Up at Bat: NBM Zoology Summer Students Prepare Pre-White-nose Syndrome Bat Specimens

White-nose Syndrome (WNS) has been decimating eastern Canada’s bat populations for the past six years. White-nose fungus, which thrives at low temperatures, often leads to hibernating bats waking up, flying into the cold, and freezing to death. In Canada, WNS was first discovered in Ontario and Quebec in 2009. In the Maritimes, the disease first appeared in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia in 2011, and Prince Edward Island in 2013. The situation has grown dire; while NBM Zoologist Dr. Donald McAlpine and NBM Research Associate Karen Vanderwolf once found approximately 7,000 bats a year in the 10 hibernation sites in New Brunswick that they monitor, they found only 20 bats in the same caves last year. WNS affects primarily the Little Brown Bat and the Northern Long-ear Bat, although Big Brown Bats are also affected to a lesser extent. The decline in the bat population is expected to carry financial repercussions for agriculture and forestry as fewer bats will be consuming fewer crop and tree-damaging pests.

NBM Zoology Summer Students Maddie Empey, Alyson Hasson, and Neil Hughes have been working this summer to prepare and catalogue some of the approximately 7,000 Little Brown , Northern Long-eared , and Big Brown Bats from Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces in in the NBM freezers. These bats were all submitted by members of the public for rabies testing to a federal lab in Ottawa between 1996 and the early 2000s, before WNS was discovered in Canada. The bats at the NBM are those that tested negative for rabies.

The data collected from these bats will enable researchers to compare genetic variation in eastern Canadian bats before and after the introduction of WNS to the region. Among surviving bats, for example, there may be certain similarities in genetic makeup. Other research may use samples of fur to determine the levels of toxicants, such as mercury, that have been acquired by bats from the environment.

“This is a unique sample, in that it is probably the largest collection of those bat species most heavily impacted by WNS taken immediately before onset of the fungal infection,” said McAlpine. “Once archived in the NBM these samples will be a source of research data for many, many, years.”

“It’s really satisfying to know that you’re contributing to such research,” said Maddie Empey.

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NBM Summer Student Maddie Empey holds samples of skinned bats.

Students start by measuring the bats. Measurements include the length of the whole body, the tail, the hind foot, the forearm, and the tragus (a flap of skin in the ear involved in echolocation). Each bat is also weighed.photo 2photo 3

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The bat skin is separated from the body. Although the wing bones remain with the skin, the remainder of the skeleton is retained for later cleaning and preparation.

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Each bat skin is spread and pinned to dry. Once dry, the skin will be placed in a clear Mylar envelope, and stored for future reference.

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Tissue samples—small bits of muscle—are removed from each bat carcass, placed in 98% ethanol and stored in a freezer. Tissue samples from each bat are archived at -80o C in the NBM tissue collection for eventual genetic analysis by an NBM research collaborator at Trent University.

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Finally, bat carcasses are placed in the dermestid beetle colony—or “bug barn” to be skeletonized. The beetles eat the flesh only, leaving perfectly cleaned skeletons. Once cleaned by bugs, the skeletons are removed, frozen, thawed, and frozen a second time to make sure that no beetles, eggs, or larva make their way into the NBM.

“If any beetles come in here [the NBM] they’ll just eat anything and everything,” said Empey.

Once the skeletons are cleaned and frozen, they are ready to be archived in the NBM collection to be used as reference for research.

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Clockwise from top left: NBM Preparator Brian Cougle with dermestid colony; Cougle holding dermestid beetle larvae; Empey with a freezer in the NBM necropsy lab.

To learn more about the New Brunswick Museum’s role in leading the White-nose Syndrome research watch the video “White-nose syndrome discovered in NB”.

 

 

 

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Conservation Work: An Acadian Memento Mori

As New Brunswick’s provincial museum, the New Brunswick Museum not only works with in its own collections but also provides support to other museums across the province. For example, a memento mori— or death memorial—owned by the Musée Acadien de Caraquet was in need of restoration for exhibit at the Musée acadien de l’Université de Moncton. NBM Conservator Dee Stubbs-Lee was able to provide the necessary conservation treatment for the artifact to go on display as part of the upcoming exhibition Always Loved, Never Forgotten: Death and Mourning in Acadia.

Little is known about the memento mori except that it is in memory of an Anna Duguay, wife of Alf. LeBoutillier, who died on June 8, 1910 at the age of 26. The memorial depicts a graveyard scene with a large wax cross, a smaller cross, and a casket enclosed under a glass dome. Furthermore, the memento mori is embellished with a hairwork garland, which appears to be made using the hair of at least 14 individuals.

“If you look carefully you can see the hair is not all from one individual: there are a number of different colours and textures of hair,” said Stubbs-Lee. “As I was examining it for my condition report, I noticed that there are a number of little tiny numbered squares of paper. It’s possible each number refers to a different individual.”

