Studying the Enriching Effect of Submarine Canyons

Over the last seven years, Canadian Museum of Nature marine biologist Kathy Conlan and her colleagues identified more than 500 species collected in two submarine canyons on the South Australian coast, comparing the marine life inside and outside of the canyons. This and other studies are demonstrating the importance of submarine canyons to coastal marine life worldwide.

An image showing the canyon in relief.

The du Couedic submarine canyon, south of Australia. The colour scale indicates depth, with red corresponding to the shallow area and purple to the deepest area. The canyon course (blue) allows deep ocean currents to reach the continental shelf. Image: © 2015 Conlan et al.

Submarine canyons incise the shelf and slope of all the continents in the world and nearly 6000 are known so far. They are created by river flows from the continents and by sediment failures along the shelves.

Submarine canyons focus deep-ocean currents onto the continental shelves, where the currents inject nutrient-rich water at shallow-enough depths for phytoplankton to take advantage of them. They also funnel land waste downwards so that they have become a convenient underwater garbage pit. Fish tend to congregate in canyons to feed on zooplankton concentrations there, so these canyons are also a favourite target for fishing.

In 2009–2010, I took a year’s sabbatical in Australia at the South Australian Research and Development Institute with David Currie, Ph.D., and at Flinders University with Sabine Dittmann, Ph.D.

David had recently collected samples from two submarine canyons on the South Australian coast. These canyons were thought to be important to the survival of a nearby sea-lion colony and to support the lucrative tuna, sardine and anchovy fishery there.

A map.

Underwater depths off the southern coast of Australia. The two rectangles correspond to the underwater canyons where the research took place. Image: © 2015 Conlan et al. (licence: CC BY 2.0). From “Macrofaunal Patterns in and around du Couedic and Bonney Submarine Canyons, South Australia”, by K.E. Conlan, D.R. Currie, S. Dittmann, S.J. Sorokin, E. Hendrycks (PLoS ONE 10(11): e0143921; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0143921).

David had already studied the fish and large invertebrates in these canyons. Because I specialize in small invertebrates, he generously invited me to see if they were responding in the same way.

These critters, which live on the sea floor or burrow underneath, are good indicators of environmental effects because they aren’t very mobile, so they can’t get out of the way of pollution or natural changes. So their distribution patterns would likely reflect the effects of the canyons.

Three photos: A man grasps a sampler that hangs overhead, a sampler hangs over the surface, the ship at port.

In these images from the Southern Surveyor in February 2008, researcher David Currie operates the sampler on the ship’s deck. Images: Graham Hooper © David Currie

David methodically sampled inside and outside the canyons at 100, 200, 500, 1000 and 1500 m depths. He used a grab that sampled a known area of sea floor so that we would be able to compare abundance and biomass at each of the 27 sites.

That was a feat in itself: targeting precise locations from a rolling ship with a sampler hanging from a 1000 m of cable or more that frequently failed at such great depths.

My job seemed much easier: pick out of the mud the roughly 3000 animals that he had captured, then identify, count and weigh them, and finally, analyse their distribution patterns to see if we could see a canyon effect.

This looked like a simple job until I realized that Australia has a way more diverse marine fauna than Canada. Fortunately, Shirley Sorokin, Ed Hendrycks, Val Tait and Shea Cameron joined the project.

Photo of a worm specimen with a 0.5 mm reference scale and the scientific name "Prionospio steenstrupi".

Canyon heads support numerous species, like this little polychaete Prionospio, which lives in a self-made tube and captures passing particles with its elaborate appendages. Image: © Washington State Department of Ecology’s Marine Sediment Monitoring Team (license: CC BY 2.0).

The result was the discovery of 531 species of worms, clams, snails, starfishes, sponges, shrimps and many, many more. Their abundance, biomass and diversity were highest on the continental shelf, and species composition shifted at the canyon heads.

This shift indicated that the canyon heads had strong currents that were enriching the coast. Our results were published last autumn by the open-access journal PLoS ONE, thanks to support from the Canadian Museum of Nature and a Visiting Scholar grant from Flinders University.

This collection is now housed at the South Australian Museum, where we hope it will be useful for other researchers. Our identification of such a rich area is being used as ammunition to convince policy makers to protect this coast better.

Canada has many submarine canyons of its own. Perhaps the most famous is the Gully, a designated marine protected area near Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Canyons may be sanctuary for many undescribed species—just ask Jean-Marc Gagnon, Ph.D., a marine biologist here at the Canadian Museum of Nature who recently identified a new species of file clam from the Gully.

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Catharine Parr Traill Herbarium Scrapbook Gets Careful Conservation Treatment

In museums, conservators have the privilege of working on all types of objects and artefacts, preparing them for exhibition or repairing damage accumulated over time. This autumn, I have had the wonderful pleasure of conducting a conservation treatment on a botanical scrapbook created by Catharine Parr Traill.

