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.

Posted in Animals, Collections | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Collections, Fossils, Research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Preparing Diatom Samples: Part 1

After a career of almost 33 years in IT, I started volunteering at the Canadian Museum of Nature in January 2013. From my time as a youth, I had always had a keen interest in science and I was looking for something meaningful to keep me busy once a week. The Museum of Nature was a good fit.

In a weird coincidence, I was assigned to Paul Hamilton, who was in fact a former classmate from the 1970s at Laurentian High School in Ottawa. Paul is now a Senior Research Assistant in botany at the museum. He curates Canada’s Algae Collection and studies the biodiversity of microscopic life.

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

Working with Paul in the diatom lab, I have so far done a variety of jobs related to diatom preparation and observation. For a while I created slides from prepared samples, then did some work photographing microscopic specimens. Lately, I have been preparing samples from specimens taken from the field. The process of field collection, preparation, filing and study of diatom samples is quite involved and never ending, and not many are aware of the skill, complexity and intricacies of the process.

Phycology Collection and Diatoms

The Canadian Museum of Nature maintains an ever-growing algae (phycology) collection of over 110 000 samples. It contains everything from large seaweeds to small microscopic diatoms.

An array of diatoms.

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

Diatoms are a group of microscopic algae encased in a shell-like silica wall. There are over 15 000 documented species, most of which are 50 microns or less in length (a micron is one millionth of a metre).

In the environment, diatoms produce energy and free up oxygen in the process. Conservative estimates suggest that diatoms, in combination with other algae, can contribute up to 20% of global energy. These organisms are at the base of the food web, producing energy that is passed through their body to small life forms and progressing along the web to invertebrates, fish and ultimately, large mammals like whales.

Besides their importance to the environment and despite their small size, I have discovered through microscopes and photos in books that diatoms have very intricate, complex and beautiful structures, from round and oval to long, thin and even boat-like shapes. In my opinion, the beauty and wide variety of diatom shells has certainly contributed to the popularity of collecting and studying these organisms.

In the lab, we use diatoms as life indicators for researching climate change, climate history in the Arctic, water quality, evolution and single-cell DNA sequencing and analysis. In industry, they have even been used in products like mild abrasive in tooth paste and environmentally friendly insecticides for gardening (where the sharp silica shells can cut, and block insect movement).

A diatom.

A live diatom (Gyrosigma acuminate) under a light microscope at 1000x. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

The diatom specimens in the national collection come from across Canada and around the world. Samples are collected in the field by museum scientists or received as donations from other scientific institutions. Data on each sample, such as date, location found and photographs of diatoms within it are kept in the phycology collection database.

At the moment in the museum lab, Paul has had us process and study samples from Ungava in Northern Quebec, Haliburton Highlands in Ontario, Adirondack Park in New York State, U.S.A., Bolivia in South America, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Franz Josef Land in Arctic Russia. We have also photographed previously prepared slides from Lake Te Anau in New Zealand.

Obtaining Samples from the Field

Freshwater diatoms can be collected from all wet environments, like ponds, lakes, ditches and rivers. It is easy to collect diatom samples from bottom mud and sediments using a tool like a turkey baster, or from plain water. Samples can be dried in the field on filter paper or transferred wet into small bottles.

A note is made for each sample as to the exact location of where it was taken, latitude and longitude, along with who collected the sample and the date.

A bank of cabinets with a couple of open drawers.

Cabinet drawers with boxes containing sample bottles. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Upon returning to the lab, a reference number is assigned to each sample bottle based on available catalogue numbers. Corresponding sample data are registered in the museum’s phycology database, and additional data such as photographs are added later.

Bottles are sorted and placed within boxes of 100 for storage in the diatom collection cabinets awaiting the next processing step. Progress is recorded in a lab notebook to ensure proper procedure is followed and to carry on at a later date.