Memento Mori 1Memento Mori 2Memento Mori 3Memento Mori 4Clockwise from top left: the memento mori after treatment without dome; the memento mori after treatment with dome; detail of  paper banner providing information on Anna Duguay; detail of hairwork.

The first challenge presented by the memento mori fell to NBM Conservator Claire Titus: transporting the artifact to the NBM Collections and Research Centre in Saint John without damaging it. The memorial was best kept upright with the glass dome in place to provide protection for the wax cross and hairwork. However, the glass itself also had to be protected from breakage and from contacting the artwork inside. Titus thus transported the memento mori in a large Rubbermaid container with acid free cushioning materials in order to absorb vibration caused by movement.

Once the artifact arrived in the Conservation Lab in the NBM Collections and Research Centre, Stubbs-Lee took over the work of the conservation treatment. Various elements of the memento mori were in need of treatment: the glass needed to be cleaned, the textile element washed, the crevices vacuumed of mould and insects, the paper stabilized, and the cracked wax filled and stabilized. All of this had to be done with minimal contact to the fragile hairwork, which was in relatively good condition despite being slightly chewed by insects in some places, but brittle with age.

A treatment proposal was developed and approved by the Musée Acadien de Caraquet before proceeding. First, Stubbs-Lee cleaned the glass dome with vinegar and then used a surgical scalpel to remove hardened dirt. She then dry-cleaned and removed a layer of purple chenille yarn that encircled the graveyard scene. It was extremely dusty and been infested with mould and insects.

Memento Mori 5Memento Mori 6Left to right: NBM Conservator Dee Stubbs-Lee dry-cleans the chenille in the crevasse with vacuum and dental tools; adult carpet beetle carcass and larval casing found during examination and cleaning.

The chenille was then wet cleaned. Before submerging the fabric in water, Stubbs-Lee conducted a spot test with warm distilled water in an eye dropper to make sure that the purple dye would not run. Then it was immersed in a bath of warm distilled water and a mild conservation detergent. Distilled water is used in conservation treatment because it contains fewer impurities, such as metal particles, which can damage an artifact over time. After being washed, the chenille was pinned out and dried.

Memento Mori 7Memento Mori 8Left to right: the chenille submerged in distilled water and a conservation detergent; the chenille pinned out so that it would not shrink while drying.

A number of fragments of paper inscribed with parts of names were found within the artifact. Unfortunately, missing sections and poor condition of the paper meant these could not be restored, but they were carefully documented and retained for research.

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Photo: inscribed paper fragments being examined under the microscope.

Stubbs-Lee then went about stabilizing cracks in the large wax cross. Some time since its construction, the memento mori had been exposed to extreme fluctuations of temperature: heat, which partially melted the wax, and cold, which likely contributed to the cracking.

“In conservation we try to use materials similar to the original because it reacts the same way to the environment”, said Stubbs-Lee. The exact composition of the original wax was unknown, so one of Stubbs-Lee’s aims was to fill in the cracks with a material that was stable but slightly softer than the original wax. This way, that any future damage would be absorbed by the new materials, not the original artifact.

“Whenever I put a fill in an artwork—in this case the wax—you want to make sure that the adhesive or the material that you put in there is more vulnerable than the original,” she said. “That way, if something is going to let go then it’s going to be the new material, not the original material adjacent to the repair. Stronger adhesives, for example, are not always better.”

Stubbs-Lee used dental tools to fill the primary crack with surgical cotton, a sheet of sterilized cotton manufactured for medical applications, but useful for a variety of applications in the conservation lab. The cotton filling will be easy to remove in future, if necessary.

“One of the guiding ethical principles of conservation work is the idea that everything you do to alter an artifact should be permanently reversible in the future,” she said.

Stubbs-Lee then covered the cotton with a layer of orthodontic wax, gently pressed into place using tweezers. The wax was covered with a layer of silicone covered Mylar (a clear polyester film) and then touched with a warm tacking iron on low heat to make it flow into the crack.

“I had to warm the wax just enough to slightly melt it and have it flow evenly into the area I was filling, being very careful to not also melt the adjacent original wax of the artifact,” she said. “The silicone coated Mylar will not stick to the wax, and creates a totally smooth surface for molding the wax. I then used a variety of small tools and my fingers to shape the wax into the same profile as the original artifact.”

Memento Mori 10Memento Mori 11 and 12Clockwise from left: Detail showing a large crack in the wax cross before conservation; positioning surgical cotton fill in the large gap; softening wax infill using tacking iron on low setting.

As a final part of conservation treatment, Stubbs-Lee made recommendations for future care and handling of the memento mori, including recommendations about light and temperature.

“A key part of conservation work is the cleaning and repair of pieces. That is an important part of what we do,” she said. “It’s often what attracts conservators to the field — but conservation is really much more holistic than that. A lot of our job is predicting all the factors that put an artifact at risk of damage and figuring out what we can do to make those things less likely to happen.”

The conserved memento mori can be seen at the Musée acadien de l’Université de Moncton from October 7, 2015 to April 17, 2016.