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Research In the Field: Our Scientists at Work

© Canadian Museum of Nature

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Dr. Michel Poulin uses an ice corer to collect an ice sample near Resolute in spring 2011.

Posted May 15, 2013

From dinosaurs in Alberta and in China to marine algae in the Arctic, there are many lures that draw Canadian Museum of Nature scientists into the field. Here's what some of the museum's experts will be up to over the coming months as they collect specimens, study habitats and discover species—all contributing to our knowledge of biodiversity, both in the past and the present.   

Return to Resolute

Dr. Michel Poulin is back at a familiar Arctic locale this May: the Resolute research base on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut. The marine algae and phytoplankton expert already has numerous expeditions in Canada’s North under his belt, where he has worked with large teams of scientists on icebreakers and at land-based research stations.

Algae and phytoplankton are the first link in the polar food chain, providing nutrients for other marine organisms as part of the food web. Over a few weeks, Poulin and his colleagues will collect and study communities of microscopic algae within and under the sea ice from about 25 sites. It's all part of a scientific project led by Dr. Christine Michel with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and builds on work the team conducted at Resolute in spring 2011—which Poulin vividly described in a series of blogs.

Overall, the research team wants to study the geographic extent of these algae communities and the species variation. Over time, the data can be used to better assess the impact of climate change on the region and the Canadian Arctic as a whole.

Rookie in the Field

Jordan Mallon © Jordan Mallon

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Jordan Mallon and his field team will be combing terrain similar to this in June as they search for dinosaur fossils.

The museum's newest palaeontologist, Dr. Jordan Mallon, will break new ground as he leads a field expedition for the first time. For three weeks in June, he and his colleagues will be fossil hunting north of Medicine Hat, Alberta along the South Saskatchewan River. The young researcher joined the museum in February, fresh from having completed his Ph.D in 2012 at the University of Calgary.  This field project will unearth new material for his research into taphonomy—the study of what happens to an animal after it dies and before it becomes fossilized. The area to be explored is believed to have a number of fossil sites, including a bone bed.   

Assisting Mallon will be museum collections technician Margaret Currie and possibly some graduate students. "The main focus of this trip is to examine sediment beds, measure geological sections in the area and get some details on fossil deposits," explains Mallon. The trip will also require some “door-knocking”, to befriend the landowners on whose property the fossils might be found. The meetings will help smooth the way for future collecting, once some good deposits are found.  

Transferring Arctic Knowledge

Lee Narraway © Students on Ice

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Kieran Shepherd leads a fossil workshop on the west coast of Baffin Island during the 2011 Students on Ice expedition.

Each year since 2001, Canadian Museum of Nature scientists have lent their expertise as members of the Students on Ice (SOI) expeditions to the Arctic. This year, Curator of Paleobiology Kieran Shepherd and senior research assistant Roger Bull will join the expedition team of around 75 youth on their voyage to Greenland, northern Baffin Island, Bylot Island and Cornwallis Island from July 14 to 28.

Bull will be a first-timer with Students on Ice, but brings some good Arctic fieldwork experience. Notably, he has been part of three major botanical expeditions led by the museum in the Northwest Territories and on southern Baffin Island. He also coordinated the Flora of the Canadian Arctic exhibition now on view at the museum.

Shepherd is returning to the SOI team for the second consecutive year. He is keen to show how the Arctic was once a much different environment that supported all kinds of now extinct creatures including dinosaurs, mammals and invertebrates. If weather cooperates, he looks forward to collecting at some fossil deposits on Bylot Island, an area last visited by museum scientists decades ago.

A year abroad in China

Palaeontologist Dr. Xiao-chun Wu is wrapping up a year of study and fieldwork, mostly in China. As an expert on ancient marine reptiles, Wu has long been sought for his experience in describing newly uncovered fossils, especially in China where headline-grabbing discoveries continually pop up.

Over the past year, he has collaborated with colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (some being his former graduate students) to describe a number of intriguing fossils. Their study of a "turtle-like aquatic reptile" proved to reveal an entirely new group of marine reptiles from the Triassic Period (about 250 to 225 million years ago).

During his busy research sabbatical, Wu has published three new scientific papers. His successful time abroad culminates in May and June with a trip to western China to study dinosaurs from the early Cretaceous and late Jurassic periods; to southern China to examine Triassic marine fossil deposits; and finally to Taiwan to study a newly described marine reptile at the National Science Museum.