Samples can be in a variety of states:

  • Alive—raw samples from the field kept alive for a limited time to observe the organisms in their natural state and for DNA sequencing
  • Dry—as received from the field or after freeze drying.
  • Wet—preserved after cleaning and processing where all organic material has been removed, leaving only the silica diatom shells in a water solution
  • Slides—the final stage:
    • glass slides for light-microscope study
    • aluminum discs for SEM study.

Read my next blog article for more detail about preparing samples and making slides.

Posted in Collections, Plants and Algae, Tools of the trade | Tagged | 1 Comment

Can the Arctic Steal the Show on International Colour Day?

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the Arctic, what would you see? White expanses of driven snow? Grey rock and pale blue ice? Yellow green ribbons of light dancing in the night sky? It’s true that our Northern territories are iconic for their vast, beautifully bleak scenes, but you don’t have to walk very far across the tundra (or through our Arctic Voices exhibition), to discover that the Arctic is anything but grey-scale.

Collage: Flowering plants arranged to form a rainbow of colour.

The flora of the Canadian Arctic spans the rainbow – Arctic summers are an explosion of colour across the tundra. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

March 21 marks International Color Day in nearly 30 countries worldwide—a day set aside to raise awareness and to celebrate the perception of colour. Given the frigid snowy winter that we’ve been having here in Ottawa (and across much of eastern Canada), it’s hard to look out the window and imagine (as one might about the Arctic) anything but a grey and frigid world. But both here and in the Arctic, that chilly white milieu will spring forth with unexpected colours as winter gives way to spring’s thaw.

Ground-level view of flowers with tents in the background.

Blue and orange are complementary to each other— if you keep that in mind you’ll notice that they’re used together everywhere from print advertising to movies. Naturally I couldn’t resist snapping shots of these sea-blue Arctic lupines (Lupinus arcticus) juxtaposed against our high-visibility orange tents. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

True, the Arctic summer is brief, but the hardy plants that live there tend to get straight to the point. Flowers are reproductive organs after all, and if you have only a few short months to get in on, you’d better strut your stuff.

A flowery foreground overlooks a river.

Colourful purple swathes of alpine milkvetch (Hedysarum alpinum) carpet the hillsides along the banks of the Coppermine River, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Bright mauve patches of purple mountain saxifrage herald the arrival of spring across much of the Arctic, oftentimes beginning to bloom while there’s plenty of snow left on the ground. These ephemeral blossoms don’t stick around long, and soon the Arctic will transition to the green lushness of full summer.

Many white flowers seen from the side.

The flowers of the white arctic mountain heather (Cassiope tetragona) protrude from north-facing snow beds like delicate white bells. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Yellow poppies blowing in the breeze, orange lichens plastered over boulders, the delicate pink bells of bog rosemary and curvy purple petals of louseworts. Come autumn, this rainbow will be replaced by fields upon fields of orange red bearberry leaves, just as trees down south change colour before winter’s inevitable return.

A beached boat rests in front of several small white buildings.

The red boat in front of the old Hudson’s Bay trading post is an iconic Iqaluit scene; the White Stripes even filmed a music video here. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of course, plants aren’t the only colour to be found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Walk through any community and you’ll be struck the by multi-coloured houses the beautiful arts and handicrafts. Northern animals, vegetables, minerals—all are a visual treat worthy of celebrating.

A man squats to look at blue stones on the ground.

Museum botanist Jeff Saarela, Ph.D., inspects blue-speckled lapis lazuli along the Soper River, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

So if you’re feeling inspired to seek out the colours of the North, our Arctic Voices exhibition runs until May 3.

In the meantime, Happy International Colour Day!

A flowering plant nestles among rocks.

Even in the bleakest Arctic deserts, pops of colour, like this purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) can be found peeking through the grey. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Exhibitions, Fieldwork | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jawing about Dinosaurs: What the Herbivore’s Jaws Are Telling Us

One of the great things about working at a museum is having access to the vast collections of fossils that reside behind the scenes. These aren’t regularly seen by the public (our annual Open House excluded), but they nevertheless serve an important role in my research. I recently published just such a study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology with my former Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Jason Anderson, that draws heavily upon specimens in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature and elsewhere.

