Curators at the Canadian Museum of Nature have always known that only a fraction of their vast collection of specimens — preserved animals and plants, fossils and many other items gathered during more than a century of research across the country — is on public display.
But now, officials at the McLeod Street museum know exactly how vast that collection is. After a recent inventory-taking project, the museum can confidently boast that there are 14.6 million specimens in its holdings at the main museum and its natural history research collection stored at a repository in Gatineau.
The Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau opened in 1997, the same year the museum calculated its collection size for the first and only previous time.
“They counted a collection of 10 million specimens, but the problem is we didn’t know exactly how we came up with that number, so we wanted to know if it was still accurate,” said Jean-Marc Gagnon, who curates the invertebrate collections and is currently the section head of zoology.
Gagnon took the lead in the counting project, which started in April. He said the specimens found vary between the size of microscopic zooplankton and the skeleton of the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale.
As part of the collection, the museum counted 83,600 vertebrate fossils (including dinosaurs), 753,000 fish, 251,000 reptiles and amphibians, and 143,000 birds. The number of mollusks, crustacea, parasites and worms totals 5.76 million, and the museum’s insect collection includes 1.36 million individual critters.
According to Gagnon, this collection is a valuable resource for research, and maintaining an updated record of its diversity will be essential for future researchers and scientific projects.
“Part of the reason is to be able to express to the government and to the public how much we have here and how important it is,” said Gagnon. “But also for our kids in the future, as they’ll be the ones studying it, and they’ll be the ones trying to save the planet.”
Paul Hamilton, a botanist and researcher who specializes in freshwater ecology, said the counting process can be tedious, but is significant for looking at big global issues like climate change or environmental pollution.
“The counting is worth it because we cannot only get an idea of species, but we can come up with environmental impacts,” said Hamilton. “For example, we can tell indirectly that the climate is becoming warmer because the algae are growing more. There is a record, so we can go back and look at climate change and water quality over time.”
Mark Graham, vice-president of research and collections, said the new number is important for the museum’s reputation.
“The bigger your collection means that you’ve been collecting a long time or you’re very active, said Graham. “The larger the number, the more established your institution is.”
According to Gagnon, owning a collection of 14.6 million specimens helps compare the Canadian Museum of Nature to other natural history museums around the world.
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago with 30 million specimens, and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, with 62 million, are references used by staff to highlight the growing potential of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collection.
“It’s not like some other collections where once you’ve collected everything you have everything,” said Graham. “This is a collection that has to be maintained and updated.”
As part of this ongoing process, the museum is designing new exhibitions such as the upcoming Arctic Gallery which will display some of the researchers’ new findings during the recount process.
“When the designers tell me they want to talk about certain specimens in the Arctic, I’m going to go into the collections in Gatineau and look at the samples that we can use for display,” said Gagnon.
The Arctic Gallery will open in June 2017 as part of the Canada 150 celebrations.