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14.6 million and counting!

Tallying up our natural history treasures

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Dr. Jean-Marc Gagnon with Judith Price (now retired) among some of the museum's invertebrate collections. 

Many folks are surprised to learn that our museum—like all major museums—only has a small percentage of collections on public display at any time.

At our Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec, the number of specimens safeguarded in drawers, in jars and on shelves amounts to millions. After all, the Museum’s history of fieldwork and collecting dates back 150 years! Determining just how many treasures we have in our trove is easy when counting fossils, minerals, birds, and mammals, but becomes extraordinarily more challenging when it comes to a tightly packed jar of parasites, for example—not to mention microscopic organisms such as diatoms!

Recently the Museum undertook the sizeable task of calculating a more accurate record of specimens in our national collections. For some time, the estimate had hovered around just over 10 million, but many of our Research and Collections staff knew this number had to be higher. Dr. Jean-Marc Gagnon, who curates the Invertebrate Collections and is currently the section head of Zoology, took on the challenge of getting to the bottom of it. The discovery? The Museum can confidently boast 14.6 million specimens and artifacts, from very small to, well, T-rex size!

How was this new statistic determined, especially with the seemingly immeasurable number of tiny things that may be pinned, pressed or even preserved in alcohol? In our National Herbarium of Canada, for example, we knew we had well over one million items catalogued. However, if you take into account the fact that each herbarium sheet often bears more than one example of a given plant, and each moss or lichen packet may contain several intermixed species, the number of specimens could be a whopping 2.8 million. And that’s before you even start thinking about the massive amount of microscopic algae stored in vials and on slides.

Invertebrates also present a challenge. Zooplankton is arguably impossible to count (so we didn’t!). A jar stuffed with many tiny marine creatures is referred to as one “lot”, so in this case, also considered one specimen. In the end, the number of mollusks, crustacea, parasites and annelids (worms) in our collection totals 5.76 million. And of course we have a proud collection of insects—1.36 million of them!

In the case of diatoms, we’ve counted and identified under the microscope lens around three million, but in reality we likely have billions.

Also in our 14.6 million tally: 62,000 rocks and minerals, 83,600 vertebrate fossils, 753,000 fish, 251,000 reptiles and amphibians; 65,000 mammal skins, skeletons and taxidermic mounts; and 143,000 bird specimens, including some nests and eggs.

And last but not least, we have some artefacts in our archives—277,000 of them—mostly photos, but also paintings and decoys… all part of Canada’s natural history legacy which we are so carefully preserving for centuries to come.

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