Panoramic view of shelving ranges containing dinosaur fossils.

A view of our vast fossil collections. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

We were curious to know what role, if any, differences in jaw mechanics may have played to allow plant-eating dinosaurs to co-exist in Alberta 75 million years ago.

We know today, for example, that the high diversity of finch species in the Galápagos Islands is made possible by their diverse jaw arrangements. Species that eat the largest, hardest seeds have larger jaw muscles that are situated further forward on the beak, giving those species the extra leverage needed to crack open such massive seeds. In this way, an ecosystem can support a rich diversity of species because they are not all competing for the same types of food.

We figured that maybe similar principles allowed for the rich diversity of plant-eating dinosaurs in Alberta during the Late Cretaceous Period.

It can be difficult to know about muscle size in the fossil record because these soft tissues do not normally fossilize. We can, however, know something about how the jaw muscles were arranged because they leave distinctive marks on the skull bones where they attach. Therefore, by carefully measuring the attachment sites of the different jaw muscles, we can come up with complex lever models of the lower jaw that allow us to compare bite leverage across numerous species.

Three diagrams of dinosaur skulls in lateral view; one diagram in lateral view of a lower jaw.

Jaw muscle reconstructions for an ankylosaur (A), a ceratopsid (B) and a hadrosaur (C). The lever model we used is depicted at right (D). Image: © Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

What did we find? It seems that the jaws of the duck-billed hadrosaurs and horned ceratopsids were constructed in such a way as to produce a very high leverage, giving them an especially powerful bite. The armoured ankylosaurs, on the other hand, had comparatively weak jaws.

Within each of these groups, bite forces do not appear to have varied by much; different species of hadrosaurs had jaws that worked in very similar ways, as did different species of ceratopsids. The jaws of different ankylosaur species were slightly more variable, suggesting that there may have been some variability in their diets, too.

The take-home message is that, while there were certainly some differences in jaw mechanics between the major groups of plant-eating dinosaurs, we don’t see the same subtle differences between closely related species within those groups as we see in today’s Galápagos finches.

This tells us that the Albertan plant-eating dinosaur communities operated in a slightly different way, and that perhaps differences in other aspects of their anatomy allowed these animals to exploit different food sources to coexist.

Some of my previous work suggests that this is the case—we do see many differences in skull and beak shapes, feeding heights and tooth wear, even among closely related species. These insights tell us something about what it takes to support a diverse ecosystem over long periods of time—something that concerns conservationists today. It’s amazing what can be learned by plumbing the depths of our vast collections!

Read an abstract of the article:

Posted in Collections, Fossils, Research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Basalt: A Source of Beauty and Wonder

Further adventures of our mineralogists in Cambodia: follow museum scientists Paula Piilonen and Glenn Poirier on their hunt for minerals for their research.

In Ratanakiri province, and many other regions across Cambodia, the land is covered by a dark orange red, iron- and aluminum-rich soil called laterite.

Images: A red dirt country road; a look down at a red-dirt encrusted boot.

Laterite dust covers all the roads in the region! Laterite dust turns all your clothes red. Some days it’s hard to tell if I am tanned or simply dirty! ☺ Images: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Laterites form in tropical climates and are the result of extensive, intense chemical weathering of the underlying rock—in this case, basalt.

Basalt forming a round shape in the ground beside a geologist's hammer.

In situ weathering (spallation) of basalt to form laterite. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

When wet, laterite can be cut into blocks and used for construction of buildings. As it dries, it hardens to a rock-like consistency. The Angkor Wat complex, along with many other temples of Angkorian age (9th and 10th centuries) found throughout both Cambodia and Thailand, have been constructed with laterite bricks as the main foundation, covered with more aesthetic sandstone facing.

Carved stone structures at an ancient temple.