The National Herbarium of Canada at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa houses the largest collection of Parr Traill’s albums containing hundreds of botanical samples. The collection is one of the oldest in the museum and provides a snapshot of plant life that existed during the 1800s.

Photograph of Catharine Parr Traill. Inscription: "Yours very sincerely. Catharine Parr Traill".

Catharine Parr Traill, early botanist and pioneer. She emigrated from England in 1832 and died at Lakefield, Ontario, in 1899 at age 97. Image: © Public domain

These albums have received considerable interest in recent years because of the revision of Catharine Parr Traill’s historical role as early scientist and pioneer. The book Sisters in the Wilderness, by Charlotte Grey, has also helped people get to know Parr Traill and her sister, Susanna Moodie, and their incredible story of science and survival.

On a personal level, this collection is very special. My post-secondary education at both Trent University and Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario, put me right in the heart of “Traill country”. As a youth, I read about Catharine Parr Traill and her sister, Susanna Moodie, which helped enrich my love for the natural world.

Preserving Century-Old Albums and Scrapbooks
Catharine Parr Traill’s scrapbooks and albums have come to the attention of the museum’s conservators over the past few years because the books are extremely fragile and were at risk of being damaged every time they were taken out for viewing. Some of the plants were becoming detached, while others were being compressed in the bindings as pages were being turned, resulting in damage to the specimens. Thus, a long-term project was developed by the Canadian Museum of Nature’s conservation staff to stabilize the books so that they could be more safely handled and studied.

The staff did a survey of the needs of the collection and developed a treatment protocol. Because the work is time-consuming but not overly complicated for someone with specialized training, a programme was developed for the books and albums to be treated by emerging conservators like myself, doing internships as part of their curriculum requirements.

Collage of two images.

A page of one of Catharine Parr Traill’s albums before and after conservation treatment. Image: Erika Range © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a conservator-in-training, I worked on cleaning and repairing the pages, and stabilizing the specimens so that the books can be more easily handled. There is also an initiative to digitize the collection by capturing high-resolution photographs in the hope that they can be made available for viewing online, thereby making them more widely accessible while minimizing risk to the objects by limiting their handling.

The treatment of the books entails a careful assessment of each page to decide what exactly is required for stabilization. Conservation treatments should always be reversible in case future conservators are able to find better solutions. Accordingly, extensive testing is required to find the best combination of adhesives and materials to best meet the preservation needs of the artefact.

I did a lot of testing with adhesives to find combinations that would give the right amount of strength without damaging the specimens. We used a 4% methylcellulose adhesive to tack down lifting leaves. Little paper straps were made to help secure lifting stems. The straps are tiny, measuring only 1 mm to 1.5 mm in width!

Several photos showing pages with plant specimens.

Testing adhesives and different Japanese papers. The arrows mark new straps for holding the specimen in the album. Image: Erika Range © Canadian Museum of Nature

The straps were made by coating Japanese paper in a special adhesive that can be reactivated with ethanol after it dries. The Japanese paper was cut into the tiny strips once the adhesive was dry. The adhesive was reactivated with a small amount of ethanol before the strap was attached to the page. Ethanol is used to limit the amount of water introduced to the old historic paper, which could leave marks or damage the paper. The results are significant for improving the overall stability of the book, while also improving the overall aesthetics.

Meeting Catharine Parr Traill’s Descendants
One of the most special days this autumn was getting to welcome Catharine Parr Traill’s great-great-great-grandnephew and his family to the Canadian Museum of Nature. It is rare that conservators get to meet the creators of the work that they are trying to preserve, so getting to meet the descendants of the creator makes the work even more special.

Several people look closely at an album.

Descendants of Catharine Parr Traill visited the collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature last autumn. I was able to show them the conservation work on their ancestor’s albums. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

The family came to the museum to see our scrapbooks and a copy of the first edition of Canadian Wildflowers, which is housed in our Rare Book Collection. The family also presented the Canadian Museum of Nature with a copy of their family history, which they had compiled.

During their visit, I had the opportunity to show them my preservation work to stabilize the scrapbooks. They loved seeing the inscriptions written by their ancestor and the work we are doing to promote the longevity of their heritage. It was a very special day that I will remember for many years to come.

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My Irish Diatom Adventure (Part 2)

As I mentioned in a previous article, I travelled in Ireland last autumn and took the opportunity to sample diatoms. The photos here show the best of the 21 sampling locations and the resulting diatoms.

Some samples contained only a few individual diatoms, while others hosted thousands of individuals from a variety of species. Samples taken from calmer water with a muddy composition were easier to select and yielded far more diatoms than the ones taken from faster water or an area with a stony bottom.

Abbey River, Limerick

Images: Looking back at town from the river, a diatom.

The wharf at Arthur’s Quay on the Abbey River, with a one-metre dam and flow into the Shannon River, Limerick, Ireland. The freshwater diatom from the Abbey, Nitzschia vermicularis (size: 100 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Abbey River was my first sample location. It is a freshwater distributary arm of the Shannon River in Limerick. It eventually falls about a metre into the Shannon, which is tidal (salt water). Because the rivers were walled off (as are most of the rivers in Irish towns, I soon discovered), it was a challenge to get to the water level.

