habitat for invertebrates and fishes. Bottom right: Tremaster mirabilis. The biology of this deep-sea echinoderm (the group containing sea stars and urchins) remains poorly known. Images: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: Three invertebrate specimens in the lab.

Top left: Basket stars (Gorgonocephalus sp.). An unusual sea star with continuously branching rays forming its “arms”. Top right: Finned octopus (Cirroteuthis mülleri). Octopuses in this genus, known as cirrates, are called Dumbos because the large fins resemble the cartoon elephant. They can reach 1.5 m in length. Their biology and ecology are not well known. Bottom: Bathypolypus arcticus is a long lived, slow growing deep-water octopus species. It eats basket stars (top left), which is unusual for cephalopods. Images: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

I brought back an impressive diversity of species for the museum: 71 fish specimens and 119 invertebrate specimens. Some of the fish species, such as the Black Snailfish (Paraliparis bathybius) and the Portuguese Dogfish (Centroscymnus coelolepis), were new to the Arctic collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Also, we are adding specimens for species represented so far by one, two, or just a handful of individuals. Our museum will keep samples of DNA from the fish species that I collected. So our already world-class collection of Arctic fishes is now even better and we have added tissues from a rarely visited region to our DNA collections. All in all, a worthwhile expedition!

Close-up of the head of a fish on a scale for measuring length.

Portuguese Dogfish (Centroscymnus coelolepis). This species is found at depths below 400 m, and down to abyssal areas to 3600 m (among the deepest known records for any shark species). It is both an active predator, eating fishes (including other sharks), squids, octopuses and gastropods, and it also scavenges on whale carcasses. We did not already have a specimen of this species in the museum’s collections. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Adventures in Argentina: Museo de La Plata and an Excursion into the Permian Period

Research advances are not just made in the field, but also by collecting data from other museum collections. Scott Rufolo brought useful information back for the Canadian Museum of Nature from recent travels.

This autumn, I attended a meeting of the International Council for Archaeozoology, which was held in Mendoza Province of Argentina. I will talk about this experience in a future entry, but for now, I’d like to share some tales of my palaeontological adventures in Argentina.

Collage: Two volcanic landscapes.

A field of dark volcanic debris in southwestern Mendoza Province, produced by the no-longer-active volcano seen in the background. Depending on the nature of their iron content, the volcanic ejecta weathers into varying shades of red, grey and black, which contrast beautifully with the greenish yellow of the vegetation. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer

Being in that country for the conference afforded me the opportunity to make a professional visit to Museo de La Plata, South America’s largest natural-history museum, as well as take some vacation time in order to explore several of Argentina’s other wonderful museums and palaeontological sites.

Collage: Exterior of Museo de La Plata and a sculpture of Smilodon.

Main entrance of the Museo de La Plata. Take note of the statues of reclining felines that flank the stairwell. Having frequently visited the New York Public Library when growing up, the entrance of whose main branch is guarded by two magnificent lion sculptures, I have always had a fondness for monuments in the shape of great cats. But as you can see here, the ones at Museo de La Plata aren’t just any old big cat sculptures. Rather, they’re representations of Smilodon, the sabre-toothed cat that stalked the ancient grasslands that were the precursor to today’s Pampas region of eastern Argentina. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer


As a research assistant with the Palaeobiology Section of the Canadian Museum of Nature, I work closely with our dinosaur palaeontologist Jordan Mallon in order to support his research endeavours. Jordan is particularly interested in the ecological role of the feeding behaviours of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs found in Alberta, and so is always on the lookout for new data concerning the teeth, jaws and skull shape of the various species of duck-billed and horned dinosaurs that once roamed western Canada.

View of the palaeontology gallery.

