Research Can Get Messy

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6StudentsVolunteersResearchers from the New Brunswick Museum and other organizations conduct a whale necropsy near Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

Sometimes research can get a little messy. At least when you are conducting an animal autopsy, called a necropsy, on the largest mammal on the planet.

That’s what Mary Sollows, the New Brunswick Museum’s Curatorial Technician in Zoology, and Madelaine Empey, a Student Zoology Assistant, discovered when they joined a team of researchers from the Marine Animal Rescue Society, Dalhousie University, the Atlantic Veterinary College and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to study a young female blue whale found floating dead in the ocean near Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

The blue whale, which measures up to 34 metres long and can weigh up to 150 tons, is an endangered species. There are only about 600 to 1500 blue whales left in the North Atlantic.

Threatened by pollution, climate change, declining food supply and collisions with boats, the deck is stacked against the blue whale’s survival. That’s why it was so important for researchers to examine the blue whale’s body to find out why it died and to collect samples, including those destined for the New Brunswick Museum’s marine mammal research collection, one of the largest in Canada.

7Carcass2ndDayThe Blue Whale carcass on the second day of the necropsy.

In The Thick Of It

The blue whale’s body was pulled to shore where the necropsy began. If your image of an autopsy comes from an episode of the television show CSI, well, this was nothing like that.

To dissect this enormous mammal required an excavator, dump trucks and industrial cables. It starts with the whale being “flensed” – a process where the blubber is peeled back by high-tension cables. Think peeling a banana. (We’re sorry to leave you with that image!)

Credit: Marine Animal Response Society

A large blood clot was found among the thoracic vertebrae, a possible clue as to the cause of death. One theory was that the whale became trapped under ice and drowned.  However, it may takes months before a conclusion can be reached, and given the advanced state of decomposition, a definitive answer may never be known.

Deep in the thick of it, literally, was the New Brunswick Museum’s Mary Sollows. She was joined by her (apparently extremely supportive) husband Ken Sollows. The pair focused on recovering the baleen plates that hang in the mouth of all non-toothed whales. Baleen is made of keratin (the same material that makes up human hair and nails), and blue whales have hundreds of plates that hang from the upper jaw providing a sieve-like function that strains food from the water.

Meanwhile Madelaine helped remove the tough, fibrous, tissue that surrounds the bones of the vertebral column that extends into the tail. She then worked with others to separate the various elements of the backbone.

91Maddie BaleenThe New Brunswick Museum’s Madelaine Empey collecting baleen samples.

Vital Research

It was tough, messy and smelly work, but Mary and Madelaine collected important samples of blubber, muscle, baleen and bone. While the New Brunswick Museum has an extensive collection of whale materials, these are the first New Brunswick Museum samples from a blue whale.

93MaryTissueSamplesMary Sollows, with cryovials of frozen Blue Whale tissue, stands by the NB Museum frozen tissue collection. This specialized freezer can house up to 30,000 samples at -80o C.

These kinds of samples are vital for research. For example, baleen samples from other whales   have been used to study aging, contaminant loads, feeding ecology, movements and more.

Once back home at the New Brunswick Museum Collections and Research Centre, Madelaine and Mary spent a day cleaning and preparing the collected samples for the research collection. While air-drying, the baleen will be monitored for mold and insects and, once dry, will go through a freeze/thaw/refreeze cycle to ensure any insect pests are dead.

Blue whale muscle and blubber samples are a rare commodities for researchers, so the samples collected will become part of the Museum’s frozen tissue collection, an archive available  for future research.

The loss of an endangered young blue whale is heartbreaking but researchers from the New Brunswick Museum and other organizations took the opportunity to learn more about the life of this beautiful creature to help scientists better understand and protect this species.

It’s part of the Museum’s ongoing research into our natural environment.

With information from Madelaine Empey, Mary Sollows and Dr. Donald McAlpine.

To learn more https://newbrunswickmuseum.wordpress.com/2017/06/22/new-brunswick-museum-participates-in-blue-whale-necropsy

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Exploring BiotaNB 2016 – Common Species

While Aaron Fairweather was searching for an as-of-yet undescribed species of ant, two other members of the day’s Mount Sagamook expedition, Dr. Stephen Clayden and summer student Victor Szymanski, were compiling a collection of all the plant species in a defined area near the summit.