Fortunately, a friendly local couple at Arthur’s Quay helped me onto their wharf and into a row boat so I could take a good specimen. I mentioned I was from Canada, and Arthur happened to be my mother’s maiden name, so maybe that helped?

I thanked the couple and returned to the hotel for processing the samples.

Papers and containers for liquids scattered across a work surface.

Kit used in the hotels for drying, preparing and logging diatom samples. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

On my return to Canada, researcher Paul Hamilton and I looked at the samples. Paul is a specialist of freshwater diatoms at the Canadian Museum of Nature in whose lab I regularly do volunteer work. We found freshwater and marine (salt water) diatoms in the sample, which indicates some kind of mixing—perhaps from high spring tides, wind blowing off the Shannon, or birds transporting drops of water… and diatoms.

Kylemore Castle, Lake Maladrolaun

The beautiful Kylemore Castle (shown in my previous article) is located on picturesque Lake Pollacapall and near Lake Maladrolaun. Sampling here was relatively easy. I obtained one sample from each lake, and a third from a drainage ditch. Lake Maladrolaun—and its muddy rather than stony bottom—yielded the best results.

Images: The lake seen through trees on the bank, a diatom.

The Maladrolaun Lake near Kylemore Castle, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, and a diatom from the lake, Diploneis ovalis (size: 40 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Carrowbeg River, Westport

The Carrowbeg River flows through the town of Westport to the sea at Clew Bay on the west coast. Although the river was walled, stairs beside a bridge at South Mall and Bridge streets gave me access to the river bottom. The Carrowbeg sample yielded many very interesting diatoms.

Images: A river running between walls through town, a diatom.

The Carrowbeg River looking up towards Bridge St, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland. The diatom, Gomphomenia truncatum (size: 42 μm) is from the river at the bridge. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Burn Stream, Donaghadee

Our tour group spent an evening in the coastal town of Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, just east of Belfast. With an hour free before supper, I discovered a drainage culvert along the sea wall. Walking up some streets and with the help of locals, I found the open-stream part near Crommelin Park and took a sample at a spot just before the water disappeared into the culvert.

Images: Looking back at the sea wall and buildings during low tide, a diatom.

The sea wall where fresh water from the Burn Stream flows into the sea in Donaghadee, County Down, Northern Ireland. A Stauroneis smithii (size: 25 μm) diatom from the open stream above the culvert. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

I later learned in an email from the Donaghadee Historical Society that the stream was called the Burn, Gaelic for “small freshwater stream”. Also, many years ago, the stream was used to power a mill and then it was culverted in the 1950s after a flood.

St. Stephen’s Green Pond, Dublin

St. Stephen’s Green Park has a beautiful large pond in the heart of downtown Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland. There was easy access for samples from each end of the pond, which is shaped like a long bowtie. The pond is home to swans, cranes, ducks and other birds. While I was taking a sample, a curious moorhen came over to me to see what I was up to.

Images: A picturesque pond with walled banks, a diatom.

Water birds floating on the beautiful St. Stephen Green Park Pond, Dublin, Ireland. A diatom from the pond, Encyonema silesiacum (size: 25 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Italian Gardens Pond, Garnish Island

Garnish Island is located in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay, in the southwest of Ireland. The island is accessible by a ferry service. Seals can be seen basking on the rocks along the way. The island has renowned gardens and beautiful walks, with a wide variety of plants and a stone lookout tower. Specimens were taken from the Italian Gardens Pond and two other spots along a creek in what is called the Happy Valley area of the island.

Images: A rectangular pool and a pavilion, a diatom.

The Italian Gardens Pond, Garnish Island, County Cork, Ireland, with a diatom from the pond, Pinnularia appendiculata (size: 28 μm). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Deenagh River, Killarney

The Deenagh River flows through beautifully forested parts of Killarney National Park in the city of Killarney. Because of the fast current and stony bottom, I took a sample in a calmer spot along the shore. Horse-drawn carriages in the park give rides to tourists along the trails and across the bridge.

Image: A river flows under a bridge, a diatom.

The Deenagh River and bridge, Killarney National Park, Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland. This Navicula lanceolata diatom (size: 26 μm) is from the river. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Abhainn Bhaile na Rátha River, Dunquin

Dunquin is a small town on the spectacular Dingle Peninsula (where the 1970s movie Ryan’s Daughter was filmed). The Abhainn Bhaile na Rátha River flows through farmlands from around Dunquin to the sea at Dingle Bay. Because of the current, I again obtained a sample in a calmer spot not far from the stream mouth.

Images: The estuary where Beal Átha Cliath Stream flows into Dingle Bay, a diatom.