One of the vertebrate palaeontology halls at Museo de La Plata. The dinosaur skeleton in the centre is a cast of one of the famous Bernissart specimens of Iguanodon from Belgium. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The size of the teeth and the bones of the skull may be related to the mechanics of biting and chewing, so measurements may furnish information about the probable diet of these herbivorous animals.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Royal Ontario Museum traded the fossil skulls of three Canadian dinosaurs, two ceratopsians (the horned dinosaurs) and one hadrosaurid (a duck-billed dinosaur), for specimens from South America. Two of these, examples of Centrosaurus apertus and Prosaurolophus maximus sent to Argentina in 1944, wound up at Museo de La Plata in the city of La Plata, located southeast of Buenos Aires.

Collage: Dinosaur skulls in the museum.

Top: At Museo de La Plata, the two dinosaur skulls from Canada may be seen on exhibition, illuminated on either side of the darker Tyrannosaurus rex cast in the middle. Bottom left: Centrosaurus (specimen 79-XI-23-2) is missing its jaws. Bottom right: Prosaurolophus (specimen 79-XI-23-1). Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The whereabouts of the third—a Chasmosaurus skull traded around 1932—are unknown, but it is likely in either Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. No descriptions or measurements of these specimens have been published to date.

Founded in 1888, Museo de La Plata [website in Spanish] houses over three million natural-history specimens and archaeological objects. The beautiful building sports a neoclassical exterior that shelters an interior replete with many architectural elements and exhibition cases that preserve their Victorian-era charm.

Collage: Interior of central rotunda, a fossil exhibition.

Left: The central rotunda of the Museo de La Plata, accessed by the main entrance. In the centre is a bust of Francisco Pascasio Moreno, founder of the museum and a prominent Argentinian explorer and natural historian of the Victorian period, surrounded by beautiful murals depicting scenes of prehistoric life. Right: A display of skeletons from various species of glyptodonts and ground sloths, extinct mammals that lived during the Pleistocene Epoch (between about 2.6 million and 12 000 years ago). Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Centrosaurus and Prosaurolophus skulls were put on display for the first time during a renovation of the palaeontology halls about 10 years ago, where they remain today. I was able to examine and measure them on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the public.

A man perches in an exhibit, measuring a dinosaur skull.

Measuring the Centrosaurus skull. The museum was closed at the time and no one could be found to turn on the lights in the exhibition halls, so the orange flashlight had to be used for much of the work. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer

Neither had been cleaned since initially being placed on display, however, so there was quite a layer of dust coating them. In fact, such an amazing amount of dust can accumulate in a decade that it was (almost) like having to excavate them all over again! Through much sneezing and watering of the eyes, I measured, drew and photographed the two skulls.

The resulting metrical data will be added to Jordan’s database for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs of North America, and we also hope to generate three-dimensional computer models of the skulls from the photographs. Moreover, I dutifully set the collections manager for vertebrate palaeontology at the museum on the hunt for any information that he may be able to find about the location of the missing third skull. Hopefully, he will soon report back with some useful information dredged up from the museum’s archives and gleaned from conversations with South American colleagues.

Before leaving Argentina, I was able to visit several sites in Mendoza Province with exposed tetrapod trackways dating to the Permian Period (approximately 250 to 300 million years ago).

Collage: A man sits on a rocky hill, an illustration showing a Chelichnus gigas making tracks, C. gigas footprints in rock.

Left: This image shows me posing next to a trackway made by Chelichnus gigas, which may have been a caseid—a member of an extinct group of herbivorous reptiles. Right: A drawing showing what C. gigas may have looked like. Bottom: Footprints left by C. gigas. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature, Verónica Krapovickas et al. © Taylor and Francis Group

These sites record the footprints of a variety of early reptiles, and are located in a region with spectacular landscapes and geology.

Collage: A huge sinkhole, a natural rock arch over a river.

Top: Pozo de las Ánimas, or Well of Souls. The sinkhole was formed by the dissolution of limestone layers by the movement of subterranean waters. Bottom: Puente del Inca, or Bridge of the Inca. A natural arch formed over the Vacas River by an unknown geological process. The waters of nearby hot springs have deposited colourful mineral layers upon the arch and one of the banks of the river. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer.

