Museum exhibit gives X-rays a new purpose

A Canadian Museum of Nature research scientist is showing the world that X-rays don't just belong in hospitals. Noel Alfonso is using X-rays to create a glowing Arctic fish exhibit that will be displayed this January and contribute to the first-ever guidebook on Arctic fish.

The exhibit will show 16 enlarged and backlit X-rays in total. Roger Bull, the project manager and a research assistant at the museum, says people will enter the dark gallery and be drawn in by the strange fish skeletons, giving the exhibit a “slightly eerie and clinical feel to it.”

There will be X-rays of solo fish, as well as compositions that tell stories about their life histories: a halibut chasing down some lanternfish for its dinner, a school of herring traveling quickly through the water, some Arctic cod feeding below the surface of the Arctic ice.

And one particular X-ray will show a carnivorous dragonfish with a whole fish inside its stomach.

The new exhibit is entirely funded by the museum and Alfonso hopes people will see a side of X-rays and science they don’t usually expect.

“Normally research results can be a little dry,” he says. “But here, they’re beautiful – it’s the interface between art and science.”

Alfonso says the exhibit reflects the McLeod Street museum’s strong interest in the Arctic.

The museum currently has the largest collection of Arctic fishes in the world. And Canada has the longest Arctic coastline on the planet, even though 95 per cent of Canadians live in a narrow band to the south.

“It’s a real shame that it’s easier to fly to Florida than go up to Iqaluit,” he says.

For this reason, Alfonso is contributing to the upcoming book, Arctic Marine Fishes of Canada, including a full chapter about flatfishes, to highlight Canada’s more “northern” natural resources.

“There’s a great book on freshwater fishes of Canada, a great book on Atlantic fishes of Canada and a great book on Pacific fishes of Canada,” he says. “But there is no single reference for Arctic fishes – we need to fill this gap.”

The book will be the first of its kind to catalogue everything from the Arctic char, a common food delicacy, to the boa dragonfish, a frightening creature with large jaws for swallowing its prey whole. The book is expected to be published in 2015 and will contain sketches of at least 217 Arctic fish species, according to the chief organizer and editor, Brian Coad.

Unfortunately, it’s too expensive to send researchers to the Arctic every year, so building up collections for this book has taken decades, says Coad.

“If you want to find fish around Ottawa, all you have to do is drive to the river and catch them,” he says. “But in the Arctic there are no roads, there are hardly any people and out at sea you need a big ship that costs millions a day to do the same kind of work.”

Alfonso says it all began back in 1958, when the museum’s first fish finder, Don McAllister, began studying specimens in the Arctic. McAllister was Alfonso’s old mentor and is largely responsible for the museum’s incredible Arctic fish collection today.

After lifelong dedication to the museum, McAllister retired in 1997, only to die four years later. Alfonso says the book will serve as a memorial to McAllister because the majority of its content is based on his original work.

“It really should have been Don McAllister’s book because he was the true expert,” he said. “But he wasn’t given enough time to do that, so we have to try to honour his legacy.”