Museum birds tell their tale

What can you learn from a bird of paradise collected in the middle of the last century? Or a nest dating back to 1925? In fact many things, not only about the specimen itself but also about its environment.

New techniques, such as analysis of DNA preserved in specimens, can also provide information that would have been inconceivable at the time they were collected.

The five specimens below provide a glimpse into the wealth of ornithological information contained in museum collections.

A specimen of a Magnificent Bird-of-paradise, lying on its belly with museum labels attached to its beak.

An alien bird? Following the custom of his people, the indigenous hunter from New Guinea who collected this Magnificent Bird-of-paradise in the middle of the last century cut off the bird’s feet, giving the bird this strange appearance. Collection number: CMNAV 83536. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Magnificent Bird-of-paradise (Diphyllodes magnificus) is a bird of New Guinea. This specimen was collected in 1957 by George Holland (1911-1985), a Canadian entomologist who was studying parasites of birds in New Guinea. The specimen was given to him by an indigenous trapper for whom bird hunting was an ancestral practice.

According to their custom, indigenous people from the island always removed the feet of birds they capture. Labels are therefore attached to the head rather than the bird’s feet, as would normally be the case with museum specimens. As the first specimens brought to Europe in the 16th century were also without feet, naturalists at the time believed these birds didn’t have any. They were therefore named “birds of paradise”, under the assumption that they spent their entire life flying in the sky.

A relic from the past: this bird’s nest dating back to 1925 is made of mop strands and horsehair. It is covered in coal dust.

A relic from the past: this bird’s nest dating back to 1925 is made of mop strands and horsehair. It is covered in coal dust. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) nest was collected in Ottawa in early April 1926 by George R. White (1856-1927), a well-known naturalist from Ottawa’s Lowertown. As orioles do not come back from their wintering grounds until May, this nest dates back to the previous year.

Note that the nest is made exclusively of mop strands and a little horsehair, instead of plant fibres as is usually the case. What’s more, the mop strands are completely blackened by coal dust. This simple bird’s nest therefore reflects what Ottawa was like at the time: the omnipresence of coal, for heating, but also the locomotives of the railways that served downtown Ottawa, and the widespread presence of horses as a means of transportation.

Nine gull eggs, all with different colouration and markings.

Why are these eggs all so different? Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) eggs all come from the same colony. They were collected in 1994 at the Québec City harbour by officers of the Canadian Wildlife Service, as part of a program to control gull populations.

Eggs of birds that nest on the ground, such as gulls, generally have a colouring that serves as camouflage. Moreover, among species that live in colonies, where birds lay eggs very close to one another, eggs often differ quite a bit from one female to another. This certainly helps females identify their nests.

The differences between individuals, as demonstrated by these museum specimens, are an important facet of biodiversity.

A Wild Turkey specimen

Witness to a lost population: this specimen captured in 1879 belonged to the original population of Wild Turkeys in Canada. Collection number: CMNAV 6431. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) specimen was captured by a hunter in 1879 in Essex County (southernmost tip of Ontario). It was later acquired by Toronto ornithologist J. Henry Fleming (1872-1940) who donated it in 1913 to the Geological Survey of Canada Museum, the forerunner of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

This specimen belongs to the original population of Wild Turkeys in Canada, which were extirpated in 1907 due to uncontrolled hunting. The range of this original population did not extend further east than Toronto.

In 1984, Wild Turkeys from neighbouring U.S. states were reintroduced into Ontario by the Ministry of Natural Resources, first in southern Ontario, then gradually further and further north. Today, the species is widespread up to Algonquin Park and throughout Southern Québec.

Conditions have changed significantly since the days when this turkey was alive: hunting is now much more controlled and Wild Turkeys now frequent agricultural lands where corn residues provide a substantial source of food.

An old notebook with notes and a sketch of a pair of Whooping Cranes.

A museum preserves more than just specimens, as witnessed by these notes about the Whooping Crane dating back to 1894. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is a now an endangered species, but was once less rare.

The notes in the above photograph date back to 1894 and were made by the young Rudolph M. Anderson (1876-1961), then aged 18. He relates the nesting behaviour of the Whooping Crane in Madison, Iowa, where he was living at the time. Breeding birds disappeared from the United States in 1939 but have been recently reintroduced.

Anderson was the Head of the Biology Division of the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) from 1920 to 1946. He took many notes over the course of his career; they are now part of the Museum’s scientific archives. Like specimens, the Museum’s archival records reflect changes in the environment over the last century and a half.

Translated from French.