The Abhainn Bhaile na Rátha River looking southwest into Blasket Sound, near Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. A Cocconeis placentula diatom (size: 35 μm) from the river. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Washing Pool, Adare

Adare is a town just southwest of Limerick where a small tributary of the Maigue River flows through. The Main Street bridge crosses it at a place called the Washing Pool. This is where many years ago, women of the area would gather to do their washing. Animals used it as a watering hole. While drawing a specimen, small crustaceans (that likely ate diatoms) darted around and tried to get into my sample.

Images: A picturesque walled length of the river with an access point, a diatom.

The Washing Pool on a tributary of the Maique River, Adare, County Limerick, Ireland. This diatom, Cymatopleura solea (size: 130 μm) is from the pool. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

These photos of locations and diatoms are representative of many diatom photos taken from a variety of samples from the beautiful and historic island of Ireland.

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Natural Capital: its time has come!

At the recent World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh, Scotland I noticed a change in clothing. The concept of “Natural Capital” has been around for decades. What has changed is who is paying attention now. There were far more suits than at any other nature conservation conference I have attended.

View of Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh was the setting for an international conference about “natural capital” attended by museum President and CEO Meg Beckel. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Briefly, Natural Capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets, which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things. It is from these assets that humans derive a wide range of services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible.

An economist talks at a podium on a stage.

Pushpam Kumar, Chief Economist for the United Nations Environment Program, addresses the forum delegates. Image: © World Forum on Natural Capital

The language of natural capital is attracting a new crowd of people who are key to the future of our natural world. There are the usual suspects from the fields of nature conservation, natural science and government policy. But beyond them, we now see, and are hearing from, industry leaders, financial sector leaders and accounting professionals.

A crowd of conference delegates standing around and talking in a large hall.

Forum delegates mix and mingle over a cup of tea. Image: © World Forum on Natural Capital

The forum featured speakers, perspectives and case studies that led most of us to believe that the concept and application of Natural Capital in government and industry is real…and is taking off.

But it was an announcement at the forum that grabbed my interest, as it highlighted where natural history museums could play a role. The news was that consultations would be launched on a Natural Capital Protocol.

The protocol’s overall vision is to transform the way business operates through understanding and incorporating their impacts and dependencies on natural capital. It is anticipated that the resulting framework would be the starting point to inform future common standards of practice.

Five people sit on a stage while talking at the conference.

A plenary session at the conference. Image: © World Forum on Natural Capital

The protocol does not yet address one important source of data and knowledge about our natural world—natural history collections and the information derived from those collections. These could provide valid current and historical records to do an inventory and put a value on natural assets.

I mentioned this to a number of the natural capital researchers and they simply had not considered collections and associated research as sources of data. I see a definite call to action for the leaders of natural history museums and I plan to spread the word and get us engaged in this consultation phase of the Natural Capital Protocol. This blog is a first step!

I encourage people to share the news about the Forum, the Natural Capital Coalition and the Natural Capital Protocol. I was so inspired that I visited colleagues at the National Museum of Scotland and stirred them into action! I think natural history museums have a vital role to play, providing another lens on nature to help inspire understanding and respect for a better natural future.

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Snapshots of (Natural) History

The million-some-odd pressed plant specimens in the National Herbarium of Canada are full of little notes and bit of intriguing information; oftentimes these are the tips of icebergs that can lead on some pretty interesting tangents. Every sheet is one small part of a larger, richer story.

Recently, while locating specimens from the Coppermine River (we’re examining all the plants from this region of Nunavut, including those from our recent fieldwork, for a new floristic paper), I came across a herbarium sheet that caught my attention.

Collage of Arctic lousewort (collection #CAN26547; archive slide S78-303).

The specimen that started it all: an Arctic lousewort (Pedicularis langsdorffii subsp. arctica). It was pressed and preserved in Kugluktuk by Mildred Wood and is shown with Raymond Wood’s photograph of the same specimen. Images: Paul Sokoloff, Raymond D. Wood © Canadian Museum of Nature

This sheet, a very nicely pressed Arctic lousewort (Pedicularis langsdorffii subspecies arctica), had a neat, handwritten annotation written under the equally neat and tidy script of the handwritten herbarium label.

The note, “Museum slide no. 203”, got me wondering: Could that mean our museum? Do we have an over-50-year-old slide of this species somewhere? So I sent off a quick email to our always helpful archives staff, and not 20 minutes later they had something to show me.

A woman holds a photo slide beside a bank of storage drawers.

Archives assistant Laura Smyk shows off one of the thousands of slides that can be found in the museum’s archives. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Raymond Wood, the collector named on the plant specimens—and, as it turns out, a great enthusiast of photography—was a lawyer whose passion for Arctic plants was stoked only after visiting our herbarium and learning about them from the Dominion Botanist at the time, the museum’s own A. Erling Porsild. (Read Wood’s obituary in PDF).

Along with his wife Mildred, Raymond traveled across the Arctic photographing many different species. Mildred, apparently the botanist of the duo, carefully pressed and preserved these specimens so that they could serve as vouchers for the photos in our collection; each of their 775 photographed plants was pressed and added to the herbarium.

