Specimens in natural history collection include parakeet from 1869 that’s now extinct
The head of natural history at the New Brunswick Museum says its collections are worth preserving and protecting.
“It’s really quite amazing the kinds of stories that we’re able to unearth from the technology that’s available with these specimens,” said Donald McAlpine, “some of which have sat in collections … since the 1890s.”
Museum officials have been saying for years that the collections centre on Douglas Avenue in Saint John is running out of room and material is at risk because of poor ventilation and mould. They are still looking for an alternate location.
The provincial government cancelled plans for a new building on the waterfront in 2018 in order to save money.
Rationalization exercise under way
The Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture said it’s currently conducting a “rationalization exercise” with a consultant to determine the collection centre’s needs.
It’s also “working collaboratively” with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and the museum “to identify solutions for facilities renewal,” said communications director Robert Duguay.
“Parties are working together to design and implement a new, contemporary, NBM Exhibition Centre in Uptown Saint John,” Duguay said.
McAlpine spoke openly about the shortcomings of the current building.
“This space was never designed to accommodate all these collections,” he said.
Cabinets stacked three high are topped with bins all the way to the collection centre’s 18-foot ceilings.
“We’ve had to use every square metre in here.”
If downsizing is in order, museum workers and the consultant have a big job ahead.
Asters to zooplankton
Over its 90-year existence, the museum has amassed hundreds of thousands of plants and animals, from asters to zooplankton — much more than what’s on display to the public in Market Square.
McAlpine has worked at the museum for 38 years. He has seen those specimens used to inform numerous scientific discoveries.
They’re still being mined for modern research, he said.
And he’d like to see them used in the future, in ways we can only imagine, to give further insight into the natural history of New Brunswick and beyond.
Bats in the basement
Among the museum’s morbid treasures are the remains of about three thousand bats — from “the last” large bat colony in New Brunswick.
The colony was virtually “wiped out” by white nose syndrome.
Scientists at the museum are still doing a lot of research, said McAlpine, trying to figure out whether bats are recovering, if other bats might be protected by a certain kind of fungus and what type of hibernation sites should be protected to help the species survive.
The museum also possesses a fairly large collection of dead blue jays — about 70 of them.
Having a large sample size allows for more meaningful statistical analysis, said McAlpine.
It’s like, if aliens came to Earth and wanted to know what colour human hair is, he said, they’d need to examine more than a couple of us to get the full picture.
“You’d look at a series of different people … and you might start to plot your information out geographically and you start to see certain patterns. … We’re doing the same things with these specimens.”
Some of the museum’s specimens date back to the 1840s.
Pollution by proxy
Comparing what’s been collected over many years can reveal long-term trends, said McAlpine.
Technology exists now, for example, to examine heavy metal contamination in the blue jays.
And it can be used as a proxy for heavy metal contamination in the environment in general.
McAlpine said this demonstrates the importance of always adding to the collection, while also taking good care of the older material.
You don’t always need vast numbers of specimens on hand to be able to make significant discoveries.
Return of the wolf
A lone wolf, shot in Caraquet in 2012, was a revelation in itself, said McAlpine.
After extensive genetic research, it was confirmed to be a gray-eastern wolf hybrid and the first documented “free-ranging wolf in New Brunswick since 1862.”
The museum’s ivory gull specimen, which was shot in Grand Manan in 1881, held valuable information to modern researchers investigating the decline of the endangered Arctic species.
“We don’t go out and shoot birds anymore, but in those days there were no good binoculars there were no field guides. … If you saw a rare bird you went out and shot it to determine what it was.”
The researchers recently plucked a few of the gull’s feathers for toxic chemical analysis. They hope it sheds light on the potential role of mercury contamination in interrupting the bird’s reproductive cycle.
“There are all sorts of new ways in which we’re using these specimens,” said McAlpine. “And of course we don’t know how they’ll be used in the future either.”
A map in a toenail
Feathers and a toenail from a greylag goose shot on Grand Manan as recently as 2007 were used to show it was a bird of wild origin.
That was kind of a big deal because the greylag is a European species. This was the first known greylag to make landfall in North America.
When a bird like this turns up, said McAlpine, scientists are always interested in whether it’s an escaped captive, of North American origin or whether it came from elsewhere.
“There aren’t very many easy ways to determine that, if the bird has not got a band.”
By looking at hydrogen isotopes researchers were able to determine the feathers had been produced in Greenland. Isotope analysis of the toenail allowed them to track the bird’s movement from there to the Maritimes.
Stomach contents and parasites
Obviously, the museum has not been able to keep absolutely every specimen that has come through its doors.
They decide what to keep and what they can part with based on what’s known about the item.
If they don’t know where or when it was collected, it’s not worth that much to them.
But if, for example, they have data about the specimen’s parasite load and stomach contents, that’s pure gold to a natural history researcher.
“All that data makes up the story that goes with the specimen.”
A Carolina parakeet in the museum’s collection was shot in Florida in 1869.
Science fiction to fact
“This is one of only two native North American parrots,” said McAlpine. “And it’s extinct now.”
The last one died in captivity in 1918.
But there’s a chance the species may actually fly again.
“Well, the term is de-extinction,” said McAlpine.
Researchers are hoping to recreate the Carolina parakeet using genetic material from museum specimens.
“It’s still science fiction, but in the future it won’t surprise me if that’s actually able to happen.”
With files from Information Morning Saint John