Where in the World Is Snow Grass? Part 1

A grass is a grass is a grass—or is it?

In fact, grasses are a family of over 12 000 species! As a budding botanist, I wouldn’t have touched the grasses with a 10-foot pole.

A diagram.

Anatomy of a grass inflorescence. (The inflorescence is the flowering part of the plant). The basic unit of the inflorescence is the spikelet (shown in red), which contains one or many florets (blue). Specific parts include
a) upper glume
b) lower glume
c) lemma
d) palea
e) awn
f) anther
g) filament
h) stigma
i) ovary (matures into fruit known as grain or caryopsis). Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The grass family, called Poaceae, is characterized by reduced floral characteristics and simple linear leaves. Pair that with frequent hybridization between species, and it’s a recipe for long nights spent crying into the microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass (ok, maybe I’m being slightly dramatic).

But when you decide to do a Master’s thesis with the Canadian Museum of Nature’s grass expert, Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., there’s a chance you’re going to have to strap on your big-botanist boots and plunge into the grasses.

So here I am, studying a small grass genus composed of two species: ice grass (Phippsia algida) and snow grass (Phippsia concinna). They are extremely closely related—both are small, tufted, perennial grasses that are found in late-melting snowbeds and other wet, sandy habitats, and reproduce primarily through self-pollination—and thus far, little genetic variation has been found to separate the two.

Composite: Two sheets of paper with dried plants attached.

Herbarium vouchers of ice grass (left; Phippsia algida) and snow grass (right; Phippsia concinna) from Svalbard, Norway. A common characteristic that is used to distinguish the two species is the shape of the flowering part of the plant (inflorescence): narrow and dense in ice grass and diffuse with spreading branches in snow grass. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Ice grass occurs in the circumpolar Arctic with disjunct populations located in the North American Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, U.S.A.

Snow grass is well documented in Eurasia, but its presence in Greenland and North America has been debated since the 1950s. So where in the world is snow grass?

In order to answer this burning question, I joined a team of four other botanists from the museum and hopped on eight planes over 30 days to survey plants in three Nunavut communities: Arviat, Naujaat and Iqaluit.

The hunt for my grasses began in Arviat, the southernmost mainland community of Nunavut. Neither species had been previously reported from this locality, but a collection of ice grass from approximately 60 km north of the area left me hopeful.

We hit pay dirt just a few days into the trip and I’m embarrassed to say that, despite having spent the weeks prior studying my grasses under the microscope, I had no idea what I held in my hand.

Composite: A hand holds a plant specimen, the ground, a plant.

Ice grass from Arviat. Left: Our very first specimen. Middle: Second population, locally common and dominant on wet sand. Right: Close-up of an inflorescence. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The ice grass plants of Arviat were small—around the size of a toonie ($2 coin) or ever-so-slightly larger—which was surprising considering how far south we were. We collected from three populations of ice grass, all from sandy, coastal habitats.

A woman sitting on the ground.

Getting low to photograph tiny ice grass plants on the sandy shore of Hudson Bay in Arviat. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lynn Gillespie and I then headed north to two regions where both ice grass and snow grass had supposedly been collected.

Did we find the elusive snow grass in our great Canadian Arctic? You’ll have to read the second installment of this article to find out.

A sign that says "Welcome to Naujaat" in English, French and Inuktitut, with a helicopter and building in the background.

The adventure continues in Naujaat. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Posted in Arctic, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A Green Tour of Rideau Hall for Museum Botanists

On the morning of August 16, 2016, a group of 14 scientists and volunteers from the Canadian Museum of Nature’s botany team were given a special guided tour of Rideau Hall and its greenhouses.

Located in Ottawa, Rideau Hall is the principal residence of the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston.

The tour was organized by Roger Bull, the coordinator of the museum’s Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity (DNA laboratory) and a member of the museum’s botany team that studies plant diversity in the Canadian Arctic. As a high-school student, Roger spent a summer working in the Rideau Hall greenhouses.

View of the building from outside temporary fencing.

Rideau Hall is currently undergoing exterior renovations in preparation for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Inside the Residence
For the first part of the tour, the group was shown the residence ballrooms and sitting rooms. There were many beautiful paintings, including portraits of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II and previous Governors General. There were also some interesting landscape paintings and aboriginal art.

A dozen people stand inside a grand room.

The group inside the Tent Room, so-named because it mimics an outdoor tent. A copy of a portrait of Queen Victoria (originally by artist George Hayter) is on the back wall. There are also portraits of former Governors General, including Lord Stanley—of Stanley Cup fame (not shown). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Chairs circle the walls in a very large room.

The main ballroom with a recent portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Government cabinet members are sworn in here. The ceiling has a 1951, Irish-made Waterford crystal chandelier with 12 000 crystals. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man stands beside a painting on a wall.

Joe Holmes with a portrait of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (by Newfoundland artist Mary Pratt). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Inside the Greenhouses
The second part of the tour was inside the Governor General’s greenhouses. They were filled with plants from all over Canada and elsewhere, in a controlled environment. The greenhouses are administered by the National Capital Commission. A staff member was present to discuss the operation and answer questions.