A capitate lousewort in bloom (archive slide S78-304).

A capitate lousewort (Pedicularis capitata) in Kugluktuk.

We still photograph many of the plant species that our teams collect in the Arctic each year, though now we’re more concerned with high-capacity SD cards and server space than rolls of film and slide-storage trays. These photos, new and old, serve to illustrate field guides, websites and publications, and to capture the imagination of plant lovers—like they did with Raymond and Mildred.

A photographic slide held by tweezers, showing an Arctic water sedge (archive slide S78-268).

One of the many slides that Raymond and Mildred presented to the museum: the Arctic water sedge (Carex aquatilis subsp. minor). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Just like with our plants, we never throw out old slides because you never know when they could come in handy. I’m sure that Mildred and Raymond would be thrilled that their old photos keep finding new life.

Arctic willow in bloom (archive slide S78-318).

The red flowers of a male Arctic willow (Salix arctica). Ephemeral in the spring, they are now immortalized on film in the museum’s slide collection. Image: Raymond D. Wood © Canadian Museum of Nature

Richardson's milkvetch in bloom (archive slide S78-262).

Richardson’s milkvetch (Astragalus richardsonii) from the Coppermine River area. Image: Raymond D. Wood © Canadian Museum of Nature

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November in West Virginia: Inspiring the Next Generation.

Nature Near Everyone: A Shared Priority! That snappy slogan, and the projects it describes, came about from a creative conference I was privileged to attend this November So, let me share with you what happens when 150 people meet with the goal of inspiring a new generation to engage with nature.

Meg Beckel on the bow of a ship in the Arctic.

Meg Beckel, shown during an Arctic expedition in Labrador with Students on Ice, is part of an international team developing ideas to connect youth with nature. Image: Lee Narraway © Students on Ice.

The idea for the conference, held in West Virginia, emerged from the 2012 World Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There, CEO’s of the world’s parks met to discuss the critical need to inspire a new generation to visit parks and connect with nature. This theme continued at the World Parks Congress in 2014, where there was a commitment to include a program stream about it at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The gathering in West Virginia was the North American summit, designed to prepare ideas for the 2016 congress. Over two days, facilitated group discussions and inspiring speakers resulted in 15 collaborative initiatives to take to Hawaii for further engagement with the global community.

People cross a bridge in front of a large building.

View of the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, site of the North American Summit for the conference attended by Meg Beckel. Image: © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Let me share one initiative that our team crafted. It is inspired by a group vision that “nature be accessible everywhere to everyone”. We determined that a step toward that vision would be to help people find nature that is near to where they live. A young member of our group suggested we simply promote the use of a digital tool that already exists and is free. It’s found at the website called “”.

View of the main web page of

Screen capture of the site. Image: ©

We all used it to find nature areas near our own homes (I of course checked out my neighbourhood in Ottawa!). The application works in Canada, the United States and Mexico. It also lists parks and outdoor places. What a tool!

So, from this group brainstorm, an initiative to encourage individuals and organizations to promote was born! We called it “Nature : Just a Click and Steps Away”. We then merged our initiative with three others that looked at community ownership of natural spaces, at community-designed nature spaces and at multi-levels of government prioritizing natural spaces.

Two girls looking closely at a butterfly.

Getting youth engaged with nature was the goal of the summit, Inspiring the Next Generation. Image: istock © kirin_photo

What evolved was an overarching initiative titled: “Nature Near Everyone: A Shared Priority”. The subtext: Make it, Own it, Find it, Share it.

Of course, there were other groups that brainstormed other equally engaging projects. One proposed an international summit with youth and for youth. (There were numerous millennials at our summit but only one was under 18). Another proposal was to launch a global Nature Corps of young people interning in nature as part of their high school experience.

Logo of the IUCN Hawaii World Conservation Congress. © IUCN


As you can tell, there were many ideas to make nature relevant again to young people. Some of these ideas can be acted on now and others will take time, talent and resources to advance. I look forward to seeing what comes forward at the IUCN Hawaii congress and beyond.

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My Irish Diatom Adventure (Part 1)

Part 1: Finding Samples

Last September, I travelled as a tourist for two weeks with my brother Russell in Ireland, visiting both the beautiful Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Seaside cliffs.

The Cliffs of Moher, on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a volunteer since 2013 for the Canadian Museum of Nature, working for Paul Hamilton with freshwater diatoms, I felt this trip was also an opportunity to collect Irish diatom samples from rivers, lakes, streams and ponds for the museum. I was successful, obtaining 21 samples from around the island.

A castle near shore.

Kylemore Castle and Pollacapall Lake, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although we were on an excellent bus tour, getting at freshwater samples was a bit of a challenge (unlike travelling by car at your own pace): I was limited to towns and cities on the itinerary, which were mainly along the coast. Our periodic stops were for an hour or so.

A man stands next to basalt columns.

