Monday, June 20, 2011

Natural History Hodgepodge

From the desk of Kelly Sendall,
Manager of Natural History,
Royal BC Museum

Every now and again I am asked to give examples of what’s in the natural history collections at the museum. Sometimes it’s during conversation here or there and sometimes to a group or at a meeting. If I have a chance to think about good examples for a meeting, I consult the experts – all the staff in the Natural History Section. As a result, I always end up learning something about the collections, the natural history of BC or the history of our province. Each time I assemble a smattering of specimens for a show and tell, I am impressed with the scope and breadth of the museum’s collections. Each specimen and associated record (and there are over 750,000 of them in the natural history collections) represents a snapshot in time and place when that species was present, along with all the conditions you can think of relating to the habitat, the year, the season, the weather, yada, yada, yada. So it’s not just the variety or diversity of life in BC that’s fascinating. It can also be the historical context, or something about the collector, or what the environmental conditions were at the time. Each record is rich with context and each specimen is a biological library of information relating the specimen to the environment or its habitat. So for your enjoyment and, I hope, enlightenment, here are a set of assembled examples I used recently.

BIRD: Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) Collected: 1899 by A.C. Brooks

From Sumas Lake and representing a specimen from a place that no-longer exists as it once was. Sumas Lake (see image above) was drained by way of the Vedder Canal starting in 1924 to make way for farmland.Sumas Lake was a seasonal lake which varied in size depending on the degree of run off. The freshet each year would often fill the lake to cover an area of 120km2 from the average low water coverage of 40km2. Over time the lake was completely drained to marshland and was full of resident and migratory birds.
Tringa flavipes

This specimen shows the real value of museum specimens to document history and change to the biology/ecology of BC – changes which will continue and accelerate given the growing human population.

FROG: Coastal Tailed Frog (Ascaphus truei) Collected: 1965 in Washington State.

This species of frog is only found in the Pacific Northwest of Washington State and Pacific Southwest of BC. In fact the only population of the species in Canada is here in BC. The ‘tail’ of the male frog is an aid to improve the fertilization of eggs, which are laid in fast-flowing water. The tadpoles have sucker-like mouths to help them stay in one spot underwater
Ascaphus truei

The RBCM collection includes a paratype specimen for the subspecies, Ascaphus truei montanus which is a species all by itself now (Ascaphus montanus)

INVERTEBRATE: Soft Sea Urchin (Sperosoma biseriatum) Collected: 2002 by RBCM and Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans researchers off Graham Island (from 1722-2083 meters of water!)

Sperosoma biseriatum
This species of sea urchin belongs to a strange group of other urchins called ‘soft sea urchins’. Although many species have venomous spines I’m not sure if this one, which typically occurs in the Bering Sea, does. Another species (S. giganteum) in this genus is reputed to be the largest in the world with the test in some specimens measured at 32cm across.

MAMMAL: Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) Collected: March 2010 from Bear Mtn. Dawson Creek, BC. by a private biological consulting company monitoring the site for bat mortalities.

This specimen is one of two donated to the RBCM as frozen voucher specimens at the end of May this year. They are wind farm mortalities from the new Bear Mountain site near Dawson Creek.

Lasiurus borealis
At the time they were found in August 2010 they were thought to be the first record of the Eastern Red Bat for BC. Subsequent DNA research on behalf of the Ministry of Environment into the identification of the only other known Red Bat specimen from BC, a specimen collected in 1906 in the Skagit Valley and held by the Canadian Museum Of Nature, proved that it was also an Eastern Red Bat and thus the first record for the province. It had been previously identified as a Western Red Bat (Lasiurus blossevillii) in the RBCM handbook series. This DNA identification and the new record of the Eastern Red Bat will be published by the researcher involved. This specimen was prepared as a study skin and the skull and skeleton will go to the museum’s beetle colony for cleaning prior to being added to the mammal research collection. The second specimen was badly damaged by the wind turbine blade so it will be preserved whole in alcohol. Tissue and hair samples were taken and these will be sent to a PhD student at the University of Calgary who is studying the migration of forest bats. The timing of the bat kill suggests that the bats were migrating. The tissues will be used for microsatellite DNA analysis which will help identify the population or geographic region where the bats originated. The hair will be used for stable isotope analysis which will indicate what the bats were eating and help indicate what area the bats were from. Red Bats are considered to be rare in Western Canada but recent research has extended their range as far north as Nahanni National Park in the NWT. Studies of bat kills at wind farm sites in the eastern US indicate that the Eastern Red Bat may constitute up to 60% of the total mortalities. There is work going on currently to determine why they are so susceptible and preliminary video findings show that this species is attracted to the turbine blades for some reason. The provincial Ministry of Environment is planning to follow up on this new distribution record by doing some survey work in the Okanagan region to try and confirm earlier acoustic records which were interpreted as being Red Bats.

FOSSIL: Anomalocaris

Known now to be the largest Burgess Shale invertebrate animal that reached lengths of 50cm, it didn’t start out that way when first discovered late in the 19th century. Appendages adorning the head of the beast were originally thought to be whole animals themselves. Easy to see from the image (left). Much later a fossil representing the entire body was discovered, from collections at another museum I might add, and the real truth was known as to its appearance and very large size. It must have been an impressive predator in the Cambrian oceans.

Fossilized frontal appendage of Anomalocaris

FISH: Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis) Collected: July 2005 from Silvermere Lake

The Yellow Bullhead, a species of Bullhead catfish, is a voracious scavenger typically feeding at night on a variety of plant and animal material, both live and dead, including small fish, crayfish, insects, snails and worms. They can grow to half a meter in length weighing close to a kilogram. On average they live for up to seven years. Normally ranging throughout the central and eastern US from central Texas north into North Dakota and north to the Great Lakes region, this specimen is the first for BC and is from Silvermere Lake northeast of Langley, BC.

Ameiurus natalis
It was only when our curator examined the sample more carefully than the researchers who had originally collected them that that the sample was found to contain examples of the Yellow Bullhead. Nobody knew they were here in BC and seemingly well-established on the lower mainland. Their arrival was likely as a contaminant in a shipment of bass.

INSECT: Black Witch Moths (Ascalapha odorata) Collected: Early 20th century from southern Okanagan and Victoria.

These moths are about 15cm across and were at one time more commonly found in BC than they are today. Six of the eleven specimens in the group shown here were collected from Victoria. Distributed from Brazil to the southern US, in spring this moth undertakes a northward migration. During this time adults occasionally reach as far north as BC. Its name reflects the cultural belief in Mexican and Caribbean folklore that it is a harbinger of death.

Ascalapha odorata
So there you have the short story on 7 out of 750,000 records from the Natural History Collections. Stay tuned because we're adding at least a few thousand stories a year to the collection and I may pipe up again about a few more.

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