People walk between botanical displays.

Inside the Governor General’s greenhouse with many kinds of plants from Canada and other parts of the world. Some have been meticulously trimmed into interesting shapes. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

An area of the display garden.

Some Boston ferns amongst other lush plants and manicured shrubs. Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A view of a large botanical-display room.

Palm trees are farther inside the greenhouse. There is also a large bowl with some aquatic plants (not shown). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Outside Grounds
Outside, group members walked around the arboretum where many dignitaries have planted trees on their visits to Ottawa over the years. When they were planted, the saplings were—no doubt—just sticks, but over the years, they have grown to be quite large.

A tree outside with a plaque planted in the ground near its base.

This special tree, a red oak (Quercus rubra) was planted by U.S. President John F. Kennedy more than 55 years ago, on May 16, 1961. There is also a tree planted by his wife Jacqueline Kennedy (not shown). Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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How Did Those Mussels Get to the Museum’s Pond?

Around 2005, Noel Alfonso, coordinator of the Environmental Monitoring Program at the Canadian Museum of Nature, started finding mussel shells strewn around the edges of the pond at the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec.

In 2015, these large mussels—known by their common name giant floaters—were formally surveyed for the first time by Environmental Monitoring Program summer students. For the second consecutive summer, we have been doing a lap around the pond every few weeks to collect specimens that the local muskrats have fed on and left on the shore.

The regular collection and analysis of specimens can give us approximate population and age estimates.

A hand holds an open mussel shell.

A giant floater (Pyganodon grandis) collected from the shore of the museum’s pond. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The pond did not exist before 1997; somehow, giant floaters made their way there in a very short time frame, given the age of some of our samples.

The discovery of giant floaters in 2015 was quite remarkable because, among the giant floater specimens (Pyganodon grandis) in the museum’s collection, the nearest was found in Lac des Fées in Gatineau Park, Quebec.

So how does a mussel get up and move several kilometres to a new pond? This is no easy task for animals that move by dragging themselves across the lake or river bed with their extendable “foot”.

View of the pond.

The pond is on the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec, close to the facility that hosts the museum collections and research activities. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

As it turns out, they get a little help from some friends. Giant floaters release larvae into the water, which then attach to the gills and fins of a fish. Once developed into their juvenile form, they detach from the gills and settle into the bottom substrate, where they will reach adulthood.

The giant floater is a generalist species that can sustain low dissolved-oxygen levels and a variety of substrates. The same can be said for its choice of larval-host fish species.

Of the 27 or so potential host fish species, five can be found in the museum’s pond. The most likely scenario is that giant floater larvae hitched a ride on some of these fish, which transported them to the pond.

Small fish in shallow water.

Fish travelling upstream in the ditch along Pink Road, on which the museum’s research and collections facility is located. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

A trip to Lac des Fées renewed our confidence that giant floaters are still present there. In this case, for the fish to get from Lac des Fées to the pond is no easy task because they must make their way up Betty’s Creek against the current.

From Betty’s Creek, they then travel west—again upstream—along the Pink Road ditch before reaching the pond. This ditch is usually flooded, but nevertheless, some parts of the journey are quite difficult to navigate, especially in a dry summer like this one.

The POV (point-of-view) video below shows the route through the “waterway” to the pond.

A Mussel Larva’s Journey Down the Pink Road Ditch

A map.

Map showing the most likely route of colonization of the pond by giant floaters. Image: Geoffrey Carter © Canadian Museum of Nature. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Earthstar Geographics, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS user community

Giant floaters can be dated fairly easily and in a similar fashion to trees, each growth season being marked by a dark stripe on the shell of the mussel. This counting technique can underestimate a mussel’s true age by up to half. As a result, some of our specimens could be up to 20 years old. Their potential maxium age means that the period between the creation of the pond in 1997 and its colonization could have been very short indeed.

The pipe opening and water.

A culvert along Pink Road that would be difficult for fish to pass through during this dry summer. Image: Carly Casey © Canadian Museum of Nature

What a journey! The lengths that fish and mussels will go to colonize new areas can leave many of us wondering how on Earth that species got there.

Posted in Animals, Fieldwork, Research | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“Royal Canadian” Diatoms from the Rideau Hall Pond in Ottawa

A man poses in front of a building and fountain.

Joe Holmes in front of Rideau Hall. The Canadian flag flies on the roof when the Governor General is out of town. Otherwise, his Royal flag (purple with a lion) is flown.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a volunteer with the Canadian Museum of Nature, I have been involved since spring 2016 in a project to collect diatom samples from more than 80 sites around Ottawa.

We visit lakes, rivers, canals and ponds to collect diatoms that will then be processed, photographed and added to the museum’s collection of 120 000 samples.

Preparing the samples, identifying the species and entering related data and photos into the museum’s phycology database are ongoing.

Visiting Rideau Hall
Our diatom project has involved looking for interesting places around the city from which to collect diatom samples. In June, I visited Rideau Hall, the principal residence of the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston.