Joe Holmes among the hexagonal basalt columns at The Giant’s Causeway, County Moyle, Northern Ireland. Image: Russell Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Rivers flowing through coastal towns tended to be tidal (with salt water), so it was necessary to find fresh water flowing from upstream. Also, rivers through cities and towns were often walled off with little or no public access; in rural areas, they were sometimes fenced off. Some were fast flowing, or the water was too deep. Nevertheless, I still had many good opportunities to find accessible lakes, streams and ponds on the tour.

A grassy burial mound.

Ancient mounds over 5000 years old at Knowth near the Boyne River, County Meath, Ireland. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

To obtain and process a sample, mud from the bottom—which contains diatoms—was collected using a turkey baster and put into small bottles. Photos of the collection area were taken and a local tourist map obtained to mark the exact location of the sample.

Collage: Blarney Castle, a diatom.

Top: Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland, houses the famous Blarney Stone. Bottom: A diatom, Stauroneis cf. gracilis (size: 140 μm) from a creek on Garnish Island off the coast of Glengarriff. Diatoms are one-celled algae having a silica shell. Their study helps environmental scientists learn how humans can affect ecosystem health and biodiversity, whether through local urbanization or global climate change. Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Back at the hotel, samples were filtered using a funnel and special filter paper and then dried overnight. Once dry, the samples were sealed in labelled baggies for the trip home. Latitude and longitude were determined later using Google Maps, which worked well.

Map of Ireland.

Map of Ireland showing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Image: © Tintazul, modified (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Paul and I are looking forward to processing and photographing more of these Irish samples. They will provide the museum with a taste for what Irish diatoms are like and what further research may be done.

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The Arctic Flora of Tamriel: Botany in Video Games

Crouched down on the hilly tundra outside Whiterun, the Dragonborn spots their quarry. No, not a dragon, nor a lumbering mammoth, but a patch of tundra cotton, swaying gently in the breeze coming down the Throat of the World.

Plants have been antagonists, useful items and scenery in video games ever since Mario jumped over his first piranha plant. As a big RPG (role-playing game) fan, more than once I’ve been caught unaware (virtually) while inspecting a digital ecosystem.

Given the recent release of Fallout 4, a highly anticipated RPG, I thought it would be fun to look at the real-world inspirations behind some of these virtual plants.

An image of tundra cotton from the video game and a photo of cottongrass plants.

Although the leaf shape indicates that tundra cotton may be a dicot (having netted leaf veins) rather than a monocot like real-world cottongrass (parallel leaf veins), the cottongrass—an iconic tundra plant—clearly inspired Elder Scrolls‘ tundra cotton. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Skyrim takes place in the titular northern province of Tamriel, the setting for the Elder Scrolls series. Previous Elder Scrolls games have featured the fungi-dominated island of Morrowind, or the temperate, mixed-hardwood climes of Cyrodiil. In both cases, the plants in the environment help to set the mood of the game by telegraphing to players a sense of fantasy and familiarity respectively.

Skyrim is no exception—this alpine and Arctic realm features many plants that are inspired by those found in our real-world polar regions, thus adding to the realism and helping transport the player on an Arctic adventure.

A photo of a flowering plant (Castilleja sp.) and images of mountain flower from the video game.

There are striking similarities between the Castilleja species, which are found in Canada’s Arctic and alpine regions, and Skyrim‘s mountain flower. For instance, flower and bract colours are important characters in distinguishing both the real and fictional species from each other. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Some Skyrim plant species are direct copies of their real-world counterparts, like juniper (in-game juniper) and wheat. Some, like gleamblossoms, are completely fictional. Others are re-named versions of terrestrial species; for instance, you or I may recognize snowberries as holly.

Skyrim‘s mountain flowers—very, very similar to real-world Castilleja species—are easily distinguished based on flower colour. And in the game’s universe, they are additionally differentiated by chemotaxonomy: the differences in the health effects that they impart on the player indicate that different chemicals (secondary metabolites) are produced by each species.

Just like all real-world vascular-plant species, the virtual plants of Tamriel have been placed in different environments associated with that species, which enhances the realism of the virtual ecosystem. Aspiring e-botanists will have to search high and low to find them all; don’t worry, just like with real-life floras, high-quality “dot maps” of where they are located also exist for the Elder Scrolls series.

Photos of a lichen and a moss, paired with an image of their video-game counterpart.

Even lichens (left) and mosses (right) are re-created in detail. As in real life, both organisms have ethnobotanical uses for Skyrim players. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

In Fallout: New Vegas, as with the other members of the Fallout series, the player navigates the wasteland of a parallel, post-apocalyptic Earth, surviving on their wits, resourcefulness and a steady diet of (mostly) irradiated plants. Many of these plants, such as white horsenettle (Solanum elaeagnifolium; in-game plant) and barrel cactus (Ferocactus sp.; in-game plant) are real species.

Images of plants from the video game.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in a parallel world that is based on our own. As such, two legumes that are common in the southwestern United States, pinto beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and honey locust (Prosopis glandulosa), are re-created with a high level of accuracy. Images: © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Plants populate many, many types of video games, sometimes as antagonists. While I’ve yet to see an ambulatory cactus on my field excursions, some fungal species actually do control plant hosts—not unlike the ancient Thorian in Mass Effect.

