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More than meets the eye

With hollow eye sockets staring blindly into space, the yellowed skeleton of a 9,300-year old bear appears to move, a huge bony claw frozen in mid-air.

With hollow eye sockets staring blindly into space, the yellowed skeleton of a 9,300-year old bear appears to move, a huge bony claw frozen in mid-air.

Standing six-feet at the shoulder and once weighing about 1,000 kilograms, the now extinct giant short-faced bear is the star attraction at the Royal Alberta Museum’s (RAM) new exhibit.

Extremely dedicated to scientific research, she “once spent two of the coldest days” of her life in a Grande Prairie dugout battling -30 C weather while collecting 9,000-year old soil samples that reflected how the landscape had changed through time.

Beaudoin explains that the public is unaware of the amount of scientific study conducted at the museum that is shared with other scholars, institutions and is often instrumental in making policy decisions. And this exhibit pushes the research to the forefront.

The bear, of course, attracts the most attention. At its prime, this lumbering, pug-nosed omnivore was at the top of the food chain, a formidable marauder preying on bison and horses. But a changing climate at the end of Canada’s last glacial period about 10,000 years ago brought about its demise.

As Peter Milot, the museum’s assistant curator of quaternary palaeontology explains, “We went into a warm period, warmer than it is today. Because it was so warm, animals that thrived in a cool environment headed to higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains. In a phenomena where species are restricted to small areas with a dwindling food supply, that’s the key to becoming extinct.”

Today the real skeleton sits at a Utah university while realistic fibreglass cast bones are used in the museum exhibits. Even before Milot put the armature together, a three-month process, he had decided to give the bear “a spa treatment,” rebuilding crowns of damaged chompers worn down by old age. “I wanted people to see and hear it as it was in its prime.”

During the rebuilding, Milot pondered life’s transience on earth. “No species is immune to extinction, and by studying how animals become extinct, we can learn how to better survive in constantly changing environment.”

Dr. Chris Jass, a curator specializing in quaternary palaeontology, is also interested in how animals living in mountain habitats respond to climate change. The veteran spelunker, who feeds off the thrill of discovery, descends deep into caves to find treasure troves of reclusive fossils. The biggest cave deposit he discovered was a cubic metre bonanza containing about 20,000 fossils in Nevada.

Jass is partial to the bushy-tailed woodrat. “Woodrats are notorious packrats and they form big debris piles. They collect sample materials from the local environment. And 20,000 years later we come in and excavate and we can reconstruct past environmental conditions.”

Once field material has been collected, Jass spends days and months patiently sifting through it. “iPods are a godsend, especially when you spend hours going through bags of sediment,” he laughs.

In his display, Joss has contributed the fossils of a vole’s tooth and a pika’s jaw and for comparison paired them with mounted animals from the museum collection. Kids will be enthralled with an interactive push-button scrim that lights up to reveal obscured mountain habitat.

Mark Steinhilber, RAM’s curator of ichthyology (study of fish) instead focuses on the underwater world of ciscoes. His passion is angling for answers and protecting the shortjaw cisco, an endangered species found only in one place – Barrow Lake, an isolated body of water in northeast Alberta accessible only by float plane.

The cisco was thought to have arrived in Alberta from eastern Canada after the last glaciers melted, forming large lakes across the country. Steinhilber has spent years casting nets in lakes around Barrow Lake tolerating swarms of mosquitoes to see if there are more, but he always comes up empty handed.

Completely unique in Alberta, these plankton feeders live in “a sensitive ecosystem that can easily be affected,” he says. If a natural phenomenon such as a predator explosion or hybridization invades the lake, it could wipe out the species.

For him, it’s critical not only to identify ciscoes and understand their evolution, but also to work with Fish and Wildlife in a species-at-risk recovery plan that will hopefully yield a better understanding of their evolution.

And that means keeping an eye on them using underwater cameras instead of netting them. “We’re trying to find new ways of monitoring so we don’t have any impact on them.”

A project that might have a substantial impact on forests is invertebrate zoology curator Dr. Tyler Cobb’s discovery that white-spotted sawyer beetles’ poop re-populates burned out areas faster.

The beetles naturally follow plumes of smoke and burrow through burned bark to lay eggs. The larvae champ through the wood and through their poop reintroduce nutrients to the soil in the form of carbon and nitrogen.

Cobb noticed that the beetles were severely reduced by post-fire salvage logging operations that interrupted their life cycle. Through a series of field and laboratory experiments, he established clear links between the feeding activity and nutrient recycling. “The regeneration was better when beetles were allowed to complete their life cycle. The message is we want the forest to be healthy and we want to better understand and help manage the forest,” Beaudoin explains.

Cutting edge science once again highlights the forest landscape through the northern flicker, a flashy mid-sized woodpecker. In observing this feathered friend, ornithology curator Dr. Jocelyn Hudon believes there is a species in the making.

This speckle-feathered bird is fairly common from Newfoundland to British Columbia. However, in all the provinces east of the Rockies, the plumage coloration on the underside and tail wings is yellow. In British Columbia it displays a salmon pigment.

Only in Alberta do the two meet, breed and produce a hybridized jumble of colour. “This is at the core of biodiversity, how new species are made and what we need to do to protect new species,” Hudon says.

Assistant botany curator Donna Cherniawsky also offers a peek at biodiversity through the coltsfoot, a native plant found in most North American habitats. One of its rare characteristics, although the species has a multitude of different shaped leaves, the floral structure has little variation.

With such an odd combination, the plant classification was ambiguous. While studying for a master’s degree, Cherniawsky used various computer programs to compare, contrast and find patterns. The result was four loose groups.

Beaudoin adds, “2009 was the Year of Darwin. A lot of questions he grappled with, we are still grappling today. We just have different techniques, different ways of getting to things. But the questions remain the same.”

The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located at 12845 – 102 Ave. Visit for more exhibit information and admission costs.

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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