Treasure trove of Arctic natural history
Arctic bones, pelts, and plants comprise a good portion of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s permanent collection
The walls are thick and white-washed. Security is tight. No food allowed and no flip flops. Double doors open into hallways and anterooms and eventually, into warehouse-sized spaces with high ceilings and rows of cabinets and specimen cases.
When people think of the Canadian Museum of Nature, they usually picture the 100-year-old Victoria Memorial Museum Building on McLeod St. in downtown Ottawa where visitors can view permanent and travelling exhibits which explore all aspects of our natural environment, past and present.
But few are familiar with the Natural Heritage Building, set back from the road on Chemin Pink in northwest Gatineau, where the museum stores its entire collection: 10.5 million specimens from Canada and around the world which have been assembled and catalogued over the past century.
The space, including collection pods, offices, administration and laboratories, covers more than 20,000 square metres or about two-and-a-half football fields.
The collection includes plants, fossils, minerals and all the specimens that fall into the “animal” category: parts of birds, insects, mammals, crustaceans, fish and others.
Within each of those categories are thousands of Arctic specimens ranging from a few thousand whale organs floating in ethanol to prehistoric, High Arctic tree trunks.
Because Nunavut does not yet have an adequate, climate-controlled storage facility, the Canadian Museum of Nature acts as the territory’s official natural history repository.
Mark Graham, the museum’s vice-president of research and collections, singles out the museum’s bank of Arctic plants and fish as particularly large and diverse, but there are other fascinating areas to explore.
With the help of museum staff, Nunatsiaq News did some poking around recently and discovered a treasure trove of items which contain clues to Nunavut’s past and could help future scientists understand its natural evolution.
Take the museum’s collection of 1,038 fin whale bullae. The auditory bulla is the thick, hard bone in mammals which protects the animal’s inner ear. In humans, the bulla is fused to the temporal bone of the skull but in a whale, the oval-shaped bone, curved inward like a shell, is embedded in the jaw.
Dr. Kamal Khidas, vertebrates curator and mammalogist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, hands me a normal fin whale bulla the size of a softball. It’s heavy and dense.
Then he shows me another one, taken from a pregnant female harvested off the northern tip of Newfoundland in 1968. Large cracks on the surface have been partially filled in by bone fibers suggesting the bulla was shattered and then healed while the animal was still alive.
Khidas and his colleagues suspect the bulla was damaged by sonar.
“A whale’s bulla can be damaged by underwater research and exploration,” he said. “We suspect that’s what happened here.”
He turns it over in the palm of his hands.
“I can feel how painful this must have been. What a pity, if this was done by human beings. Welcome to the civilized world.”
Some Nunavummiut fear marine mammals could be similarly injured by seismic testing proposed for Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.
Nexus Coastal Resource Management, on behalf of several geophysical and petroleum services companies, have faced community opposition to their plan for mapping the ocean floor through seismic testing which would involve deploying an underwater “air gun” that shoots compressed gas.
Proponents say the sound is not that loud, dissipates quickly and that spotters would be employed to ensure testing is halted when mammals are nearby. Despite the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s approval, hunters and others are still worried those underwater “bombs” will adversely impact marine mammals.
Dr. Khidas was unfamiliar with this project but said he does fear the impact of growing marine and fisheries traffic around Nunavut and through the increasingly accessible Northwest Passage. But he trusts that Inuit, in their collective wisdom, will ensure a sustainable balance between economic development and environmental protection.
Kieran Shepherd, earth sciences curator for the museum, focuses on fossils and ancient artifacts. “If it’s not at least 10,000 years old, I won’t look at it,” he says.
He explains that the museum contains many treasured “holotypes” or specimens which lead to the naming and classification of a new species. He shows me a few of the superstars.
Tiktaalik roseae, a kind of walking fish which lived about 375 million years ago, is thought to be an evolutionary link between fish and tetrapods—the first four-footed animals. In Inuktitut, tiktaalik means “burbot,” a fish related to cod. The creature was given the name by an Inuk elder after the fossil was discovered on Devon Island in 2004.
Shepherd also shows us a later evolutionary link: Puijila darwini. Resembling a seal or otter, this was a land animal that could also swim—a mammal heading back to the sea. The rare fossilized skeleton, thought to be about 25 million years old, was discovered on Devon Island in 2007 by Natalia Rybczynski, who also works at the museum.
These fragile Arctic treasures are a source of great pride for the museum. But Khidas hopes that one day, they will be given a proper home, in Nunavut.
“Ideally, this stuff has to be there, not here,” he says. “These things have a soul, even if it’s just a bone or hide. A bone is a book. It tells you a lot. With Inuit, they add a spiritual aspect. It has scientific value and cultural value. Who can preserve a cultural artifact better than the Inuit who put a spiritual value on it?”