Laterite bricks form the internal foundation of Banteay Srei temple, 23 km north of Angkor Wat (10th century). Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because laterite profiles in this part of the country can be up to 50 metres thick, it is sometimes difficult to find fresh, solid rock outcrop. For this reason, our field work tends to focus on areas that provide the most likely exposure: waterfalls, rivers/creeks, boulder fields at the bottom of slopes, and quarries.

A woman stands near a small waterfall.

Paula Piilonen at the Katieng Waterfall, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. The waterfall goes over a basalt flow. Image: Glenn Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Today we visited one such quarry north of Ban Lung and the Angkor Gold office. Here, they are quarrying basalt, the rock that we are studying, for use as road fill. After poking around the waste-rock piles on the edges of the quarry near the stone crushers, we met one of the workers who, through hand gestures because he didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Khmer, told us that we could enter into the quarry itself.

An uneven landscape with machinery.

Basalt quarry 4 km north in Ban Lung, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the bottom of the quarry, we made a startling discovery. Although the larger blocks are drilled off and pushed to the bottom of the quarry (explosives are not allowed here), the bulk of the work to reduce the boulders to smaller fragments (about 30 cm to 60 cm) was being done BY HAND. Workers (in flip flops) stand in the rock piles and split boulders using only a large sledgehammer. A full shift of this manual labour must be back-breaking.

The smaller fragments are then loaded into a dump truck and fed into the crushers at the top of the quarry, where they are reduced to road fill (15 cm to 30 cm).

Images: A man uses a sledgehammer among piles of rocks; machines make piles of crushed rock.

Left: A quarry worker splits basalt, his only tool a sledgehammer. The fruit of his labour is further crushed by machines, at right. Images: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The quarry itself was an amazing experience for a geologist: a textbook-quality volcanic section consisting of three distinct basalt flows. Having access to the quarry wall to study (and sample) this section adds important information to our study of the basalts in the region. Nowhere else can multiple, fresh flows be observed in a single locality.

Images: A man stands beside a rock wall; lines demarcating three basalt layers have been applied to a photo (Top: Vesicular columnar 1.5 m, Middle: massive columnar 40 cm wide, Bottom: massive columnar 1.5 m wide).

Glenn Poirier examines a large (1.5 m wide) basalt column at the bottom of the quarry. Three distinct basalt flows can be identified. Images: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

We were able to collect 15 kg of rock and leave the quarry satisfied with an excellent morning of work.

Posted in Fieldwork, Research, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Walking Across the Arctic—On a Giant Map!

By Jennifer Doubt and Ed Hendrycks

As two museum scientists accustomed to gazing down microscopes at specimens, it’s safe to say that we had no idea what our role would be in developing a giant (11m x 8m) educational floor map of the Canadian Arctic. We knew that Canadian Geographic would produce the map, and we would tap the museum’s extensive expertise about the Arctic to provide content for it. Canadian Geographic would then show our stories in ways that supported the education curriculum in schools, and we would supply real-life examples from our adventures in the field, our scientific discoveries, and the rich legacy of our collections in order to make the stories come to life.

Students walk on the giant Arctic floor map.

Students try out the giant Arctic floor map at its December 16 launch at the museum. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It sounded great, but what does that mean? It meant, as we learned, that we would help to mediate a nine-month discussion between the Canadian Geographic project team and the museum’s science team. We gathered ideas and compiled information from our colleagues, and then coordinated and participated in the review of the resulting educational documents.

Two pages with descriptions of lesson plans based on museum field expeditions.

Two lesson plans drawn from real-life examples of museum field expeditions. Lesson plans and curriculum-based activities are part of the educational kit that accompanies the map. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Students sitting on the Arctic floor map

Students from Ottawa’s St. Gabriel School try out the floor map with the help of educational specimen cards.

Luckily for us, the project sold easily in our office. After all, here was a chance to help tens of thousands of students from coast-to-coast-to-coast explore the Canadian Arctic’s rich and fascinating natural diversity.

It was also a chance to focus the spotlight not only on traditional Arctic icons such as polar bears and diamonds, but also on lesser known natural history species that are missing from many school science lessons—think of amphipods, lichens, camels (yes, camels!) and galena (hint: it’s a shiny mineral), to name a few.

A view of the map’s title panel, with illustrations of 16 plants, animals, fossils and minerals.

The title panel for the map includes illustrations of 16 Arctic plants, animals, fossils and minerals that were selected by the museum’s scientific team. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Research assistants, research associates, research scientists, curators, collection managers, technicians, and volunteers all contributed time, creativity, and knowledge in the name of bringing Arctic natural history research and collections to life for students, visitors, and friends of the museum.

Plant specimens that are part of the educational package for the map.

Plant specimens from the museum’s collections are among the real examples that students can examine during their exploration of the map. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Our colleagues are great people, but I’m sure that this common cause is largely what kept their doors open to us—even when we returned to them for a third (or more!) review of a document about their area of expertise, or asked them to find us a tenth (or more!) photo from their research. Sometimes it was hard for all of us to stick with it.

The reward for this effort was clearly seen at the launch of this national educational and outreach project in December 2014. Canadian Geographic Educator Sara Black led a captivated class from St. Gabriel’s School in Ottawa through a magnificent, lightning fast, 180-degree turnaround in their understanding of the Arctic.

Jennifer Doubt is surrounded by eager students as they explore the floor map.

Curator of Botany Jennifer Doubt listens to students from St. Gabriel School describe their impressions of the Arctic at the official launch of the map. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the start, the students used words such as “ice”, “snow”, “cold” and “empty” to describe the focal regions of the map…but 15 minutes later, after an introduction to the map and the learning tools that included real specimens and information cards, terms such as “plants”, “fossils”, “diverse” and “colour” were favourites to describe the Arctic.

Ed Hendrycks talk with students as they explore the map.

Senior Research Assistant Ed Hendrycks, an expert on amphipods (tiny crustaceans) , shares his impressions of the Arctic with students from St. Gabriel School during the official launch of the map.
Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

We couldn’t have asked for better proof of the project’s value! The considerable strengths of Canadian Geographic Education and the Canadian Museum of Nature have successfully combined to create a unique, exciting, inviting, portable venue for sharing Arctic nature and knowledge about it.

We invite you to come and check out the map for yourself over the March Break period and walk with our educators and volunteers across the Arctic…in sock feet of course!

A student holds a specimen card while exploring the map.

A student from St. Gabriel School tries to match a specimen card with the Arctic location where the specimen is found. Image: Jessica Finn © Canadian Museum of Nature.

NOTE: Teachers can book the map for free for use at their school by contacting Canadian Geographic Education.

Posted in Arctic, Collections, Education, Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mineralogy Adventure in Cambodia: Looking for Topaz in Takeo Province

Museum mineralogists Paula Piilonen and Glenn Poirier are in Cambodia, looking for minerals relevant to their research. Follow along on their first trip to Takeo province, near Vietnam.

After a few days of acclimatization and overcoming jet lag in Phnom Penh, my colleague Glenn Poirier and I set out on our first mineralogical adventure of this year’s field season in Cambodia. We are planning a day trip to the little-known topaz, aquamarine (beryl) and smokey quartz mines in Takeo province, about 90 km south of Phnom Penh, close to the border with Vietnam.

A person stands on a rocky outcrop with stone stairs.

The top of Phnum Bayong Kao, a 310 metre-tall mountain that is the destination of our first mineralogical adventure of this year’s Cambodia field season. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Populated, forested and agricultural areas seen from elevation.

A view from the top of Phnum Bayong Kao. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our driver, Mr. Sin, was with us last year and invaluable because he was able to translate and communicate to local miners and gem dealers what we were after. The province is not on the main tourist route and English is almost non-existent in the towns and villages. The few tourists who do venture off the beaten path and visit Takeo are often only interested in purchasing the cut gems, whereas we are interested in rough mineral specimens for our collection and research. This requires a slightly more detailed conversation with dealers to convince them that yes, we actually do want the not-so-pretty stuff that no one else wants!