An open gate in an iron fence beside a road.

At Rideau Hall, the south entrance off MacKay Street provides public access to the grounds.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

While touring the grounds (Rideau Hall is on a 31.6 hectare property), I found out from a staffer that there is a pond on the premises. However, it is located on the private grounds, requiring special permission to visit. Because Rideau Hall is an interesting place of national significance, I decided to go ahead and ask at the Visitor Centre for approval to access the pond and collect diatoms there.

A diatom viewed under a microscope.

This diatom was collected at Rideau Hall. It is a Caloneis silicula (size: 47 µm × 7 µm). Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Diatoms are microscopic one-celled algae that have a silica shell and come in many different species, shapes and sizes. They are found in all bodies of water, in the mud on the bottom.

At the bottom of the food web, diatoms convert sunlight into energy and CO2 into oxygen. They are a primary food source for small creatures, which pass the energy further through the food web.

Scientists and botany students use diatoms to study DNA, climate change, evolution, water quality and the environment.

Not long after my request, the Rideau Hall maintenance staff contacted me and graciously arranged a visit to the pond. In July, I was escorted there by a helpful staff member to collect mud samples. The pond is horseshoe-shaped and in a wooded area called the Sugar Bush. It is just west of where the Governor General’s outdoor skating rink is placed each winter. The pond appears to be isolated, so its water likely comes from rain or the water table.

A pond.

The Rideau Hall pond, located in the woods in the private area of the grounds.
Image: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sampling Results

Back at the lab, I processed the mud samples, made microscope slides and photographed the diatoms using a camera-mounted light microscope with magnification of up to 1600 times. Overall, our results were very good; some diatoms even matched species that I found in Ireland and in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Composite of diatoms viewed through a microscope.

Some additional interesting diatoms found in the Rideau Hall pond (1 µm = 1 micron = 1 millionth of a metre):
1. Diploneis ovalis (17 µm × 7 µm)
2. Gomphonema acuminatum (51 µm × 10 µm)
3. Gomphonema insigne (44 µm × 10 µm)
4. Pinnularia viridis (73 µm × 15 µm)
5. Rhopalodia gibba (65 µm × 7 µm)
6. Placoneis abiskoensis (44 µm × 10 µm)
7. Reimeria sinuata (36 µm × 7 µm) 8. Frustulia rhomboides (59 µm × 15 µm).
Images: Joe Holmes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because the Governor General is the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, the Rideau Hall diatoms will add a “Royal Canadian touch” to our Ottawa diatom project, which includes locations such as the Rideau Canal, the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers, Mud and MacKay Lakes, Mer Bleue and many other sites.

Overall, our venture will benefit students and scientists worldwide who are interested in diatoms from the Ottawa area and North America. The museum frequently works with botany students who are researching diatoms from Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and other universities and research institutions.

Posted in Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Windswept Wonders: Collecting Plants and Lichens in Arviat

“How was the Arctic?” is often the first question I get after returning home from our annual summer expedition. My typical responses are “fun”, “buggy”, and “amazing”. While Arviat was all that and more, I’d have to add “flat” and “friendly” to give an accurate depiction of this amazing Arctic community located on the shores of Hudson Bay.

Two women sitting on the tundra colleting plants.

Ruth Kaviok and graduate student Sam Godfrey collecting plants in the proposed Nuvuk Territorial Park in Arviat, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In fact, there’s a sign on the airport road into town proclaiming Arviat to be “Nunavut’s Friendliest Community”, and we certainly felt warmly welcomed! We connected with community members through trailside chats, shared meals on the tundra (made all the better with local bannock), and a workshop where Elders shared their knowledge about local plants. A teacher, once she heard the “plant experts” were walking past her house, came out to show us her own collection of pressed and dried plants.

Lyyn Gillespie holds a plant she collected in one hand, while leaning on a table with documents on it.

Expedition leader Dr. Lynn Gillespie examines the day’s collections. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As for “flat”, the tundra surrounding Arviat is, well, very much so…which gives rise to ferocious winds and spectacular long sunsets, and lets you spot polar bears a long way off.

Closeup of a plant with red berries.

Whether you call them Atungaujat, Kimminait, Mountain Cranberries, Lingonberries, or Partridgeberries, the red fruits of Vaccinium vitis-idaea are a tangy treat. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Working out on the land with Ruth Kaviok, our local field assistant, and David Beamer, the regional parks coordinator for Nunavut Parks and Special Places, our team collected over 150 species of vascular plants in the proposed Nuvuk Territorial Park, and over 50 more in different habitat types from around the Arviat region.

Three people in a semi-circle stand on the tundra.

Museum lichenologist Dr. Troy McMullin discusses the lichens of the proposed Nuvuk Park with Nunavut Parks regional coordinator David Beamer and graduate student Sam Godfrey. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Adding Troy McMullen’s lichens, and myriad moss and algae collections to the mix will give us a comprehensive overview of Arviat’s windswept (and therefore diminutive) flora.

Closeup of two species of liches on the tundra.