Whether friend or foe, plants will definitely find themselves in video games for a long time to come, healing player characters, being a thorn on your parties’ side, or simply providing a richer gaming experience.

Images of plants from video games.

Though they may draw on real-world inspirations, many plants in video games are completely fictional (and antagonistic), including Plants versus Zombie‘s peashooter, Final Fantasy‘s cactuar, Super Mario‘s piranha plant, and Mass Effect‘s Thorian. Images (license CC-BY-SA): © Pop Cap Games, © Square Enix, © Nintendo, © EA

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Minerals Are Species Too!

by Paula Piilonen and Noel Alfonso

Most times, when someone uses the word species, the automatic assumption is that they are talking about a biological species, whether it is a plant, mammal, reptile, fish, algae or fungus.

Very rarely do people equate the word species with a mineral. But minerals are species too. And mineralogists use a classification or taxonomic system that is very similar to that used by biologists.

Biological Classification Mineralogical Classification
Kingdom Class
Phylum Subclass
Class Family
Order Supergroup
Family Group
Genus Series
Species Species

Humans have a natural instinct for seeing similarities and differences. Biologists use a hierarchical classification system based on similarity (shared characters) in order to group organisms. Most people are familiar with the kingdom, phylum, class, etc. categories down to the two most familiar levels, genus and species. Domain is a new level above kingdom.

Several specimens of Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush).

Morphological variation in the Lake Trout of Great Bear Lake, NWT, as an illustration of natural variation within a species. The role of biological taxonomists is to understand and delineate species boundaries. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Biologists struggle with the definition of a species. There are about twenty-six species concepts currently in use. The most prevalent one defines a species as groups of actually or potentially interbreeding populations. This is very difficult to test. Reproductive isolation can be demonstrated by defining a gap in a morphological or molecular character between two populations.

Defining a mineral species is more straightforward. Although minerals can be grouped in many different ways, mineralogists use a mineral classification scheme that is based on both the chemistry and atomic structure of a mineral. In order to classify a mineral, we must first know what elements it comprises.

All minerals are made of positively charged atoms (cations) and negatively charged atoms (anions). We use both these types of atoms to help us classify minerals.

To determine the class (the highest grouping in the hierarchal scheme) that a mineral falls into, we must know what anionic group acts as the main building block of the mineral. For example:

  • all silicate minerals are built from SiO44−
  • carbonates: CO32−
  • sulphides: S2−
  • oxides: O2−
  • halides: Cl or F
  • phosphates: PO43−.

We can further classify minerals based on how the cations and anions in a mineral bond together, as well as variations in chemistry between minerals.

Diamond and graphite specimens with a diagram of their atomic structure.

Diamond and graphite are both made of only carbon. It is the different ways in which the carbon is bonded in each mineral that cause their physical differences. Their respective atomic structures are represented by the diagram below each mineral. Image: Materialscientist © Materialscientist

Example 1: Both diamond and graphite comprise only one element: carbon. However, the way the carbon atoms are bonded together results in two very different mineral species.

Collage of mineral specimens: muscovite (collection #CMNMC56667) phlogopite (CMNMC30318), annite (CMNMC30318).

Muscovite, phlogopite and annite are all types of mica. They have the same atomic structure, but differences in their chemistry result in different mineral species names. Images: Michael Bainbridge © Michael Bainbridge

Example 2: There are 49 different species in the mica group. All micas have a similar atomic structure. They are sheet silicates, comprised of alternating layers of silicate tetrahedra and other cations (Mg, Fe, Al, Li, etc.). We can define each of the 49 species based on their differences in chemical composition. For example, muscovite is a K-Al mica, phlogopite is a K-Mg mica and annite (biotite) is a K-Fe mica.

Mineralogists in the museum’s Centre for Species Discovery and Change are interested in mineral species in the same way that biologists are interested in bird, plant or insect species—differences in species between geological environments can provide us with information on the evolution of that environment, such as pressure, temperature, oxygen fugacity or bulk chemical changes that may have occurred as the mineral species were crystallizing and growing.

The next time you are out for a nature walk, remember: the rocks at your feet contain important species too!

Posted in Research, Rocks and minerals | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

How to Keep Skeletons Clean—Just Spit on Them!

In a previous post for the museum blog, I briefly discussed zooarchaeology as an academic discipline and mentioned my desire to foster zooarchaeological research at the Canadian Museum of Nature. We once hosted the Zooarchaeology Research Centre (ZIC), which operated from 1972 until 1996, and the museum continues to house the excellent comparative skeletal material that was assembled by ZIC.

With more than 4500 specimens, representing over 95% of the bird and mammal species known to occur in Canada, the museum Comparative Osteology Collection is an invaluable research tool for archaeological work in Canada.

Several mounted skeletons in the museum's collection.