Unlike their ant-collecting colleague, Stephen and Victor were collecting common, or well-known, species such as shrubs, small trees, even blueberries, among other plants. It’s what Stephen calls a “representative collection of things.”

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Victor Szymanski collects a birch specimen.

Although the species they were collecting are relatively well-known, it fits well with the Biota mandate of building up a collection that documents the diversity of flora and fauna in a particular region. And in this particular area on Mount Sagamook, the species are very diverse. Stephen is able to quickly point out that there could be as many as 25-30 species of lichens on the rocks immediately in front of him.

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Stephen Clayden points out the many lichen species (25-30)
located in the area immediately surrounding him.

There can also be new knowledge gained from common species. This new knowledge can be gained by comparing populations with those from other areas. Modern techniques with DNA can also yield new insights. Just because they are common species does not mean that they don’t still have secrets to reveal.

Once specimens are collected, they are placed in a plant press and brought back to the lab where they will dry out and be used for further study.

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Victor places a specimen in the plant press, to be brought
back to the lab and dried for further study.

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”.

 

 

 

NBM BiotaNB 2015 Finds: Identifying and Preserving Mushrooms

One of the New Brunswick Museum’s major annual events, the 7th annual NBM BiotaNB, has drawn to a close. Every year, researchers from across Canada and the United States join NBM scientists in one of New Brunswick’s 10 largest Protected Natural Areas (PNAs) to study the area’s biodiversity for a two-week period. BiotaNB targets each PNA for two years in a row: the first year’s event takes place in early summer and the second year’s event takes place in mid-August.

This was the NBM’s first year braving the mosquitoes and adventurous terrain in the Nepisiguit PNA and among the researchers’ many interesting discoveries was a variety of mushrooms.

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Sometimes mushrooms can be a little too interesting. Above, Amanda Bremner, Curatorial Assistant for Botany and Mycology, holds a mushroom belonging to the genus Amanita. This specimen was found in Mount Carleton Provincial Park, near Nepisiguit PNA. It is among the most poisonous mushrooms in the world: and while most poisonous mushrooms will only make you sick, this one can actually be deadly. Touching it won’t hurt a person, but ingesting it will kill an individual within three days.

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Finding mushrooms in the field is one thing: it’s a whole other challenge to determine a mushroom’s species. Pictured above is a mushroom belonging to the genus Coprinus. To help determine its species, part of the mushroom cap was placed on a slide in hopes that it will leave a spore print on the glass. This Coprinus has left an excellent print, meaning that the spores are mature: they can be measured to help determine the species of the mushroom. The colour of the spores can also be used to help identify the species. This makes one realise how a single find can take up hours of a researcher’s day to examine.

Spore prints can also be made at home on paper. Because one can’t know whether a spore print will be dark or light, put half of a mushroom cap on white paper and the other half on black construction paper so that at least one side of the spore print will be visible. Keep the mushroom on paper in a cool, covered place overnight (eg. in a plastic container in the shade) and you should have a spore print in the morning.

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Amanda has a number of other tricks up her sleeve to help determine a mushroom’s species. Above is a mushroom of the genus Russula. This specimen has a sticky cap, which helps narrow down the possibilities of its species.

The colour of the cap can also be a helpful clue. Because different people might use various words to describe the same colour, Amanda compared the colour of the mushroom cap against the colours in a book to ensure that her description of the colour is the same as other researchers would use.

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Chemicals can also be used to determine the species of a mushroom. One by one, the above chemicals were added to small pieces of the Russula in a well plate. Each of the chemicals made some species of mushrooms turn colour, while other species remained unchanged. Depending on which chemicals make the Russula turn colour, the species of the mushroom can be narrowed down.

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It is evident that, one piece of Russula has begun to turn red, while another has turned a dark green and a third is beginning to turn a deep brown. This helps narrow down the groups of species to which the Russula could belong. Unfortunately, though, these results didn’t reveal the exact species of the mushroom.

IMG_0111 drying rack Cantharellus

Finally, mushrooms were placed in a drying rack overnight for preservation in the NBM Collections and Research Centre. Pictured above is a mushroom of the genus Cantharellus after a night in the drying rack, ready to be added to the NBM Collection!