A cut gem and a natural crystal.

It take some discussions to convince the dealers that we are looking for the not-so-pretty stuff that no one else wants, like the rough smokey quartz from Takeo, Cambodia, that you can see here (right) beside a cut specimen. Both specimens are from the museum’s collection. Image: Michael Bainbridge © Michael Bainbridge

Discussions with a gem dealer in the morning market in Kirivong town revealed to us that mining was currently at a standstill from the absence of water in the river—as in Ratanakiri province, water is used to wash the soil and weathered rock in order to expose and concentrate the gem material. No water = no mining. However, this didn’t hinder our plans to explore and collect specimens to shed light on the geology and mineralogy of the deposits.

The mines are located at the base of Phnum Bayong Kao, a 310 metre-tall mountain with an Angkorian-age temple at the top, Wat Bayong Kao. As in other parts of Cambodia, mining in Takeo is done by hand—digging ditches into the soil and stream beds to collect loose minerals. There is no hard-rock mining with explosives and machines here.

A person stands amid stone walls and paving.

Prasat Bayong Kao, an Angkorian-age temple. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man sits in front of statues and offerings.

A monk at Prasat Bayong Kao. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a result, the production of the region has greatly diminished in the last few years as the “easy” deposits are mined out. In order to expose more gem-bearing pockets, mechanical, hard-rock mining methods would have to be employed.

We chose to hike to the top in the relative “cool” of the morning, doing geology on the way down (it’s much easier to carry rocks down a mountain than up!). The mountain itself is a very coarse-grained quartz-and-feldspar granite with cavities containing well-formed smokey quartz and topaz crystals.

A granite outcrop.

Granite containing the topaz, smokey quartz and aquamarine gem deposit. The gem minerals are found in cavities within the granite. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unfortunately, extracting minerals from the rock proved to be a futile effort with the limited equipment that we were carrying (rock hammers and a small chisel). After sampling the granite, our driver took us to a lunch spot at the base of the mountain with a convenient gem market. This gave us the chance to browse the rough and cut smokey quartz, topaz and aquamarine from the deposit, as well as to purchase a number of other hand samples containing additional mineral species (tourmaline) for our research.

Two crystals and a cut gem.

Rough and cut topaz from Takeo, Cambodia, from the museum’s collection. Image: Michael Bainbridge © Michael Bainbridge

It was also a great learning (and shopping!) experience for the three non-geologists who had tagged along with us for the day—everyone came back to Phnom Penh happy. As the saying goes, a bad day in the field is always better than a good day in the office. But this was definitely a good day in the field.

Posted in Fieldwork, Research, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Whale Saga at the Museum—Salvaging a Scientific Collection

The fate of a great number of species depends on the understanding of their past, their present situation, and the environmental challenges they face. One way to learn more about them is to study museum natural history collections, which provide invaluable sources of raw data for scientists to use in their investigations.

As Curator of Vertebrates at the museum, I oversee national collections that encompass mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Among these are world-class specimens of whales and other marine mammals representing the major species that inhabit Canadian waters.

A technician stands behind shelves holding whale skulls.

Technician Alan McDonald stands among some of the whale bones stored in the museum’s Large Skeleton Room. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Included in this collection is an assemblage of specimens that had come from the Arctic Biological Station of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which had closed down in 1992. An estimated 21,000 samples, many of them undocumented, had been stored in large barrels at our collections facility for over three decades.

Large metal barrels on shelves.

The whale samples were sitting in over 130 large, sealed barrels and had never been made accessible to the scientific community until the salvage project began. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The collection can provide invaluable information on topics ranging from historical records of whale occurrences and migration, impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, cetacean changes in growth and development, to historical records of pollution. And since it’s been almost 30 years since Canada joined the international moratorium on whale hunting in 1986, the value of these collections becomes even more significant.

With this mind, I was determined, after I joined the museum in December 2006, to add to the scientific knowledge by salvaging this amazing collection.