Skeletons of North American hoofed animals in the osteology collection, including (from left to right) a moose (Alces alces), a juvenile and an adult bison (Bison bison), a muskox (Ovibos moschatus) and a pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Image: Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

Since ZIC disbanded, osteological specimens—osteology being the study of bones—have become an underutilized resource at the museum. This pains me, having a research background in zooarchaeology myself, so I have set out on a mission to change the situation.

Part of the plan to resuscitate a zooarchaeology research program here in Ottawa involves expanding the osteology collection, adding new specimens that will increase the representation of Canadian species and also expand coverage beyond North America.

Collage: A room full of metal cabinets, an Atlantic Cod skull, an American bison skull.

View of the Comparative Osteology Room at the museum’s collection and research facility, in Gatineau, Quebec. All of these cabinets contain skeletons that together represent all the major vertebrate groups of Canada. Left: The skull of an Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) mounted so that the separate bones are clearly visible. Fish have very complicated skeletons, particularly the skull, so specimens such as this are essential to both teaching and identification. Right: Head of the mounted skeleton of an adult American bison (Bison bison) in the osteology collection of the Vertebrate Zoology section, with the skeleton of a moose (Alces alces) visible in the background. Images: Scott Rufolo, Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

Zooarchaeologists use osteological collections as references for helping to identify the bones of animals found on archaeological sites, with the ultimate goal of better understanding the relationship between humans and animals over time and in different cultural contexts.

To help me prepare for adding specimens to our collection, I recently attended a workshop and conference in England focused on curating osteological material. Titled Bone Collections: Using, Conserving and Understanding Osteology in Museums, the event was a venue for discussing methods of skeletonizing carcasses. It also provided hands-on training in various techniques for cleaning and caring for bone specimens once a skeleton has been extracted from all of the surrounding soft tissue. I’ll save discussion of how to prepare a skeleton from a fresh animal carcass for a subsequent post, and rather share here some of the tips I learned for cleaning bone.

Drawers open in a cabinet displaying bones cushioned on foam.

A cabinet full of bones—deer skeletons in the comparative collection. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Once in storage, bones can become covered in dust or accumulate fatty deposits on their surfaces from the oils that are often left inside specimens following their initial defleshing. If left for long periods of time, this surface debris can alter the chemistry of the bone and harm its structural integrity.

In the workshop, we learned to tackle cleaning a specimen in stages, working first with the more gentle agents and tools and moving on to harsher—but often more effective—treatments where necessary. Brushing and the use of specialized museum vaccuums took care of general dust accumulation, but heavy soiling with airborne debris required smoke sponge and Groom Stick specialized conservation materials that act as molecular traps for removing particulate matter.

For thick layers of congealed substances such as bone grease, we turned to dilute alcohol solutions and industrial detergents. Their usage, however, has to be limited because they can harm some specimens through dehydration.

Collage: The babirusa skull before and after cleaning.

Left: The skull of a babirusa (Babyrousa sp.) prior to cleaning. Collected at the end of the 19th century and stored on an open shelf for decades without treatment, this specimen was dark with accumulated dust. Right: The same skull following my preliminary cleaning during the workshop. Perhaps not yet worthy of exhibition, but certainly looking spiffy compared to its earlier state! Images: Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The surprise tip of the workshop: use saliva! The enzymes in saliva that help break down food also work well on bone grease and the organic components of dust, and they don’t harm the bone. So, before breaking out the detergent solutions, workshop participants moistened swabs with their own spit and used these first to tackle stubborn accumulations. In a number of instances, saliva alone was sufficient to clean the bone surface. Contrary to what the title of my post might suggest, however, we all had enough couth to not spit directly on our bone specimens.

An array of pinned insects in a tray.

During the tour for conference participants, we saw a collection of beetles assembled by Charles Darwin while he was a student at the University of Cambridge. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The conference was held at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, and conference attendees were treated to a tour of the museum’s holdings. I’ll leave you with more pictures of a few of the treasures in the University Museum of Zoology’s collections. Until next time!

An egg in protective foam.

Charles Darwin collected this bird egg (which belongs to one of South America’s tinamou species), and it still bears his signature. The crack—also courtesy of Mr. Darwin—occurred when the egg was being placed into its original container on board the HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Darwin on his travels in the southern hemisphere during which his theory of evolution began to take shape. It is the only egg collected on the voyage to have survived. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: A mounted Dodo skeleton, a Tasmanian tiger skull in a storage box.

Left: One of the great osteological treasures of the University Museum of Zoology is this nearly complete Dodo skeleton. The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), once found on Mauritius in the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean, is an extinct relative of the pigeon. Right: Ranking alongside the Dodo as a famous symbol of extinction, the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) is also represented in the osteological holdings of Cambridge. Shown here is the jaw and cranium of a thylacine pup, quite valuable as examples of young individuals of this animal are rare. Images: Paul Tucker © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge (Dodo skeleton), Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature (Tasmanian tiger skull)

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