Many tundra locales near the proposed Nuvuk Park are dominated by lichens, such as the long, sinewy Whiteworm Lichen (Thamnolia vermicularis) and the pale yellow Crinkled Snow Lichen (Flavocetraria nivalis). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

While we didn’t find many plants new to Nunavut (though we haven’t finished determining them all yet), we did find many low Arctic plants that few on the team had collected before, including the small-flowered lousewort (Pedicularis parviflora), and Wettstein’s eyebright (Euphrasia wettsteinii).

Closeup of a lousewort plant.

Over 200 species of flowering plants, including colourful louseworts (Pedicularis parviflora), can be found growing on the western shores of Hudson Bay. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A researcher crouches on a hillside to collect ferns.

Research Associate Dr. Geoff Levin collects ferns on a hillside near Arviat. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Now that we’re back home in Ottawa and our plant presses are put away, we’ll work on finalizing the identifications of our 700+ plant collections, and preparing the specimens to be included in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada. Each of these specimens is proof that that plant was found growing in Arviat in 2016 (useful data for future researchers); for me they’ll also be nice reminders of a month well spent.

Arviat houses in the foreground, with a sunset in the background.

At over 500 km south of the Arctic Circle, Arviat treated our team to many spectacular sunsets over our month-long expedition. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Making Mammoths Come to Life

For children growing up in the Ottawa area, the Canadian Museum of Nature is a special place for school trips or family outings. Many cherished memories have been formed within the exhibit halls and education rooms, and most of our recurring visitors are able to cite specimens or displays that made a lasting impression. For many, our woolly mammoth replicas top the list of favourites. Standing on the museum’s grounds, the three life-size sculptures of two adults and one baby have become a much-beloved sight for museum-goers and passers-by.

Three woolly mammoth sculptures on the museum’s grounds.

Our woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) as now displayed at an entrance to the museum’s new Landscapes of Canada Gardens. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I recently discussed the new mammoth steppe botanical display that accompanies the hairy beasts at their new location in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens. In this blog, I will focus on the story of the replicas themselves, which are based on real fossils found in Alaska, Yukon and Siberia.

The statues were designed and built in the museum’s workshops. They were unveiled in August 1987 to coincide with the 12th International Congress of the International Union for Quaternary Research, which was hosted in Ottawa that summer by the National Research Council and two other Canadian organizations.

A view of the three mammoth sculptures from 1998.

This image from 1998 shows the replicas at their original site on the west side of the museum’s property. When installed in 1987, a row of trees formed a backdrop to create the feel of a prehistoric forest. Grasses representative of the mammoth steppe environment were planted on the berm supporting the mammoth scene. When this photo was taken, the mammoths were already museum “stars” and copies had been made for display at the grand opening in 1997 of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The creation of the sculptures involved three phases: the production of 1/12-scale models in modelling clay; the making of scaled-up versions in wood, foam, and plaster from which life-sized moulds were generated; and the setting of fibreglass casts in these moulds to produce the final pieces for display.

A man seated on a chair looks at notebooks on a table.

An important early step in bringing our woolly mammoths to life was creating accurate scale models based on real mammoth fossils. Here, model-maker Doug Watson is consulting references in order to produce a 1/12-scale sculpture of Dima, the baby mammoth. Image: Rick Day © Canadian Museum of Nature.

C. Richard (Dick) Harington, then Chief of the Palaeobiology Division and now one of the Museum’s Research Associates, ensured that—in addition to merely being life-size—the replicas would also be realistically lifelike in appearance. Concept sketches and detailed scale drawings were first created based on fossil remains and descriptions in the scientific literature. Then the model-making began, with the stages shown in these images.

Three images of stages in the construction of a mammoth model.

(left): Making the scale models involved first crafting a miniature skeleton using wire, foam, papier-mâché, and epoxy putty. The internal framework of the male mammoth is shown here. (centre) Working with a museum taxidermist and palaeontologist to estimate muscle placement and mass, Doug Watson then fleshed out the mammoth skeletons using modelling clay. (right) The final result of imitating soft tissue on the male mammoth skeleton, which now awaits surface detailing. Images: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Each of the replicas is based on real fossil material, including the mummified remains of a male woolly mammoth calf whose frozen carcass was found in Siberia. The external features (musculature, fur, trunk shape, etc.) were modelled in consultation with British and Russian palaeontologists. This international ensemble considered both the published scientific literature as well as depictions of woolly mammoths in prehistoric cave art preserved at sites in the Dordogne department of France.

(left) Doug Watson sculpting the fine details of a furry coat on the 1/12-scale models. Image: Rick Day © Canadian Museum of Nature. (right) Scale model of the male mammoth once the surface had been sculpted to provide the appearance of its woolly pelage. From these final forms, a silicone mould was created in order to produce polyester resin casts from which the models could be scaled up to life size. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A resin cast of the male mammoth.

Polyester resin cast of the male mammoth being outfitted with a three-dimensional grid in preparation for scaling up. The casts were sectioned vertically into slices, each slice being enlarged into a plywood template. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Three images, one showing plywood templates for a life-size version of the mammoth, and the others showing people adding styrofoam and sculpting the plaster of the mammoth model.