In Buenos Aires, I was certain to spend a day at the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum, whose exhibitions include mounts of many of the distinct species of South American dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals.

Collage of skeletons: dinosaur, glyptodont and giant ground sloth.

Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia in Buenos Aires. Top left: Skeleton of the sauropod dinosaur Amargasaurus cazaui mounted to depict an adult female in the process of laying her eggs. Amargasaurus possessed an unusual double row of spines running along the back of its neck. And, it’s familiar to those of us who work at the the museum’s research and collections facility, because we have a cast of this very skeleton in our cafeteria. Right: Giant ground sloth skeleton. Bottom left: Glyptodont specimens. Note the spiked tail of the one mounted on the wall. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer, Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

I leave you with more photos to enjoy from my travels to these places—quite a few, in fact. I hope you’ll forgive me, but Argentina is blessed with a wealth of natural beauty and great museums, so it was hard to limit myself to just a small number.

Collage: A mountain range, a river.

Top: The Andes Mountains, which form the border with Chile to the west. Bottom: The river that cuts through sandstones of the Areniscas Antigradas Member of the Yacimiento Los Reyunos Formation, exposing several sites with trace fossils, including the C. gigas footprints mentioned above. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer, Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Next time, I’ll share some pictures of the flora and fauna I encountered, including a bold, cookie-eating troop of coatis and a tiny relative of the guinea pig that raided our lunch with just as much gusto!

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The Mars Diaries—two weeks at a space station in Utah

Museum botanist Paul Sokoloff is completing a scientific “vacation”…at a Mars simulation station in the deserts of Utah! Here he shares some daily diary entries that cover his two-week experience.

Day One

Stepping through the airlock to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) made it all real. We arrived at the MDRS on the evening of November 15, and introduced ourselves to crew 142, the outgoing expedition that had opened the “hab” (the station’s base) for the season two weeks previous. Just as with my own crew two days earlier, we all made fast friends. Crew 142 briefed us on the various ins-and-outs of the “hab”, and we celebrated the completion of their mission with a pizza dinner from the only pizza place in town.

Image of the large cylindrical space station.

View of the “hab”, the large pod that serves as the home and lab space for Paul and his crewmates. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Two

After crew 142 departed this morning, our team sat down to plan out the two-week rotation. Sounds like a lot to do, and the crew is looking forward to beginning our research projects. With one last night free before the simulation begins, we headed out at night to practice a little astrophotography—the night skies here are spectacular!

Four people ride ATV’s into the desert.

Crew members head out on a geological trip, all the while wearing the required space suits. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Three

Our first full day in “sim” (simulation) started off as all days do on Mars—with coffee! It was our first day for an EVA (extravehicular activity or “space” walk); the four-person EVA team took nearly an hour to suit up while familiarizing ourselves with the gear. After a five-minute cycle in the airlock we stepped out onto the surface of “Mars”! We spent the next two hours tromping around the desert collecting plant and rock samples, and performing basic maintenance around the hab. The time passed quickly, and before we knew it, it was back to the airlock to return —EVAs are as tightly controlled here as they would be on Mars. The day ended with the team huddled around our laptops pounding out reports; on Mars, communication with Earth would be limited each day, and a two-hour window of time in which to file our daily logs simulates this.

View of the Utah desert, with lichen-covered boulder in foreground, and a member of the crew in behind.

A member of crew 143, wearing the proper spacesuit, is dwarfed by the vast landscape of the Utah desert, which serves as an analog for Mars. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Six

A documentary crew from Earth visited us today. They seem like hardy folks—they could even walk around the “Martian” landscape without pressure suits. They must be some sort of advanced robot…I kid you! The crew was from the French channel Arte, who came to interview an MDRS crew for a documentary series on manned spaceflight. They were keenly interested in what we were doing, and more importantly, why we were here. For each crew member, the answer was remarkably similar—because the work we do at MDRS gets humanity one step closer to space, and to Mars.

