SCIENCE & TECH: Nature in the North
People & Places

SCIENCE & TECH: Nature in the North

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine, as part of a series of stories about Ottawa’s connections to the Far North.


Researcher in the field on a 2008 plant expedition in the North. Photo by Roger Bull, Canadian Museum of Nature
Cassiope tetragona, collected by Sir William Parry in 1822. Image courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature

In the vast and silent herbarium at the Canadian Museum of Nature, botanist Paul Sokoloff gently opens a folder containing a pressed plant specimen. The small twig of white mountain heather (Cassiope tetragona) doesn’t look spectacular, but the date beside it reads 1822, and the name of the collector, written in fine cursive, is a famous one: Sir William Parry, the British explorer who led four voyages in the early 19th century seeking the elusive Northwest Passage.

Today, nearly 200 years later, museum scientists continue making pilgrimages to the Arctic to collect samples, dredging strange crustaceans from the ocean floor, unearthing bones of prehistoric animals, and studying the amazing plants that survive months of darkness and extreme cold to emerge and flower in the short Arctic summer.

This unbroken tradition makes the museum Canada’s most important research institution for understanding nature in the North. In light of this, the museum will open a permanent Arctic gallery in 2017 to showcase its research and knowledge, as well as some of the thousands of specimens in its extensive Arctic collection.

“The Arctic is an important part of Canada, it’s a huge part of Canada, and it’s a part of Canada that most Canadians will never visit,” says Mark Graham, vice-president of research and collections. “We have this huge wealth of information about the Arctic, and one of our great functions as a museum is to share it with the public.”

Researchers looking at displays of plant specimens. Photo by Martin Lipman, Canadian Museum of Nature

When early British explorers like Parry ventured into the Arctic, they collected samples of plants and animals and sent them home to large research institutions in London. But after the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was established in 1842, its scientists began to build Canada’s own natural history collection, gathering flora and fauna from the field and engaging in canny trades to repatriate specimens from Great Britain.

“The collection we have here tells about biology for sure, but it also tells about how Canada has grown as a nation,” says Kamal Khidas, curator of vertebrates.

Researcher Marisa Gilbert studies Puijila darwini fossil. Photo by Martin Lipman, Canadian Museum of Nature

Later, the museum became the repository for the collection of the GSC, and museum scientists have been adding to it ever since. Their recent discoveries include an astounding fossil of an extinct mammal partway between an otter and a seal. Unearthed in 2007, Puijila darwini proved to be a missing link in the evolution of seals. Today the museum is cataloging its collection of plants growing in the North American Arctic and the fish swimming in the Arctic Ocean.

The new gallery will give visitors a taste of the Far North in all its surprising variety and beauty.


“Lots of us think about the Arctic as a snow-covered, barren place, and it’s really so beautiful, with so many flowers blooming all at once in the summer,” says botany curator Jennifer Doubt. “Just the fact that there are these beautiful Arctic gardens in Canada is something that I’d like people to know.”

Also in this series:

PROFILE: Arctic inspires new Art by Leslie Reid


Renowned for her landscape paintings that evoke emotional responses, Leslie Reid reveals the sublime, fragile nature of the North in her latest series, Mapping Time.



PROFILE: Ottawa’s Inuit centre ignites cultural pride


From women’s healing circles and drop-in baby playtime to book-making workshops and throat-singing lessons, the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre is a “hub for celebrating Inuit culture.”


ShoeBOX: a perfect fit for the North


Thanks to an iPad-based tool invented by CHEO physician Dr. Matthew Bromwich, children from Nunavut can skip the plane ride from Iqaluit to Ottawa to have their hearing tested.