(left) Plywood templates being assembled for the life-size version of the male mammoth. Once all the templates were in place, they were bonded together and covered over with styrofoam. (middle) Doug Watson (on ladder) and Grant Laturnus shapes the styrofoam coating of the core of the life-size male mammoth. (right) The last stage of working with the foam-coated cores was providing an additional covering of drywall compound. Here, Doug Watson (on scaffolding) and Sandra Taylor are sculpting fur details into the plaster. Once completed, these full-scale models served as the basis for making moulds for producing the final replicas. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Creating such accurate replicas was a significant undertaking at the time, and represented a major technical accomplishment which had not been attempted before in Canada.

Two images of the male and female woolly mammoth sculptures.

(left) The attention to detail can be seen in the completed version of the male mammoth, which was modelled on the skeletal remains of several mammoths found in Alaska. Ron Séguin, the taxidermist and artist who had supervised the phase involving the creation of the life-size models, continues to do touch-ups on them as necessary. (right) The wind-blown fur and broken tusk of the female mammoth add a sense of motion and realism. This sculpture is based on the nearly complete skeleton of a mammoth found in 1967 along the Whitestone River in the Yukon by museum palaeontologist C. Richard Harington. The fossil skull displayed a snapped right tusk, likely due to the animal having attempted to lift a heavy object. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sculpture of the baby mammoth, and the real remains on display in Russia.

(left) The mammoth calf was sculpted to match the details of the mummy of a frozen baby mammoth found in 1977 on the banks of a tributary of the Kolyma River in Siberia. Nicknamed Dima, the carcass represents a young male, approximately 8-months old when he died. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature. The remains of Dima on display in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Image: Andrew Butko © Andrew Butko (CC BY 3.0)

With efforts underway to recreate the mammoth steppe on a large scale in Russia, and discussion within the scientific community concerning the feasibility of cloning a woolly mammoth using the genetic material preserved in the frozen tissues of Arctic mammoth mummies, it may one day be possible to experience woolly mammoths and their habitat in a very direct way.  Until then, our replicas will continue to provide the experience on a smaller scale to museum visitors and additional generations of residents of the National Capital Region.

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

What’s in a Name? A Year in Taxonomy at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Taxonomy is the core activity in the Centre for Species Discovery and Change at the Canadian Museum of Nature. It is the science of discovering, naming and classifying plant, animal and mineral species. And in 2015, museum staff described 34 new species, and some, in turn, had species named after them.

Four underwater images of colonies of a giant file clam.

In situ images of giant file clams, Acesta cryptadelphe. This new species of giant file clam found in deepwater canyons off Canada’s East Coast was described by the museum’s Curator of Invertebrates, Dr. Jean-Marc Gagnon. Image: © Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Discoveries of new species are made by studying collections or through fieldwork conducted by museum staff across Canada and internationally. Specimens are studied for morphological, molecular or crystallographic differences from known species that demonstrate that the species is indeed new to science. This can be a laborious process, but after something is recognized as new the fun part begins: the species must then be given a unique scientific name.

A man collects insects.

Museum entomologist Dr. Bob Anderson, shown collecting insects in the highlands of Guatemala, has identified numerous new species of weevils, and has even had weevils named after him. Image: Jose Monzon Sierra © Jose Monzon Sierra.

Generally these names reflect some distinct morphological feature of the species, such as being large (‘grandis’), being red (‘rufus’) or some other characteristic that separates them from their close relatives. Some scientists like to use the geographic occurrence of the species in the name, leading to names such as ‘canadensis’, ‘brasiliensis’ or ‘manitobaite’.

Others, perhaps hoping to capitalize on pop culture and social media, name animal or plant species after famous personalities (real or fictional), musicians, politicians, actors or even characters in famous films (e.g., Agra schwarzeneggeri, Agra katewinsletae, Trigonopterus chewbacca, Scaptia beyonceae, Aegrotocatellus jaggeri, Agathidium bushi and Phthitia mulroneyi). But this won’t happen for minerals as international rules for mineral naming prohibits the use of pop culture references; rigid rules are set to avoid unwelcome commercial pressure on the naming of species.

Three views of a fossil fish.

Cumbaaichythes oxyrhynchus, the new genus and species of Cretaceous fossil fish named after Canadian Museum of Nature Research Associate Stephen L. Cumbaa (scale bar = 5 mm). Image: Alison M. Murray © Alison M. Murray.

Lastly, and the subject of the discussion here, are species named after people, or patronyms. Although children, spouses, other family members and friends can be recognized, most common patronyms honour a colleague for his or her contribution to the discovery and description of the species, or sometimes just to recognize an exemplary career.

Canadian Museum of Nature scientists are no exception and have long been so recognized, with a number of significant new patronyms just this past year.