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Ottawa lazurite find points to undiscovered Canadian deposit

This deep blue lazurite specimen from the Canadian Museum of Nature’s mineral collection glimmers with part mystery and part inspiration. First, the mystery.

Lazurite specimen

Half of a baseball-sized lazurite specimen found in surburban Ottawa in 1992. This unusual discovery has led museum mineralogists to believe there’s a significant undiscovered lazurite deposit somewhere in Ontario or Quebec. Collection number CMNMC 84465. Image: Michael J. Bainbridge, © Michael J. Bainbridge.

This lazurite sample is half of a baseball-sized cobblestone found amid landscaping stones near the entrance of the Ottawa General Hospital by keen-eyed Ottawa resident Judith Bainbridge in 1992.

Luckily, Mrs. Bainbridge and her family are rock hounds and members of the Ottawa Valley Mineral Association. So, when she spotted this unusual bluish rock among the ordinary landscaping stones she broke the specimen in half and brought it to the museum staff for formal identification.

To her surprise, and ours, we identified the blue mineral as lazurite, better known as lapis lazuli, a prized mineral for jewellery making when found in its deep, rich-blue form.

We were astonished that such a high quality lazurite specimen was found in Ottawa. Lazurite is found worldwide as crystals and massive veins, with the best-known localities in Siberia, Russia, Colorado and California USA, and localities in Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Chile.

Bird carving

This beautiful blue bird is carved from Afghani lazurite. Collection number: CMNGE 22120. Image: Michael J. Bainbridge, © Michael J. Bainbridge.

But the only known Canadian deposits are two sites along the Soper River, near Kimmirut on the southern tip of Baffin Island, Nunavut. However, unlike Mrs. Bainbridge’s rich blue-coloured lazurite, the Soper River lazurite is usually pale blue or even green.

If Mrs. Bainbridge’s lazurite wasn’t from Soper River, where was it from? The landscaping stones at the Ottawa General Hospital that included the lazurite were from several local sand and gravel pits. My colleagues and I searched the gravel pits for more lazurite specimens, but it proved to be harder than finding a needle in a haystack given that each site had millions and millions of ordinary stones, most of them still buried in glacial deposits. We didn’t find more lazurite.

Nonetheless, we concluded that our lazurite specimen had likely been transported by glaciers from an unknown deposit somewhere in Ontario or Quebec where lies a well-hidden, rich vein of lazurite!

book cover featuring a mineral

Cover of Michael Bainbridge’s forthcoming book. Image: Michael Bainbridge, © Michael Bainbridge

While the Ottawa lazurite’s definitive source is still a mystery, it’s had a clear impact. It helped inspire one of Canada’s leading professional mineral photographers, Mrs. Bainbridge’s son, Michael Bainbridge, just 12-years old when the lazurite mystery began.

Many of his beautiful mineral photographs are in the museum’s Earth Gallery, and his upcoming book The Pinch Collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature will be published later this year.

All of which shows that you never know what will be revealed by an interesting mineral find.

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Museum’s millions-strong Arctic marine invertebrates collection gets digitized

The Arctic is undergoing more extreme climate-related changes and at a faster rate than any other region on Earth. In order to understand the nature and impact of these changes, it’s critical that we document Arctic biodiversity, including the amazing diversity of marine invertebrates, from anemones to amphipods.

To aid this effort, the Canadian Museum of Nature has launched an Arctic collections digitization project. We’re digitizing the collections information for the museum’s several million Arctic invertebrate specimens and are in the process of putting the information online for researchers worldwide.


Commonly known as the Sea Angel, Clione limacina is a pelagic, or free-floating, marine sea slug. Contrary to its name, it’s a voracious predator that feeds almost exclusively on a pelagic sea snail species. Image: Samantha Brooksbank, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The museum’s Arctic marine invertebrate collection consists of thousands of species of crustaceans, bivalves, bristle worms, anemones, sponges, and many other taxonomic groups. The specimens were collected over the past century by generations of museum researchers and also donated to the museum, including from the former Arctic Biological Station that was part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Given their great diversity and widespread distribution Arctic marine invertebrates are a “canary in the coal mine” of environmental change. For example, when the ocean warms many species will be able to move farther north. Some will be looking for cooler temperatures while others will be pushed out due to competition for food and territory.

In order to identify these potential changes it’s necessary to have easy access to historical baseline species data—exactly what our Arctic collections digitization project will provide.

A small rounded shrimp-like animal

Hyperia galba is a small amphipod distinguished when alive by its large green eyes. In preserved specimens (shown here) the eye colour fades. These amphipods live within sea jellies, sharing the sea jelly’s food and feeding on its eggs. Image: Samantha Brooksbank, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

When a specimen is collected, the researcher creates an identification label that records vital scientific information including where, when, and by whom the specimen was collected, and eventually, who identified it. Similarly, collections staff gather any supplementary information provided by the collector, and link this to the specimen.

Through the Arctic collections digitization project, all of the specimen information for millions of Arctic invertebrates will be digitized in a searchable database and made publicly available.

A shrimp-like animal with long dangling legs.

Large numbers of the amphipod Themisto libellula live in the Arctic’s cold waters and are food for many species of fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Image: Samantha Brooksbank, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Arctic collections digitization project is possible due to a $4-million donation to the museum by the Beaty family.

This generous gift is turning the museum’s Arctic invertebrate collection into a powerful online force for both public education and scientific research on the Arctic and the multiple stressors affecting this beautiful yet fragile ecosystem.


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Is the world’s largest Triceratops skull sitting in our collection?

On June 6th, 1929, renowned fossil collector Charles M. Sternberg sat writing in his journal in a Saskatchewan field camp recording the first day of his team’s summer fossil prospecting. He noted the work done, the area’s rock formations and the fossil specimens collected.

Of particular note was the first dinosaur fossil found, the partial skull of an exceptionally large Triceratops prorsus.

Referring to the bony frill around this horned dinosaur’s neck, Sternberg finished the journal entry dramatically: “This is the largest crest I have seen.”

Painting of a horned dinosaur

In this 1901 painting by Charles R. Knight depicting a lone Triceratops, the broad, bony shield that projected around the dinosaur’s neck is especially prominent. The body shape and pose reflect the early 20th-century view of dinosaurs as lumbering animals that dragged their tails. Image: Charles R. Knight, public domain.

Black-and-white photograph of a plastered fossil specimen in the field.

Charles Sternberg took this photograph of the Triceratops skull in the field. The two projections on the lower right are the brow horns. Today, most of the specimen is still covered in a layer of rock. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: C. M. Sternberg, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Canadian Museum of Nature dinosaur palaeontologist Jordan Mallon was reading Sternberg’s field journals.

Sternberg’s big crest comment caught his eye—and his imagination. Could this possibly be the largest Triceratops ever collected? What made the possibility particularly exciting is that the answer lay a hundred meters away in the museum’s collection.

The specimen still lay wrapped in the protective layers of plaster applied to it in 1929. Dr. Mallon proposed we prepare the specimen and put Sternberg’s observation to the test.

This is where I enter the story. I am the coordinator of our fossil preparation program, and so it’s now my job to ready the fossil for scientific examination by opening the plaster field jackets and preparing the fossil.

This will not be an easy task.

The skull is so large that when it was collected it was wrapped in two separate plaster field jackets. The larger, a 650-kg section, includes two thirds of the frill, the top of the dinosaur’s cranium, and the two long brow horns. A smaller, 400-kg section contains the remaining third of the Triceratops‘ frill.

Two fossil specimens on wooden supports in a workshop.

The two field jackets containing Charles M. Sternberg’s 1929 Triceratops prorsus specimen. The two brow horns are discernible in the shape of the larger jacket (left), against which is a board showing illustrations of this dinosaur’s skull. The smaller jacket (right) is shown following initial preparation of one side. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Preparing any fossil comes with its own challenges, but the preparation of the Triceratops skull will be especially difficult.

While completely wrapped in its field jacket, the larger portion of the skull is safely supported on all sides. However, we know that given the massive size and weight of the skull, the jacket might give way during opening if not properly supported from the exterior, and the skull could tear itself apart.

So, we decided to begin by opening the section containing the smaller portion of the frill. This is permitting us to assess the fossil’s overall condition and stability, informing our course of action for safely opening the larger field jacket.

A partially prepared fossil specimen with two areas exposed beneath its plaster jacket.

The smaller field jacket following the first round of plaster removal. The fossil frill is beginning to peek through in two places. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Now, five months into the project, progress has been slow but steady.

There is a layer of thick stone covering the fossil, and we’ve discovered that the majority of the underside of the frill is fractured but repairable.

With hard work, a lot of adhesive, and a little luck, we’ll know more in the upcoming months, and one day hope to add an exciting footnote to Charles M. Sternberg’s old journal entry.

Stay tuned for an update!


With one side of the plaster jacket completely removed, the frill is now completely exposed. The fossil’s heavily cracked surface was treated with a consolidant solution to strengthen it, but repair of the major breaks awaits. Catalogue number: CMNFV 56508. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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Biting into the Past

If you’re a mammal – and I suspect you are – your teeth are arguably the most important part of your body, at least to a palaeontologist like me.

You see, teeth are the hardest tissues in the body, and as a result often the only record we have of extinct mammals. Luckily, we can use mammal teeth to identify the species to which they belong.

Fossil teeth also provide a wealth of biological information that we can use to understand things about extinct mammals that we otherwise can’t observe (at least not without a time machine).

We start with what we’ve learned from studying the teeth of living mammals.

Mammals, of course, have a variety of diets. As a simple example, tigers eat deer, while horses eat grass. Mammal teeth thus come in a variety of characteristic shapes because they provide a variety of functions, including pulverizing, slicing, and grinding.

Photo montage of the teeth of certain mammals, both extinct and modern.

A) The varied shapes of the upper dentition (right) of a honey badger’s teeth (Mellivora capensis) reflect its generalist diet (Catalogue number USNM 175751); (B) The fairly uniform teeth (left) of a modern beaver (Castor canadensis) are similar to its extinct Pleistocene relative (right) indicating that this ancient animal also had an herbivorous diet. (Catalogue number: CMNFV 16407); (C) The robust, peg-like teeth (right) of the herbivorous Megalonyx jeffersoni, a Pleistocene giant ground sloth (left), enabled it to crush a diet of leaves, twigs, and perhaps also nuts (Catalogue number CMNFV 31778). Images: A) Left: public domain; Right: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature. B) Left: © Steve Hersey (CC BY-SA 2.0); Right: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature. C) Left: public domain; Right: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The fact that mammal teeth have characteristic shapes related to their function is lucky for palaeontologists because it enables us to immediately understand some very basic things about the biology of extinct mammals from their teeth, for example whether an ancient animal was an herbivore or carnivore.

However, it’s not always so clear cut.

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) and raccoon (Procyon lotor) have very similar teeth but very different diets. Polar bears eat seals while raccoons are omnivores. So, how do we distinguish between species with relatively similar chompers?

3D models of a polar bear tooth and a raccoon tooth.

Colourized, 3D surface scans of a polar bear tooth (lower left, first molar) and a raccoon tooth (lower right, first molar). Both teeth show a similar basic topography of peaks and valleys. These specimens are part of the collections of the Finnish Museum of Natural History. Scan data provided by Dr. Alistair Evans and Dr. Silvia Pineda-Munoz. Catalogue numbers HELU201 (polar bear) and HEL885 (raccoon). Image: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

One way is to use high-tech, 3D imaging methods that enable us to identify minute differences in tooth shape that correspond to seal skewering, or in the case of urban raccoons, a diet of garbage.

This video shows a 3D rotating micro-CT scan of the right lower first molar of Parictis parvus, an early bear that lived around 38 million years ago. Scans such as these permit a detailed examination of the three-dimensional shape of fossil teeth. This specimen comes from the late Eocene Calf Creek Fauna of the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan and is housed at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. The scan data was captured at Carleton University by Dr. Fred Gaidies of the Department of Earth Sciences. Catalogue number RSM P661.1701. Image: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Teeth also record the chemical composition of what an animal eats and drinks during its life.

The chemical formula for water is H2O; a molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But natural water actually comes in a range of different isotopic varieties. (An isotope is a natural variant of an element, such as oxygen, with an identical number of protons, but varying numbers of neutrons). The ratio of different oxygen isotopes in a body of water depends on many factors, including the water’s temperature and salinity. Thus, water from different sources, such as lakes, rivers or wetlands, have slightly different oxygen isotope compositions.

While teeth are growing, whenever an animal drinks water these oxygen isotope differences are incorporated into its tooth enamel. As a result, we can take samples of tooth enamel and learn a lot about what, and even where, an animal drank.

Photo of a sampled pronghorn tooth and a woman taking enamel samples from a fossil tooth.

The parallel rows visible on the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) molar (left) are areas where enamel was removed for oxygen isotope sampling. Blog author Danielle Fraser (right) samples a fossil tooth using a Dremel tool. Images: Danielle Fraser, © Canadian Museum of Nature (left), Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature (right).

I hope that with this blog post I’ve given you something to chew on and convinced you that fossil mammal teeth are a lot more exciting than they initially sound — they certainly always give me a big smile when I find them!

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Art and Science: A Natural Mix

As a biologist and artist eagerly awaiting the Art of the Plant exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature (May 10 to October 14, 2018), I’m reminded again how much the worlds of art and natural history overlap.

