Categories: Entertainment

Putting nature within reach

SOBERING COD – This replica of an Atlantic cod measuring 140 centimetres (55 inches) and weighing 32 kilograms (70 pounds) represents a typical fish that existed by the billions before its population collapsed.

Never in the history of biodiversity has there been a ladybug this big, and yet there it is, measuring three feet from its antennae to the butt end of its elytra, the hard and round shell that extends out into the forewings. Usually these bugs are less than two centimetres long.

This is the monstrosity that greets viewers of the Musée Héritage Museum’s new exhibit. Hands On Nature: Discover Biodiversity offers guests the chance to learn about different aspects of biodiversity, including lessons about the genetic makeup of various species, descriptions of animals and their habitats, and explanations of how species are related and interact.

“We like to bring in natural history exhibits from time to time. Part of our mandate is talking about the world that we’re in,” explained curator Joanne White. “We saw this one a while ago and thought it would be really neat. There’s some fun hands-on things to look at it in drawers, flip over questions and things like that.”

Biodiversity, according to the text on the display panels found around the show, is defined as “the variety of life found on Earth and the interactions between all living things. Biodiversity is crucial for the health and survival of our planet as we know it.”

The exhibit comes from the Royal Ontario Museum but the lessons in biodiversity are universal, with a focus on Canadian biodiversity.

“Knowing about biodiversity is like knowing about good personal hygiene,” said Miles Constable, a member of the Big Lake Environmental Support Society. “If you don’t know about it you can’t do anything about it.”

“It’s just creating an awareness of the diversity of things in nature and our place in that and what we can do about it and be aware of,” White continued.

The display cases tackle subjects like the country’s forest regions, food webs, non-native species, habitat destruction, conserving Canada’s biodiversity and endangered species. That big ladybug presides over the presentation on the diversity of all kinds of living things.

“Not life size!” emphasizes the informational card, making sure you realize that you haven’t been shrunk down to minute proportions.

The display makes a point about the diversity of different genuses. The ladybug’s size, relative to the other samples, is proportional to the number of invertebrate species. The bug looks like it would topple off the leaf that stands next to it.

There are more than 1,286,000 species of invertebrates, we learn, and only 270,000 plants. A scaled-down model of a northern pike, barely 10 centimetres long, indicates that there are only 24,000 fish species. Mammals appear at the very bottom with only 4,600 species.

Cod and aliens

There are some larger lessons to be had here, Constable said. Hands On Nature could be considered as important adjunct programming for any primary or secondary social studies or science class. There are even applications towards developing social consciousness.

“Children are literally our future citizens. They need to know about concepts like biodiversity so they can make informed decisions in the future, and they can affect the behaviour of adults, like parents, now.”

The stories that are told in this exhibit are dramatic, such as that of Canada’s cod stocks.

“In the 17th century, cod were reportedly so dense that you could hardly row a boat through them,” the exhibit states.

The cod population was devastated by a collapse of fish stocks in 1992. It went from approximately 2.5 to 3 billion in number during the early 1960s to approximately 0.01 per cent of that size by the early 2000s. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. A 500-year-old fishery was shuttered.

Cod used to be plentiful and huge, sometimes as big as 45 kilograms. In the years just before the collapse, the average cod weighed 4.5 kilograms.

White said this is one of the many reasons she wanted to bring in this exhibit.

“It does cover a wide range [of topics]. It’s about the relationships between various animals and the food webs … as well as our place in that chain.”

It’s a complex chain, for sure. Never before would I have guessed that

the American toad is native to Canada while the Canadian thistle is not. Who names these things?

Non-native species and endangered species have a noticeable presence at the exhibit.

“The exhibit talks about some of the alien creatures that have come into North America, either they’ve been brought in by humans from other places or have hitchhiked on ships.”

Readers need not be concerned about alien creatures. The word alien simply refers to a species that is not natural to a geographic area.

We learn the names of a few dozen sample species of animals and plants that can be considered aliens. Some of them have exotic names like the Asian long-horned beetle, some of them are quite recognizable like the problematic purple loosestrife and Norway rat.

Some of them are downright surprising, however. Like the honeybee. The species originated in Africa but was introduced to this continent starting in the 1500s to help with agriculture.

Cats too are considered non-native species. They arrived from Europe via settlers in the 1700s. Today, scientists estimate that they kill approximately 100 million birds in North America.

Another display focuses on endangered species. It doesn’t actually show any animals, only consumer products made from animals. It’s called Choose souvenirs with care and offers visitors a lesson from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as CITES.

“These are things that we need to take care of and be aware that some of our products might be made from endangered species, especially when we’re travelling. Why is the Hawksbill sea turtle endangered? Because they make trinkets out of its shells in various places.”

There are other items on display that are made from tortoise shell, crocodile leather, bear paws and ivory.


Hands On Nature: Discover Biodiversity

Opens Tuesday, April 1 and runs until Sunday, June 8.
There is a family drop-in event running today from noon to 3 p.m. Children can make their very own Treasure Book to collect specimens and record observations from nature walks, camping trips or just from the backyard. Admission is by donation.
For more information on this program, call the Museum or email curator Joanne White at joannew@artsheritage.ca.
The Musée Héritage Museum is located at 5 St. Anne St. (St. Albert Place). Call 780-459-1528 or visit www.MuseeHeritage.ca for more information.

Scott Hayes: Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.