Cumbaaichythes: Not only a new species, this fossil fish was given a new genus name by former museum Research Assistant Allison Murray. It recognizes retired Research Scientist Stephen L. Cumbaa, for “his significant contribution to our understanding of the Canadian fossil ichthyofauna.”;

Poulinea: Again a new genus, this gomphonemoid diatom that lives on marine turtles was recently named by a number of his international colleagues to honour museum Research Scientist Michel Poulin for his career work on marine diatoms;

A microscopic closeup of a marine diatom.

Poulinea lepidochelicola, a new genus and species of marine diatom collected from the carapace of an olive ridley sea turtle. It is named after Research Scientist Michel Poulin, who has collected and studied diatoms in both the Arctic and Antarctic. (scale bar = 10 µm) Image : Reprinted from Phytotaxa 233 (3): 236-250

Capoeta coadi and Alburnoides coadi: Two new species of fish named by Iranian colleagues after Brian W. Coad, Research Scientist in ichthyology;

Cheirimedon hendrycksi: A new species of Australian marine amphipod named after Ed Hendrycks, Research Assistant in marine invertebrates;

Caccobius genierorum, Korynetes genieri, Pedaria genierorum, and Platydema genieri: Four new beetle species named after François Génier, Collection Manager for insects;

Wattius andersoni: A new species of Cuban beetle named after Robert Anderson, Research Scientist in entomology; and

Pandeleteius anneae. A new species of West Indian weevil named after Research
Associate Anne T. Howden.

Two magnified views of a weevil.

Closeup of Pandeleteius anneae. Image: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Museum mineralogists Scott Ercit, Joel Grice and Robert Gault are also among those recognized by having mineral species named in their honour: ercitite, griceite and gaultite, respectively. (New mineral species are more infrequently discovered than animal or plant species and patronyms are rare, used generally to recognize exemplary achievements over a long career.)

Congratulations to all those museum staff recognized with a patronym. However, we all still have a long way to go to surpass museum Research Associate Stewart B. Peck. There is a total approaching 110 patronyms recognizing him and his wife Jarmila, an accomplished paleoentomologist. In fact, the Pecks may be the most recognized living people as judged by species patronyms!

Patronyms aside, here are the 34 new species described by Canadian Museum of Nature staff for 2015:

Acesta cryptadelphe, a new species of giant file clam found in deep-water canyons and fjords off the Canadian East Coast described by Jean-Marc Gagnon, Curator, Invertebrates;

Ainoa bella and Trapelia stipitata, two new species of lichens from southeastern North America described by retired museum Research Associate Irwin Brodo;

Alectoria sorediosa and Chaenotheca balsamconensis, two new species of lichens from North America described by Troy McMullin, Research Scientist in Botany;

Mastogloia aegyptiaca, a new Red Sea fossil diatom species described by Michel Poulin, Research Scientist in Botany;

Orchestomerus eismani, Pandeleteius anneae, Pandeleteius metallicus and Pereskiophaga brasiliensis, four new species of weevils described by Research Scientist Robert Anderson;

Research Associate Andrew B.T. Smith described 10 new species of scarab beetles of the genus Phyllophaga from Cuba in one scienitific paper. In another, he described three new genera and 11 new species of southern South American scarab beetles;

Hydroterskite, a new mineral from St-Amable, Quebec and hydroxylgugiaite, a new mineral from Norway, both described by Joel Grice, Research Associate in Mineralogy.

A microscopic closeup of a new mineral species.

The new mineral species hydroxylgugiaite described by Joel Grice. Image: Joel Grice © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Albertosuchus knudsenii, a new species of late Cretaceous crocodilian, described by Xiao-Chun Wu, Research Scientist in Palaeobiology.

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Searching for Pearly Mussels in the Rideau River during the Hottest Days of Summer

by André Martel and Jacqueline Madill

During some of the hottest days this summer, my colleague Jacqueline Madill and I are donning our snorkeling gear and looking at native freshwater mussels (Unionidae family) in riffle and high-current sites in the Rideau River, Ontario.

A man floats at the surface with his face in the water.

Here, I am looking for native freshwater mussels (Unionidae family) in a square quadrat (71 cm × 71 cm, or 0.5 square metres) while snorkeling in the Rideau River, Ontario. Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature

From 1999 to 2001, a multi-disciplinary study called the Rideau River Biodiversity Project led by the Canadian Museum of Nature was undertaken in collaboration with universities, governments and other agencies.

Our mussel team selected and described eight ideal habitats for native freshwater mussels from Smiths Falls to Ottawa: Old Slys, Kilmarnock, Andrewsville, Burritts Rapids, two locations around Manotick Island, Billings Bridge and Sandy Hill. This summer we are revisiting these sites.

A view of the river.

This historical hotspot for freshwater mussels in the Rideau River is at Billings Bridge in Ottawa. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our return prompts the question, “If we did a complete survey in 1999–2000, why are we doing it all over again”? Some of these sites were amazing “hotspots” of diversity and abundance for the native freshwater pearly mussels, especially the upstream sites, which had not yet been subjected to the impact of the invasive zebra mussel (Dreissenidae family).

Our native freshwater pearly mussels are known to be good indicator species for the health of the environment. In 2016, we will evaluate the health of the Rideau River by studying the native mussel populations and reporting on how they have been affected by this invasion—and possibly by other stressors—during the past 16 years.