A French documentary crew from Arte interviews crew members in the Utah desert.

A French documentary crew from Arte interviews crew members in the Utah desert. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Seven

Today was my day off. Well, sort of. As part of the simulated mission parameters, we are restricted to one EVA for the crew per day, and the outside team has to be back in the hab within four hours. On top of that, only four crew members are permitted to be on EVA at any one time, so “Mars” walks are very tightly planned around here. Each person does something different when they stay in the hab. Some work, some clean, some catch up on sleep. Today, with a relatively free schedule, I cooked and surprised the incoming EVA team with homemade pizza!

Day Eight

As the crew’s botanist, and its health and safety officer, you’d think I’d know better than to pick up a cactus in the desert, even while wearing my suit gloves. But no, I had to go and collect it. I spent a good 20 minutes picking stinging hairs out of my hand once we got back to the hab. Still, today was very productive—a team of four, including myself and our resident geologist, Paul K., proceeded on ATVs to Tank Wash Stream north of the hab. This was a very rich site for our scientific projects, and at the end of the EVA
I entered the airlock with an overflowing bag of plant specimens.

A cactus in the desert.

Watch out! Cacti are some of the vegetation documented by Paul Sokoloff during his scientific collecting. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Ten

Another Martian day, another productive EVA. Fun Fact: on Mars a day is called a sol, and is 37 minutes longer than a day here on Earth. Today we collected geological and biological specimens close to the hab, and as has happened often on this trip, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the biodiversity in the desert—everything from great swaths of lichens blanketing sandstone boulders, to many species of the legume genus Astragalus (the group I studied for my Master’s degree), and even cyanobacteria growing inside rocks collected out in the desert. The biodiversity I was less pleasantly surprised to find was the rat we discovered scampering about the hab!

Closeup of a plant from the genus Astragalus.

The desert around the Mars station has many plants –including species of the genus Astralagus. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Eleven

It was hard prying myself from my bunk today after a late night joking around with the rest of the crew. We’ve only known each other for 11 days, but throwing a bunch of highly motivated individuals into an isolated hab, while on a simulated space mission, has a way of turning out a batch of very fast friends. Our second media crew dropped by, this time from the magazine Paris Match. Our discussions touched on everything from advanced propulsion systems for Mars missions to the ethics of transporting Earth organisms to the Red Planet.

Day Twelve

I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone —while it feels like we just got here, crew 143’s simulated Mars mission comes to an end tomorrow. Our rotation at MDRS will continue until Sunday, giving us time to wrap up our final reports, clean the hab, and brief the incoming crew 144, but the simulated Mars mission will be over, and we’ll be free to come and go from the hab at will, “sans” spacesuit. Fittingly, our last full day in “sim” is Thanksgiving here in the United States, and in honour of our American commander, we’ll be celebrating with a Thanksgiving Dinner on “Mars”. I know I speak for the entire crew when I say we are very, very thankful to have been a part of this ongoing mission to prepare humanity for its next great step.

Read Paul’s previous blogs in this series:

Trading My Plant Press for a Space Suit
Life on Mars?

Posted in Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research, Tools of the trade | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Nature Inspiration Awards—Oh, What a Night

Meg Beckel at podium.

Museum President and CEO Meg Beckel at the Nature Inspiration Awards, held Nov. 5, 2014 at the museum. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This month, I was proud to be part of an amazing celebration at our museum—a night to acknowledge, through the first Nature Inspiration Awards, some amazingly creative, innovative and forward-thinking people and organisations. All are making a difference in our understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

Panorama showing guests seated at tables with Meg Beckel at podium.