I readily acknowledged its exceptional value after I was made aware of its existence. It was the only collection of its kind in the world from the time period and the place the samples were collected. Vertebrate collections staff had worked to inventory the samples in 1993 and 1998 but several reasons impeded attempts to properly deal with the samples and make the data more accessible. The reasons included potential harm in handling large volumes of carcinogenetic preservative without appropriate equipment, incomplete data records (i.e., what was in each barrel), and limited resources.

A close-up of whale ovaries in a storage barrel.

A large barrel containing ovaries was opened in the lab for transfer to other containers. The samples were still in good condition despite being unchecked for a long time and having a dangerously low concentration of preservative. Image: Philippe Ste-Marie © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic Biological Station, established in 1948, was originally part of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada and served to expand oceanographic investigations in the Eastern Arctic. Over 44 years, thousands of marine mammal specimens were collected from most of the Canadian Arctic. Over this time, the scientists took advantage of whaling activities to assemble collections for research. The samples donated to our museum were collected mostly in the 1960s and 1970s in the northern Atlantic and the Arctic.

I spent a few years pondering how to complete the documentation and access to the samples, striving to identify all the issues that could prevent me from completing what had been pending for over two decades. Over that time, I learned a lot about this collection, the people behind it, the ebbs and flows it went through, and the less-than-glorious fate that was reserved to it.

The final step in breaking new ground to manage this collection and make it more accessible led me in October 2012 to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There I met James (Jim) Mead, a researcher who had worked at the Arctic Biological Station in the 1970s and had collected many of the samples. Jim willingly offered to share the data he kept in his field notes. Charles Potter, the manager of the Smithsonian’s marine mammal collections, also shared very exciting stories about this collection. With this information, and some funding now in place, I was ready to finally oversee the sorting, documentation and curation of the prized samples.

Two staff, wearing masks and protective gear, lean over steel tanks containing specimens.

Vertebrate zoology staff confirm inventories and transfer whale samples into easily manageable 25-gallon stainless steel tanks and 5-gallon jars with updated alcohol concentration. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Now that holding confirmed data was no longer an issue, the desired samples were to be transferred into smaller containers to be eventually made accessible to scientists. I was only hoping they still were in good condition in the barrels. They were! Selected skeletal and anatomical parts were eventually pulled together by the thousands.

So far, four major subsets of parts have been consolidated : 1) auditory system parts consisting of earplugs removed from 2,942 whales, and ear bones and ear blocks from 1,357 individuals; 2) an assemblage of foetuses representing various whale species and different development stages; 3) a series of anatomical organs comprising ovaries, brains, hearts, and eyes and 4) miscellaneous parts, including skin clips with scars, flippers and flukes.

A few whale foetuses resting in a stainless steel storage tank.

Among the stunning samples, a collection of foetuses was eventually assembled and organized in compliance with museum standards. Image: Philippe Ste-Marie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Many marine mammal species are represented in the collection, including seven whale species, as well as many seals and dolphins. The blue whale displayed in the museum’s RBC Blue Water gallery is also part of the collection that came from the Arctic Biological Station.

The job is not done yet. More work is needed to bring this unique collection to a world-class rank. More specimens still need to be pulled out of the barrels to be placed in appropriate containers and fluid preservatives, and the information associated with the specimens must be published in data portals.

Rows of shoeboxes on shelves containing whale eardrums.

A collection of whale earbones lie stored in boxes in the vertebrate collections, after being reorganized and having their data confirmed. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Much of the collection, nonetheless, can now be used for research, teaching, and education. It can be combined with other samples from not only the museum’s vertebrate collection but also the palaeontology section, where staff are processing approximately 1,000 other skeletal parts of whales (most representing bowhead whales that lived some 4,000-5,000 years ago in various parts of the Arctic.) Thus, the diversity of species and samples, as well as the scope of the time period that characterize the Canadian Museum of Nature’s whale collections, make them truly stunning.

Posted in Animals, Arctic, Collections, Research, Water | Tagged , | Leave a comment