A hand holds a mussel.

A live eastern elliptio (Elliptio complanata, Unionidae family) from the Rideau River at Sandy Hill, which is a neighbourhood in Ottawa. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

North America has the richest native freshwater mussel fauna in the world (300 species and subspecies). During the past century, unfortunately, mussel populations have declined worldwide. Water pollution, river-shoreline and wetland degradation, impoundments (dams and weirs), agricultural, industrial and urban runoffs, and siltation have all contributed to the freshwater mussels’ decline. In North America, the most recent stressor has been the introduction of the invasive zebra mussel, originally from the Ponto-Caspian region of Eastern Europe and Asia.

A man holds mussels in both hands under water.

Here, I’m gently lifting freshwater mussels from the river bottom. Notice that the freshwater mussels (Unionidae family) are covered with many zebra mussels (Dreissenidae family). Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature

The zebra mussel has made a swift impact since our last surveys of the Rideau River. In 2001 we found that all species of native freshwater mussels had been extirpated from the Mooney’s Bay area of the Rideau River in Ottawa during an eight-year span (e.g., Martel et al, 2001).

While our native mussels live partly buried in the sediment on the bottom of the river, the invasive zebra mussel attaches itself to just about any hard object, from rocks to native-mussel shells to water pipes. When the zebra mussels attach to their shells, our native freshwater pearly mussels eventually suffocate, unable to move freely or eat plankton.

A hand holds a mussel that is half covered in smaller mussels.

Zebra mussels (Dreissenidae family) encrust this weathered freshwater mussel shell (Unionidae family) from the Rideau River at Manotick, Ontario. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the past, the Rideau River basin has had an abundant and diverse native freshwater pearly mussel fauna (more than 12 recognized species). We know this from records of deposited shells in the national mollusc collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature, as well as from field surveys and field collecting conducted during the 1980s and 1990s. The Rideau River probably had one of the richest populations of native freshwater pearly mussels in Eastern Ontario.

A hand holds a mussel.

This live freshwater mussel is called the flutedshell (Lasmigona costata, Unionidae family) and was found near Manotick. The arrow points to a clump of black byssal threads that had been used by zebra mussels to attach to the shell. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sixteen years after our latest surveys, we are wondering how the Rideau River is doing and what has happened to its rich native mussel fauna. What are we expecting to find? We are hopeful that some populations of the native mussel species will have survived the invasion of zebra mussels. How might some survive this invasion?

Studies have shown that some populations can remain in certain shallow water habitats, or deltas, where soft sediment and adjacent aquatic plants are not favourable to the invasive zebra mussels. Such shallow-water, soft-sediment habitats can allow the native mussels to burrow completely, for extended periods of time, and in this way get rid of zebra mussels that have attached to their shells. By doing so, native mussels literally suffocate the attached zebra mussels; after some time, the native pearly mussels return to the surface in their normal position.

A view of the river.

Near Manotick at David Bartlett Park is another portion of the river where freshwater mussels had previously been found. Image: André Martel © Canadian Museum of Nature

The zebra mussel is there to stay, but it is our hope that in the Rideau River there are a few habitats, or refugia, where some populations of native freshwater pearly mussels will thrive.

Stay tuned for our next article and we will let you know what we find.

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Bioblitz: Nature Nuts Combine Forces

Saturday, June 11 at 10 a.m., the beginning of another Ontario Bioblitz weekend: exhibitors set up kiosks, registration volunteers cross off names, and signs pinned around the site draw blitzers who are crazy about plants, insects, fish, or lichens—or any in a long list of categories of living things—to more of their own kind.

Dozens of people stand in a loose group.

In their official t-shirts, bioblitz participants (gathering here for the opening ceremonies) are recognizable wherever they’re working in the watershed. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Their goal this year is to count as many species as possible in 10 sites of the Credit River watershed—most managed by Credit Valley Conservation—in just 24 hours.

A map of the Credit River Watershed.

The watershed running from the Orangeville area south to Lake Ontario, via Mississauga. Image: © Ontario BioBlitz 2016

The nature nuts cluster eagerly around maps, interrupting their planning to welcome newcomers. Despite sharing a sign with a horde of 50 botanists interested in flowers, trees and ferns, the four* members of the bryophyte (moss and liverwort) team manage to assemble in kind.

A sign that says "Ontario BioBlitz Plants & Bryophytes".

Signs posted around the bioblitz site help naturalists with various interests find their teams. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Then a kick-off ceremony: a sea of matching t-shirts surveilled by a swarm of camera drones. And then, people scatter.

The bryophyte team, which edged impatiently toward the car during the speeches, bee-lines from Blitz HQ to its first site. Once we’re out of the car and into the trees, our focus turns to the hunt, and everything slows down.

A man kneels in a forest making notes on a paper bag.

Allan Aubin, a bryologist from Simcoe, Ontario, makes notes on a collection bag just minutes after the blitz begins. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

People who study moss take a lot of flak for their laborious rate of speed, but when 10 or more species can grow together on a single log, it’s impossible to travel quickly and notice them all (and if you think that we are slow, wait ’til you see the lichenologists).