The scene is set as Meg Beckel kicks off the Nature Inspiration Awards on November 5. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

That is something that we, as Canada’s national museum of natural history and natural sciences, have been doing for more than 150 years—whether it’s through developing galleries and exhibitions; working with partners to create programs that engage and inspire others, or contributing knowledge through our national collections and scientific research and expertise.

Museum scientist Dr. André Martel stands behind a table to show mussel to numerous visitors at a public Open House.

Dr. André Martel talks about his research on mussels, during the public Open House in 2013—one of the many ways the museum encourages appreciation of the natural world. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It’s been a whirlwind year since the museum conceived and put into place these first annual awards. We were delighted to receive 34 nominations last spring and I know that our jury had a hard time winnowing down the list to the finalists and the winners. Our national media partners, The Walrus and the Globe and Mail, helped share the buzz to collect nominations and recognize the finalists. We look forward to building on this year’s success when our second call for nominations is launched early in 2015.

Jury member Shelley Ambrose standing by podium and holding sculpture.

Jury member Shelley Ambrose, Publisher of The Walrus, holds the Lishman iceberg sculpture, which is presented to the award winners. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But before we get there, I want to reflect on some of this year’s finalists and recipients, as they set high standards for future nominations.

The 2014 awards went to Alana Krug-MacLeod, a Saskatoon teen who advocates for action against climate change; Mylène Paquette from Montreal, an ocean adventurer speaking up for marine conservation; Evergreen, a Toronto-based not-for profit that introduces inner-city kids to nature; Earth Rangers from Woodbridge, Ontario, a group that educates schoolchildren about wildlife conservation; and Cascades Inc, of Kingsey Falls in Quebec’s Eastern townships, a company that pioneered the recycling of paper products.

Winner Hugo d’Amours, with Cascades Inc., speaks at podium as Meg Beckel and presenter Ivan Semeniuk look on.

Hugo d’Amours, with Cascades Inc., accepts the Corporate category award as presenter Ivan Semeniuk with the Globe and Mail, and museum President Meg Beckel look on. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Individual category winner Mylène Paquette extends hand to jury member Geoff Green after being announced as winner of award.

Adventurer Mylène Paquette greets jury member Geoff Green after being announced as winner of the Individual category. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We have produced videos highlighting their accomplishments. All are inspiring and worthy of the award, but they represent just the tip of the iceberg…

Consider that in the Youth category alone, the finalists, along with Alana Krug-Macleod, included Hannah Alper from Toronto, an eco-blogger and motivational speaker; Olivia Clement from Ottawa, a fundraiser and advocate for polar bear conservation; and Miranda Anderson from Belcarra, British Columbia, who makes environmental films. What’s remarkable is their age – two of them aged 11, one aged 15 and one aged 17.

Alana Krug-Macleod holds a camera while leaning on the side of a ship during a journey with Students on Ice.

Youth category winner Alana Krug-Macleod, shown during a journey with Students on Ice, was among a group of four amazing finalists. Lee Narraway © Lee Narraway.

And a glance at the adult finalists shows a surprising diversity of career paths and skills: biologist Christian Artuso with Bird Studies Canada was recognized for his efforts to create a bird atlas for Manitoba; entrepreneur David Katz, from Port Moody British Columbia, has created an innovative company, the Plastic Bank, that helps reduce pollution and at the same time provides income for people in developing countries; and artist Charmaine Lurch through her work with Inner City Angels in Toronto has found inspiration in the natural world with her most recent project focussing on the importance of bees in our ecosystems.

Group photo of the winners, jury members and finalists who attended the awards gala.

With the ceremony over, the winners, jury members and finalists who attended the awards gala share a moment together on the museum’s grand staircase. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So many great stories, and I haven’t even touched on the not-for-profits! I encourage you to read more about them and all of the finalists for these inaugural awards

So, perhaps you know a corporation, individual, youth or not-for-profit that deserves a nomination for a future Nature Inspiration Award. Let us know about them—and keep an eye out in 2015 for the next round of applications.

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