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Scientists and students team up to keep eye on the environment

Graham Larose © Canadian Museum of Nature


Shalini Chaudhary installs a camera, which is used to monitor birds, mammals and human activity on the museum's property.   

By Graham Larose, August 23, 2017

A summer program in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s “backyard” is training students in the rigours of fieldwork, and teaching responsible environmental stewardship in the process. 

Since 2009, Noel Alfonso, senior research assistant and museum fish expert, has mentored a rotating group of summer students. They monitor habitats at the museum’s 76-hectare property around its national research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec.

The Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP) collects species and does research on the museum’s property, in order to provide better stewardship of the surrounding land.

“I’ve gotten really good feedback from students because we’re working in an institution where there’s massive amounts of expertise, you can learn a lot, and I encourage that learning,” says Alfonso.

The program evolved from an initiative to ensure the ecosystems on the museum`s property stayed healthy after the construction of its Natural Heritage Campus in the mid-1990s.

Each summer, students collect daily samples and record observations to monitor populations of the property’s plants and animals—from insects, to clams, to algae, mosses, trees and birds. The students also learn about and apply common fieldwork techniques, such as setting traps to monitor and collect beetles and spiders. Their findings are compiled into annual reports that record the overall species diversity and health of the ecosystems on the property.

Graham Larose © Canadian Museum of Nature.


Noel Alfonso sets up a stake in a pond where the students will monitor populations of Herrington’s fingernail clams (Sphaerium occidentale).

Francesco Janzen is a post-graduate student who has spent three summers working at the museum, including some time as a volunteer. This is the first summer he has been formally employed with the EMP. He says that working with the program offered a way to keep his field skills sharp between his Master’s degree and his biology PhD program, which he will start this fall at the University of Ottawa.

“I think my time with the EMP gave me the experience to be an attractive hire by my Master’s thesis supervisor,” says Janzen. “The fieldwork was a lot more rigorous than I was used to, but I knew all the techniques I needed.”

Shalini Chaudhary is an undergraduate student in biochemistry at the University of Waterloo. She says that working with the museum’s Environmental Monitoring Program is a way to round out her understanding of biological interactions by looking at them from an ecological and environmental point of view.

“It is often very easy for scientists from specific disciplines to become isolated from one another,” she says. “One thing the museum does very well is to foster an environment of learning and curiosity. This encourages scientists from various specializations to come together and pool their interests to generate a complete picture of the natural world.”

Noel Alfonso hopes that, along with providing students the tools they need to further their education, the Environmental Monitoring Program can also set an example that will extend beyond the museum’s 76 hectares.

“I think that this program could be a really good model for government agencies and large businesses,” he says. “If they want to be responsible stewards of the land that they hold, this is a ready-made framework for them.”

Facts about the museum`s property around its Natural Heritage Campus

·         Studies have recorded about 23 species of mammals, 148 species of birds, 14 species of fishes, 423 species of vascular plants and 149 species of mosses and liverworts on the property;

·         There is a diversity of habitat types, including cedar forest, mixed deciduous forest, swamps, meadows, maple dominant forest, streams, ponds, vernal pools, and more;

·         A few threatened and endangered species in Quebec occur on the property, including the butternut tree (Juglans cinerea), the chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica), the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), and the western chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata).