By: Mike Wong
My name is Mike Wong and I’m the Chief Scientist for the third leg of the Canada C3 expedition. I’m working with three other scientists: Paula Piilonen, Ben Sutherland and Yann Côté-Nadeau. We have over 20 projects on this expedition, which were submitted by some of the top scientists working at the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian Hydrographic Service, the Vancouver Aquarium and many universities across the country. Here is a small peak at what we are working on.
A Unique Chance to Look at Canada’s Biodiversity
A big part of what we want to do is to survey the biodiversity of Canada. We want to know more about the plant and animal life that are native to our country, both on land and in the ocean. While we know a lot about large species such as bears and deer, there are many other species, including many algaes and plankton, that we know very little about.
The advantage of conducting research on the Canada C3 expedition is that the ship will be travelling to many locations where environmental samples have never been collected before. Canada is very large, and it is made up of many, many different types of ecosystems. For example, on Leg 3, the Anticosti Island and the Mingan archipelago have ecosystems which are very different from those in other parts of Quebec.
Surveying the Distribution of Microplastics
Another project that will be conducted right across Canada looks at microplastics in sand and sediments of coastal areas.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are under 5 mm. The majority of them come from consumer products such as toothpaste, facial scrubs and detergents. These have been recent additions to the mass usage of plastic. After their use, they find their way into our rivers, lakes and oceans.
Measuring this occurrence has become a major scientific priority, because some studies have found these microplastics in fish and shellfish. If this is happening on a regular basis, what is the potential impact on these organisms? What is the potential impact on us, who are consuming these fish and shellfish?
At every stop of the Canada C3 expedition, we will take samples that will be sent to Peter Ross at the Vancouver Aquarium for analysis. We don’t know yet if we’re going to find microplastics in some of the remote locations. Soon, with these samples, we will be able to determine the occurrence of this new pollutant in Canada’s ecosystems.
What is Environmental DNA ?
The analysis of environmental DNA is a relatively new technology that has been developed in the last decade. Using extremely sensitive analytical procedures, scientists such as Kristi Miller-Saunders and Kim Howland are now able to detect the DNA in the water from different species. In other words, instead of having to catch the specimens, we can verify their presence by looking at the traces they leave behind! During this Canada C3 expedition, we will be collecting water samples and preparing them before they are sent to the laboratories of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the University of British Columbia. By the 15th leg, scientists will have a good collection of samples and will be able to see what species are occurring in these ecosystems. Perhaps even more interesting will be to locate the DNA of species that we don’t expect to find there, such as invasive species that come from other continents.
Samples for Canada’s National Herbarium
The scientists at the Canadian Museum of Nature have contributed a very large project to the Canada C3 expedition. Every place we stop, we set up a quadrat of 10 by 30 metres and collect plant specimens, ranging from grasses and ferns to shrubs, mosses and lichen. They are then labeled, sampled for DNA analysis and prepared for submission to the National Herbarium at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
We try to get several samples of each species to be able to share them with experts from all around the world. If you’re studying specific species of plant, you may wish to contact the museum to see what is already in their collection.
Diatoms: the amazing tiny algae
Diatoms are microalgaes – tiny little creatures made of silicon, found in all types of water. They are extremely sensitive to changes in water condition including temperature and chemistry. In a way, we can look at environmental changes in water just by looking at the diatoms.
Diatoms are also incredibly important because they are the primary producers of food for higher level organisms. They also produce oxygen as well as absorb carbon dioxide that’s in their environment. They’re very important organisms in Canada, yet we know little about them.
At the Canadian Museum of Nature, Paul Hamilton’s research is focused on diatoms. We are collecting water samples with diatoms from both fresh and seawater. Every time scientists of the museum go into the field, Paul gives them a sophisticated sampling tool called a turkey baster along with sample bottles to collect diatoms from all over Canada. It’s fun to come back home and hand these samples to him knowing that no one has ever collected diatom species from that part of the country before!
Once again, because the Canada C3 expedition will be travelling to all of these unique places, we’ll be able to determine the initial occurrence and distribution of these microalgaes right across the three oceans of Canada.
Mike Wong is a scientist and a manager with over 15 years of experience with Environment Canada, and 15 years with Parks Canada. He now contributes to the work of the World Commission on Protected Areas of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the oldest and the largest conservation organization in the world.
Paula Piilonen is a Research Scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the head of the Mineralogy Section. She’s been working for the museum for over 15 years.
Ben Sutherland is a postdoctoral fellow at both the University of British Columbia and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He focuses on molecular ecology.