We’re on a particular mission at the Credit Blitz: certain rare species were recorded in the watershed 60 to 120 years ago, according to specimens in collections such as the National Herbarium of Canada.

Composite: Two herbarium-sheet labels.

Two labels from our herbarium specimens dating from 1892 (top) and 1941 (bottom). Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Whether or not those rare species are still around can reveal a lot about how their ecosystems are faring as the landscape changes, and help conservation experts know more about the resources they manage. With this in mind, we’re especially vigilant.

Leanne Wallis, a biologist with Credit Valley Conservation and a member of the bioblitz moss crew, has armed us with historical research (just where would botanists get off the train from Toronto in 1941, anyway?), lists of species known for the area, and a roster of promising sites.

A woman sits on a tree root in a forest.

Biologist Leanne Wallis (Credit Valley Conservation) knows the watershed and its many species inside out! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

At noon on Sunday, time’s up! Even at our studious pace, we record over 100 species, and parcel away dozens that we’ll need to examine under the microscope before the list is complete. It’s the most bryophyte species we’ve counted at the Ontario Bioblitz since it started in the Rouge watershed, where it will return in 2017.

People pose in and beside a decorative fountain.

Working together after the main event, the blitz moss team (joined on this occasion by Credit Valley Conservation biologist David d’Entremont) poses by a mossy fountain before parting ways ’til next year. Left to right: Leanne Wallis, Jennifer Doubt, David d’Entremont, Allan Aubin, Linda Ley. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

In fact, the Ontario BioBlitz Program, along with national partners including the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada, plan to launch a national bioblitz network in 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday—including one hosted by your Canadian Museum of Nature. Stay tuned for details!

*In 2013 we had our record of eight. You are invited to join us… if you can take the (glacial) pace!

Posted in Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

All Fired Up!

As the administrative assistant for Research and Collections, I work with a group of scientists, research assistants, curators, collection managers and collection technicians at Canada’s national natural-history museum. My job is never boring. It actually keeps me on my toes and I learn something new every day.

A while ago, I wrote a blog article about my adventure in the field with the assistant curator of mineralogy. This time, I thought I’d share my adventure at a firing range.

A man aims a rifle while another looks on.

Noel Alfonso practices with a .45/70 lever-action rifle. Alan McDonald, a technician for our palaeontology collections and our firearms safety officer, stands by. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

What’s an administrative assistant of the Canadian Museum of Nature doing at a firing range? For that matter, what’s a group of scientists doing at a firing range?

I’m getting first-hand knowledge and experience on how to prepare for field work in the Canadian Arctic. Our botany team is heading out to Arviat, Nunavut, for four weeks to collect plant specimens and learn more about the biodiversity of Canadian Arctic. Their field studies are part of our large project called the Canadian Arctic Flora. Two more scientists are preparing for the 2016 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition.

Besides the endless paperwork for permits to collect specimens in the Arctic, the food preparations for a team of five, field-gear purchases, and first aid and wilderness training, there are also gun-safety requirements.

Knowledge of gun safety is important because when scientists work in the field in the Arctic, they become part of the food web; they have to be prepared to protect themselves from polar bears. After successfully taking a firearms course and obtaining a gun permit from the RCMP, practising how to properly use a firearm is a must.

Men standing at tables take aim while others observe.

Left to right: Mark Graham, Troy McMullin, Paul Sokoloff and Geoff Levin practising at the firing range. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

So on a hot Friday afternoon, I drove out to the firing range and met up with my colleagues who are preparing for this part of their field work. I signed in and was equipped with safety glasses and ear protection. My colleague and our Safety Officer Alan McDonald showed me how to load and unload a pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun. The phrase “red is dead”—referring to a red dot near the trigger—still sticks in my head to help me remember when the gun’s safety switch is on/off.

I practiced a few rounds using birdshot (a type of load for a shotgun shell), and then moved to slugs (the load used for bear protection).

Men approach their targets, which stand in front of a hill.

Left to right: Kieran Shepherd, Mark Graham, Paul Sokoloff, Troy McMullin, Geoff Levin, Alan McDonald and Noel Alfonso checking the targets after a practice round. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

My aim seemed to be way off. I shot too high, then too much to the left. The shotgun had a mighty kick and left my shoulder red, which progressed into a lovely purple bruise.

I tried the .45/70 lever-action rifle. It’s another popular gun choice for self defense against bears. It had less kick than the shotgun. I put my elbow on the table in front of me to steady my arm and help my aim.

After the practice round was over, I put the gun down with the action open and walked the 25 yards to view my target. It didn’t have a single mark on it! I needed more practise, but wasn’t sure my shoulder could take it.

A sheet of paper printed with a grid and some text.

My target sheet. 🙁 Not a mark on it . Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

When I signed out from the range later that afternoon, I left knowing a little more about what goes on in Research and Collections at the museum and what it takes to do research in the vast North of Canada. I have new admiration and respect for my colleagues.

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