Art is constantly inspired by nature and its diversity of forms. One need only visit the Nature Art Collection in the museums’ archives to see how nature inspires great art. And, in turn, great works of art guide and awe scientists.

But there is more uniting the fields of natural history and art than one inspiring the other. They are often combined in one and the same person and fuelled by a singular love of nature.

Framed paintings and photographs hanging on a wall.

The museum’s Nature Art collection contains a diversity of nature-based artwork, including paintings by Allan Brooks and prints by John James Audubon. Image: Cassandra Robillard © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Last summer, I participated in the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Dumoine River Art Camp and Bioblitz, an event which combined an artists’ retreat with a biological survey of the Dumoine River watershed. (Follow the link to apply for this year’s Art Camp by May 1).

At the Dumoine River event there were several of us participating in both the natural history survey and art.

Biologist Fred Schueler recited poetry on Canadian tree ecology, the museum’s botany curator Jennifer Doubt captured stunning macro photographic images of mosses, and meteorologist Phil Chadwick paused from painting to note and explain the science behind particular cloud formations.

A woman paints near the river, another woman examines photographs on her camera

Artist Angela St Jean paints while blog author and museum botany technical assistant Cassandra Robillard takes stock of her moss and lichen photos after a day of surveying at the 2017 Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Dumoine River Art Camp and Bioblitz. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Indeed, some of the most incredible biological artwork has been created by scientist-artists. Examples include John James Audubon’s prints in The Birds of America (1827-1838), zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s lithographs in Kunstformen der Natur (1904), and in Canada, the paintings and sketches of botanists Faith Fyles and Sylvia Edlund.

A woman collecting plants in the Arctic. On the right several of her colour sketches of Arctic plants.

Botanist Sylvia Edlund made coloured drawings of Arctic plants for her publication Common Arctic Wildflowers of the Northwest Territories. Left to right, clockwise: marsh fleabane (Tehproseris palustris subsp. congesta), alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus), cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). Image: © Geological Survey of Canada (photograph) / Sylvia Edlund, © Geological Survey of Canada (drawings).

Beyond these practical aspects, what I think also binds natural history and art together is that they are both often experienced more as a way of life than as a traditional job.

A frequent discussion among the artists and naturalists at the Dumoine River event was how difficult it can be to make a living pursuing their passion, and yet how in spite of this, they wouldn’t give up the journey for anything.

And this is a good thing, because the more common ground that’s found between artists and naturalists, the more they’ll inspire others with the wonders of nature!

A botanical illustration of the cones of a red pine tree.

See more botanical art like this red pine (Pinus resinosa) at the Art of the Plant exhibit, May 10 to October 14 in the museum’s Stonewall Gallery. Image: Kathryn Chorney © 2017 Kathryn Chorney.


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The new Arctic Gallery: Reconciliation, humans and natural history

The new Canada Goose Arctic Gallery marks an important moment at the museum. It’s the museum’s only gallery at present that includes substantial anthropological material and themes. In other words, it’s the only one that significantly includes the human story in natural history.

In addition to highlighting many aspects of the northern polar region, including geography, geology, flora, fauna, and ecosystems, the gallery also profiles human artifacts and exhibits centered on Arctic languages and cultures.

As a paleontologist and archaeologist, I’m very pleased to see this. After all, humans are part of nature, and we often can’t fully tell a natural history story without including our role.

So, why are humans largely absent from the majority of the museum’s other exhibits?

Artifacts on display in the museum.

The new Arctic Gallery discusses the human presence in the North through a number of exhibits, including a selection of both prehistoric and historic artifacts. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Artifacts on display in the museum.

Items from the ill-fated 1845–1848 Franklin Expedition highlight the history of European efforts to map a route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Artifacts on display in the museum.

Palaeo-Eskimo tools and other objects represent the various pre-Inuit peoples who initially colonized the Arctic. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Exhibit panel

The diversity of modern Indigenous Arctic cultures is illustrated through maps that present the ranges of various languages and dialects traditionally spoken in northern Canada and the broader circumpolar region. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In part, the answer lies in the museum’s history. Our precursor, the museum of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), which in 1927 became the National Museum of Canada, collected it all: everything from minerals to fossils and archaeological artifacts.

But in 1956, the National Museum of Canada was split literally down the middle into what are now the Museum of Nature and the Museum of History. They remained in the same building, but the conceptual separation of humans from natural history had begun, with the Museum of History solely responsible for anthropology.

Men sitting around a table with exhibits in the background

Geological Survey of Canada staff in the 1880s seated around a table in the GSC museum that once occupied a building at the corner of Sussex and George in downtown Ottawa. The red circle encloses a display case containing First Nations artifacts that went on exhibit in 1862. Image: © Natural Resources Canada, Source: Natural Resources Canada/82263

But this institutional separation of humans from natural history is only part of the story.

Another key part is that it coincided with a growing awareness of how natural history museums perpetuated colonialist and racist ideologies, both in exhibits of non-Western cultures, and behind the scenes.

Examples involving Arctic cultures abound. They include the story of Minik, a native Greenlander who was brought to New York in 1897 as a child by the American explorer Robert Peary. Delivered along with five other Inuit, including his father, to the American Museum of Natural History for study, Minik grew-up to face many challenges. For example, when Minik’s father died from tuberculosis, his body was placed in the museum’s collection and Minik fought to recover his father’s remains for a proper burial.

Canada did not escape such episodes.  Several Labrador Inuit died in Europe in 1881 after touring the continent in what have been referred to as “human zoos”.

Thus, without archaeological staff or mandate, and with sensitive political issues in the public consciousness, the museum had little incentive to more fully integrate humans and nature in exhibitions.

The outside of American Museum of Natural History building.

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has numerous halls devoted to the natural history of humanity. With a large anthropology department, the AMNH counts among the long list of major natural history museums that conduct research in and develop exhibits about human evolution, archaeology, and ethnography. The Canadian Museum of Nature is one of the few large natural history museums without an anthropology division. © Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, we are biological organisms and cannot be separated from critical thinking about natural history, regardless of the institutional, political and cultural challenges of including us.

We represent an important and influential component of the biodiversity of our planet.

The Arctic region in particular clearly demonstrates that our very existence as a species has had a profound effect on the world around us, and vice versa.

Outside view of the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building

View of the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, which until the end of 2017 housed the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. The museum will reopen in a new building in 2019 but will do so without its long-standing dioramas depicting pre-contact life among Michigan’s Indigenous peoples. In 2010, the museum’s administration decided to remove the 50-year-old exhibits following a controversy concerning the extent to which the dioramas contributed to visitors perceiving Indigenous cultures as being stagnant, extinct, or inferior to Western societies (for a good overview of the issues involved, read this online piece concerning the episode). The American Museum of Natural History has also had to deal with such controversies. Image: © Andrew Horne (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In pushing further and further northward, our species, evolving initially in the hot climate of Africa, experienced both biological and cultural developments that enabled people to conquer the cold, unforgiving Arctic environment.

Our advancing technologies and patterns of resource usage are now altering the very polar climates that drove our adaptations to life in the cold. For example, the new gallery highlights the impact of human-influenced climate change in the Arctic.

The gallery also contains a map that details lands and waters now protected by Arctic nations, a positive sign of the way humans are influencing the region.

Thus, the role of people in shaping the natural history of the northern polar region had to be included in the Arctic Gallery in order to portray an accurate and complete picture of the region’s natural history.

Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic Gallery includes a designated space for temporary exhibits developed in collaboration with northern organizations, the photo above showing the inaugural Inuinnauyugut: We Are Inuinnait display curated by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society. Such partnerships are essential to developing richer and more authentic material, as is the inclusion of European societies as a focus of museum exhibits, an approach succinctly argued for here regarding the American Museum of Natural History (and by a 16-year-old student no less!). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

For me, the new Arctic Gallery is an example of how the integration of anthropology exhibits in natural history museums can act as both a vehicle for reconciliation and a more holistic understanding of the Earth’s natural history.

The recommendations for museums and archives in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action implores museums to comply with the tenets of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

These tenets include recognition of the fact that Indigenous peoples have the right to control their cultural heritage.

Thus, in the development of the Arctic Gallery, the museum partnered with Indigenous groups, and individuals living and operating in Canada’s north, in order to blend their voices and perspectives into the gallery.

The result of this partnership is an impressive gallery that incorporates scientific data, cultural insights, and the personal perspectives of a diverse group of individuals, including researchers, politicians, artisans, and hunters–all of whom speak through “people capsules”.

This myriad of voices presents the diverse splendor of the natural history of the Arctic–humans included.

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Visitor-turned-volunteer ushers museum’s fern collection into the 21st century

with Jennifer Doubt

Three years ago, I came to the Canadian Museum of Nature’s herbarium searching for a fern species native to Quebec. I ended-up discovering far more than I’d expected!

