Here is some of what keeps Jennifer Doubt up at night: the thought of a steady drip-drip-drip of water falling from the ceiling, a patch of black mould crawling up a wall or an HVAC malfunction that raises the humidity in her chilly lab to dangerous levels. Most terrifying is the prospect of an infestation of insects – tiny dermestid beetles, perhaps, with their voracious appetites for dried plants – making their way into the metal cabinets that hold the pages comprising her life’s work.
Ms. Doubt’s anxiety began to grow in mid-March, when the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) shut down its 20,400-square-metre research and collections facility in Gatineau, along with its public-facing outpost across the Ottawa River, in the capital’s downtown. That left Ms. Doubt – curator of the CMN’s National Herbarium and its 1.25 million dried and pressed plant specimens – along with the museum’s other curators and research scientists, scrambling to secure their collections.
In all, the CMN houses 14.6 million specimens, less than 1 per cent of which are on display: glittering hunks of gems and the world’s largest collection of radioactive minerals; fossilized dinosaur skeletons, fungi and even pollen; exotic taxidermied birds and racks of ungulate antlers; delicate insect carcasses; crustaceans floating in jars; and cryogenically frozen tissue samples from humongous blue whales and tiny algae.
It’s a trove of data used by policy makers, biologists, climate scientists, NGOs and other organizations worldwide to track how climate change and shifting populations are changing the natural world around us.
“This is a precious resource – we have a lot invested in it,” Ms. Doubt says.
So once a week, the botanist drives across the bridge from Ottawa to Gatineau (stopping each time to explain her mission to Quebec border agents) to scour her lab for potential threats. Her visits are carefully co-ordinated by the museum’s security team to ensure she doesn’t run into any of her equally worried colleagues – among them paleontologists, zoologists, mineralogists and archivists.
The Gatineau facility was built to withstand natural disasters of all kinds. But in the 23 years since the CMN moved its collection here, the place has never been so empty for so long, and with each passing day, the chances of something going awry increase.
At the same time, the museum’s financial situation grows ever more precarious. For each month it’s closed, it loses out on $500,000 to $1-million in ticket sales, with no end in sight.
“We have no revenue coming in,” says the CMN’s president and CEO, Meg Beckel. “The costs, of course, continue.”
Ms. Beckel and her team were arguably more prepared for the shutdown than many other cultural institutions. This past November, they ran through a day-long crisis and business continuity exercise to make sure everyone knew what their roles would be in case disaster struck. No one expected this particular brand of chaos, however – the thinking ran more toward flood or tornado, both of which have hit Ottawa in the past couple of years.
But when word of a mysterious outbreak in Wuhan began to circulate, the crisis-management team started to talk about contingency plans. By mid-February, it was meeting weekly, then daily. On March 13, Ms. Beckel and her fellow national museum CEOs announced they would be closing their doors, the day before what should have been one of the busiest Saturdays of the year – the start of Ontario’s March break. “It would have been glorious chaos,” Ms. Beckel says wistfully.
Instead, the weekend was a mad scramble to close up both the museum proper and the Gatineau facility, which would shut down early the next week.
The herbarium was particularly busy. Ms. Doubt and her team (a full-time lab tech, a handful of students, several short-term workers and 20-odd volunteers) had just received the first of two truckloads of new metal cabinets to house their growing collection of specimens from around the world, the oldest of which were collected by British naturalist Joseph Bank in Newfoundland in 1766. “They’re in perfect shape,” Ms. Doubt says. “Many of us have collected a nice leaf or flower, and pressed it in the pages of a book, but what’s surprising is that they can last hundreds of years – longer than the ink used to print the labels.”
Ms. Doubt’s first priority was to unload and unpack the new cabinets. Then she and her team carefully gathered into folders any newly repaired or mounted specimens that had been left out to dry, and tucked them safely inside (they’ll need to do a major reorganization when they’re back in the lab full time).
After that, all that was left to do was lock the door and try not to dwell on the worst-case scenario. The museum is specially designed to keep out pests, with an outer hallway protecting the inner labs (and plenty of traps, just in case). Still, infestations aren’t unheard of, at least at other facilities – Ms. Doubt’s lab has loaned out specimens before, only to get back nothing but empty sheets of archival paper and some tape. “I feel uncomfortable even mentioning this kind of thing,” she says, “because it’s so scary.”
At the CMN’s National Biodiversity Cryobank, which opened in 2018, director of operations Roger Bull began to put the lab into hibernation mode.
“I like to think of the cryobank as a library of genetic information about the natural world,” he says. “But the books in this frozen library are little tubes of blood and muscle, or envelopes of green plant tissue.”
The cryobank now includes 30,000 samples (and growing – it has space for up to 200,000), some dating back to the 1980s. All that DNA can be used to understand how we’ve evolved over billions of years, identify new species and assess the health of animal and plant populations. “The DNA of an organism is its whole instruction book,” Mr. Bull says, “so this is a huge amount of information.”
