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14.6-million specimens on display at annual Canadian Museum of Nature open house

The annual open house was a chance for people to see the active research that goes on behind the scenes of the downtown Ottawa museum and some of the 14.6 million specimens in its collection.

Fossilized microbes from the mud at the bottom of a lake in Siberia could tell scientists a lot about how the planet’s climate has changed over the past 150,000 years and about how it’s changing now.

The microbes, which are fifty times smaller than a millimetre, were on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature Research and Collection Facility open house on Oct. 13 with the help of a scanning electron microscope. The open house was a chance to see the work the Ottawa museum does behind the scenes and specimens that are largely rarely seen by the public . 

Paul Hamilton, the researcher looking at the microbes, said the black and grey images on the screen show a “graveyard” of the microbes’ shells. The shells are made of glass, so they stick around and are fossilized after their original occupant dies. 

“The interesting thing about microbes for doing assessment is it’s about numbers, so instead of having one fish tell us that the lake was polluted, I have 500,000 or a million of these things,” Hamilton said. “That means I have a million more pieces of information about the water quality.”

The fossilized microbes are just one of the 14.6 million specimens the museum keeps at the Gatineau research facility, which the public had the chance to tour during the annual open house. The museum also opened up its dinosaur fossil collection and gave people an inside look at how fossils are prepared after they are dug up.

Bob Anderson, acting vice-president of research and collections, said the day is a chance for people to see the other side of the museum where research and cataloguing of the planet's biodiversity goes on. He said the collection ranges from tiny insects to meteorites and large animal skeletons.

Anderson said the collection contains so many different specimens because of the active research always happening. He said the facility is like a warehouse of everything natural that exists in the world and it helps paint a complete picture of Canada's biological history. The museum also loans out 300 to 400 specimens each year to other museums across the world.

“Many people perceive museums as being places where they’re all covered in cobwebs and it’s where you just put old dead stuff,” Anderson said. “What we want to show by opening this building is how dynamic is it, how our collections are modern all the really cool things we can see and do with the collections.”




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