Museum herbarium curator Jennifer Doubt helped me with my request, and then suggested that, given my fern knowledge and enthusiasm, I help with a slightly bigger project. Over the years, fern scientists had improved our understanding of how various species are related to each other, and as a result many species now possessed new scientific names. Now, the museum’s entire fern collection needed to be reorganized to reflect current botanical understanding.

This would be a major job: the herbarium’s international collection of ferns and lycophytes (clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts) fill more than 400 cabinet shelves. But I’ve been a museum visitor for almost 50 years, and here was a chance to deepen my involvement with two things I love: the museum and ferns.

So, in response to my modest initial request, Jennifer turned me from a visitor into an official volunteer, one with the responsibility to drive this 21st-century fern reorganization plan.

A woman sits at a computer with herbarium specimens.

Part way through her three-year long update and reorganization of the museum’s fern collection, Botany volunteer Erica Eason remained undaunted. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

To start, we updated the Canadian ferns with current botanical names.

Determining the correct name for older or unusual specimens was often a multi-step process. This could involve searching traditional databases, on-line resources, historical sources, as well as tapping into the expertise of museum botanists and other local and national experts.

A hand-written label.

Updating the scientific name of a specimen in the fern collection often required hours of dogged detective work to decipher the original hand-written label. The name on this label is still a mystery. Any ideas? Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Next, I updated the names of the international specimens. Although the herbarium has fewer of these than Canadian ones, there are vastly more international genera and species, resulting in a more intensive specimen-by-specimen update.

Simultaneously, I created four new geographically specific folder colours to replace the blue folders previously used to identify all specimens from beyond Canada and the United States.

A live plant and a pressed plant on herbarium sheet.

Botany specimens are collected fresh and preserved by drying to serve herbarium users for hundreds of years. Catalogue number: CAN 10004164. Image: Erica Eason © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Finally, we reorganized the entire fern collection to reflect the latest fern DNA sequencing research.

We began this by creating an Excel file with an updated list of each shelf’s current contents, and adding new family names and numbers (Christenhusz 2011)1 for each genus. Then, the file was reorganized by new family number.

Presto: we’d created a revised order indicating where each specimen would be shelved in the new system. Without this meticulous preparation, the two days of work it required to physically reorganize the specimens — including a lot of bending, stretching and lifting — might have taken weeks, significantly disrupting access to the fern collection.

A woman removing folders in the collections.

University of Ottawa co-op student Rachel Bergeron removes specimens from the museum’s newly updated and reorganized fern collection. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.


Carleton University summer student Brigid Christison poses with a museum horsetail specimen during the digital imaging of the museum’s Arctic fern and lycophyte collection, all of which will be shared on-line. Collection number: CAN 10004196. Image: Brigid Christison © Canadian Museum of Nature.

No sooner was the reorganization finished than we began the digital barcoding and imaging of the collection’s ferns and lycophytes from the Canadian Arctic.

And wonderfully, not only do we know where the Arctic specimens are in the collection, but now they’re all properly named and organized!

1 Literature cited: Christenhusz, M.J., Zhang, X.C. and Schneider, H., 2011. A linear sequence of extant families and genera of lycophytes and ferns. Phytotaxa, 19(1), pp.7-54. (pdf).
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The teething of the shrew

Last year, I spent three months identifying and cataloguing small mammal skulls in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s mammal collection.

Most of these skulls were from mice, voles, and shrews. These are the little animals that sound a lot bigger when heard at night rustling underneath leaves, though they are rarely seen due to their nocturnal habits — unless you have the eyesight of an owl!

A shrew, vole and mouse.

Three small mammals in Canada that are often confused: the shrew (Sorex), the vole (Myodes) and the mouse (Peromyscus). The vole and mouse pictured here have ear tags used in mark-recapture studies. Images: Shrew and Vole: Patrick Moldowan, © Patrick Moldowan. Mouse: Jonathan Gagnon, © Jonathan Gagnon.

So, using just a skull, how do you distinguish a shrew (Sorex), from a vole (Myodes), from a deer mouse (Peromyscus), and go on to identify the particular species?

Look at the teeth.

As furry little creatures they may look pretty similar, but when it comes to a dental perspective they’re distinct, particularly shrews.

Unlike mice and voles, shrews are insectivores — they feed primarily on insects, rather than the seeds, stems and leaves mice and voles consume. This difference in diet is reflected in shrew’s teeth. They have pointed canine teeth that are used to catch and eat worms, beetles, and spiders.

Ok, so this quick ID tool narrows an identification to “shrew”. But this is just getting started. There are 19 different species of shrews in Canada. A number of these species, including the barren ground shrew (Sorex ugyunak), live as far north as the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut.

illustration of 19 shrews

The 19 species of shrews found in Canada. Shrew images: Brenda Carter, Julius Csotonyi and Paul Geraghty, © Canadian Museum of Nature

These diverse Canadian shrews can be hard to tell apart using external characters, but again, the teeth tell the species tale.

For example, the cinereous shrew (Sorex cinereus) and the dusky shrew (Sorex monticolus) are almost indistinguishable when placed side-by-side, and they’re often found together since their ranges overlap throughout most of western Canada.

However, a careful look at their teeth, especially their unicuspids, teeth with a single point, tells them apart. As you move back from the snout, the unicuspids in cinereous shrews gradually decline in size, while a dusky shrew’s third unicuspid is clearly smaller than the fourth.

Photo montage of two shrew specimens and their teeth.

A. Side-by-side comparison highlights the close outward resemblance of the cinereous shrew (Sorex cinereus, left) and dusky shrew (Sorex moticolus). B. The upper teeth of the cinereous shrew. C.  The upper teeth of the dusky shrew. The tell-tale dental identifier of the dusky shrew is that its third unicuspid is much smaller than the fourth. Image: Elliott Schmidt, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, after an autumn of looking at small mammal skulls, I became very familiar with their different teeth, and was also glad I wasn’t identifying shrews based on another unique characteristic — they mark their territory using pungent scent glands which give off a strong, unpleasant odour.


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Discovering species on the shelves

Museum collections are a thing of beauty.

I am constantly in awe of the rows upon rows of specimens, some in boxes or drawers, and others in jars of fluid that preserve their delicate tissues.

Few specimens, in my palaeontologist’s opinion, are as jaw-dropping as those in fossil collections. The shelves and drawers at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and in other museum collections, house some of the most bizarre and interesting specimens known to science.

A woman standing next to a fossil, Arsinoitherium zitteli andrews, Catalogue number: CMNFV 8183

Museum paleontologist Danielle Fraser with a cast of Arsinoitherium, an ancient mammal that resembles something more extraterrestrial than terrestrial. Arsinoitherium lived during the Eocene and Oligocene of Africa, about 56 to 23 million years ago. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8183

Collections play a pivotal role in science by allowing us to study and re-study critical specimens, particularly type specimens, those on which species are described and named.

Remarkably, museum collections are also great places to discover entirely new species.

Every palaeontologist hopes to discover new fossil species in the field. But many, perhaps even most, new fossil species are found hidden away in existing museum collections, the result of careful collection by past scientists. Each potentially new species waits patiently, often for decades, overlooked until a careful, mindful scientist happens across the right drawer, cabinet, or shelf.

This new species is then adorned with a name and becomes part of the vast, growing catalogue of ancient life, serving as a cherished scientific treasure for comparative study.

A woman measures antlers.

As part of a scientific study, museum paleontologist Danielle Fraser takes measurements of Pleistocene fossil caribou antlers in the museum’s collection. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Along with type specimens, museum collections contain large numbers of specimens from the same species. But why does a museum need dozens of Pleistocene caribou antlers, or any other fossil for that matter?

The biology of species is complicated and changes through time. Individuals of a species are variable, and populations are often separated by hundreds of kilometers. For example, Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) are considerably smaller than their caribou relatives to the south.

Thus, having numerous specimens for each species affords us the opportunity to understand variation within species and fill knowledge gaps.

For example, recently museum palaeobiologist Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and colleagues added a lot to what we know about the primitive bear (Protarctos abstrusus), by describing skeletal remains in the museum’s collection. Most of these fossils were collected in the 1990s in Nunavut by emeritus museum paleontologist Dr. Richard Harington.

Until now, the species description was based on a single fossil tooth from Idaho. Thanks to the description of the fossil skeleton housed in our museum collection, we now know much more about the evolutionary history of modern bears, and an ancient Arctic ecosystem.

Hands holding part of a bear fossil, Protarctos abstrusus, Catalogue number: CMNFV 54380

A 3.5-million-year-old specimen from Nunavut of the extinct bear, Protarctos abstrusus. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature. Catalogue number: CMNFV 54380

Now, museum collections are also playing an increasingly important role in understanding how human activity has changed species characteristics, from size to diet and genetics.

These data would be lost to pre-history if it were not for the hard work of the numerous collectors, cataloguers, preparators, and conservators that have built and maintained museum collections around the world.

And so, every time I walk into museum collections, I am struck by their incredible scientific beauty.

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