To get it ready for shutdown, he had to move a whack of two-millilitre samples from temporary storage to permanent deep freeze in one of the lab’s six stainless-steel cryo units. Each five-foot-high freezer has a 50-litre vessel of liquid nitrogen at its centre and maintains a temperature of -160 C.
“Molecules and atoms are constantly vibrating, but at that temperature, most of the molecular movement is halted, so there’s no low-level degradation,” Mr. Bull says. “The samples are locked in time.”
Just to be safe, he suited up in elbow-length cryo gloves, a heavy apron and a full face shield to top up each nitrogen tank, since the stuff can cause frostbite. Now, even if the power goes out and the generator fails, the samples will remain in deep freeze for nine days. “That’s what allows me to sleep every night,” says Mr. Bull (who nonetheless goes in once a week to make sure all’s well).
At the main museum, meanwhile, head of animal care Stuart Baatnes had to figure out what to do with its live exhibits – including jellyfish, Arctic cod, a slew of freshwater fish, urchins, sea stars, a turtle, spiders, beetles and various other crawlers. Due to physical-distancing rules, only one person a day would be allowed inside the building to feed them and clean their habitats. That’d be difficult with the critters spread out over three floors. So Mr. Baatnes and his team of two consolidated all of them into the central animal-care facility.
There was nothing they could do about the butterflies, though: Since the museum could no longer import caterpillars, they would be left to diminish day by day in their steamy solarium, as their brief lives came to an end.
To keep the rest of their collection fed, Mr. Baatnes had to find new food suppliers, because they could no longer hit up different shops in search of crickets, minnows, fish pellets and fresh produce. (They were all set for mealworms, however, which they breed themselves in a terrarium filled with bran flakes.)
Since the shutdown, Mr. Baatnes’s crew has been coming in on a rotating schedule to handle critter care. He even had to rope in his supervisor to help out. “He’s had to dust off his animal-care stuff for the first time in 20 years,” Mr. Baatnes says. “Everybody’s trying to do their part.”
So far, there have been no major hiccups – a filtration system broke, but luckily, they had spare parts on hard. But it’s eerie being in that huge place virtually alone. “In the galleries, there are none of the sounds from the interactives, so it’s very quiet,” Mr. Baatnes says, “and the only illumination comes from the aquariums. It’s kinda cool.”
The rest of his job these days is decidedly less so – he spends his time at home leading virtual team meetings and bringing the lab’s records up to date. “It’s the less glamorous part of the job,” he says.
Mark Graham, the CMN’s vice-president of research and collections, is trying to see the bright side of the shutdown. “It’s way easier to collect things than to document the things you collect, so there’s an endless amount of work to do to keep the collection up to date,” he says. In fact, nearly two million of the CMN’s specimens haven’t even been logged yet, let alone digitized so they can be accessed by researchers around the world.
So scientists such as Ms. Doubt are seizing the opportunity to play catch-up. As part of the herbarium’s digitization project, the team uploaded more than 16,000 plant images and their accompanying labels to Zooniverse, a citizen-powered science portal that draws on regular people to help input data on all sorts of cool projects. Ms. Doubt’s initial project, Expedition Arctic Botany, asked users to input basic information from each sample’s label: who collected it and when.
But once the lockdown started, they quickly ran out of stuff to input. “There was a huge rush on our project because so many people were at home,” she says.
She and her lab tech have spent the intervening weeks posting more projects focused on Arctic lichens, uploading images and crafting questionnaires for Zooniverse’s citizen scientists to fill out. Then they have to clean up those data, which can get complicated. Some users enter the collector’s first name first, followed by the last name; others do it the reverse. There are typos, and some of the handwritten labels are faded and hard to read. “If there are three that match,” Ms. Doubt says, “you can be fairly certain it’s an accurate transcription.”
As for Mr. Bull, he spends his days writing grant applications, editing manuscripts, tackling year-end finances and performance reviews and inputting data of his own. The geologists who oversee the CMN’s collection of 60,000-plus minerals have been sending samples to the electron microscope lab at the University of Ottawa – deemed an essential service and run by senior museum researcher Glenn Poirier – so they can continue receiving data to analyze.
Mr. Graham is thrilled with all this productivity, and he’s expecting to see an explosion in research papers published once the pandemic ends. It’s happened before: When the CMN moved into the Gatineau facility back in 1997, it took a year to get everything set up, which meant staff couldn’t work in their labs. “We were more productive that year than in many other years before that,” he says. “It’s a great chance to catch up.”
Mr. Graham himself finds he can be just as productive in five hours at home as a full day at the office. “But I miss my colleagues,” he says. “It was easier to be connected. Now, I have to be very deliberate reaching out.”
Perhaps the weirdest part of all this is that he’s set to retire in a few weeks, after 30 years at the CMN. That means that when the museum finally opens back up – whenever that might be – he won’t be there. “I won’t see anyone,” Mr. Graham says. “The pandemic has really made it strange, in the end.”
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