by Lynn Ovenden, FWG Volunteer
On November 2, 13 of our volunteers were treated to a tour of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada‘s plant, fungal and insect collections. In scientific literature, these collections are known by the acronyms DAO (Department of Agriculture, Ottawa) for plants, DAOM (National Mycological Herbarium) for fungi and CNC (Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes).
We began in the Saunders Building, which houses several AAFC researchers who use the specimens in their work. Gisèle Mitrow and Jacques Cayouette showed us the vascular plant herbarium, a room where genera and species are traditionally arranged by classes, in folders, on compactable shelving units. In the folders, are paper sheets, each with one or a few dried plants. Downstairs in the preparation room, Amanda described how plant specimens are dried in a plant press, frozen to kill tag-along insects, then arranged and fastened to a paper sheet.
The label on each collection sheet shows the date, location, collector’s name, initial plant name, and the accession number, e.g. DAO20396. When another scientist uses that collection, for example, to revise the identification or to remove some tissue for DNA analysis, he/she notes this activity on the label; annotations increase the value of the collection.
The DAO collection began with James Fletcher’s 1886 personal collection of 3,000 dried plants. It now contains 1.5 million specimens from about 50,000 mostly North American species. There are 4,000 “types,” i.e., a specimen that was selected to exemplify a species (What is a type specimen?). Overall, the DAO collection is rich in species of agricultural significance, cultivars, pests, and potentially invasive non-native plants. The specimens are actively studied by scientists in Ottawa and elsewhere, via a busy exchange and loan system with other herbaria. The collection is also used to help identify plant fragments submitted by law enforcement and border security officials.
Next, we went upstairs to the fungal herbarium – a chilly room with push-button motorized compacting shelves. The National Mycological Herbarium contains 350,000 dried fungal specimens, which vary from microscopic dots on plant leaves and thin mushroom slices (both of these are stored in paper packets glued to a herbarium sheet) to bulkier mushrooms in cardboard boxes. Scott Redhead and Jennifer Wilkinson showed us a few examples of the diversity in the collection, carefully unwrapping each specimen: dots of a rust species on its host leaves, small boxes containing small brown spheres (puffballs), a polypore that yields an orange dye.
Scott opened one of the exsiccati (a formalized exchange set of dried specimens) from the 1800s, collected by an amateur naturalist in a ribbon-wrapped, book-like binding full of small packets, well-preserved but redolent of whatever toxic dusts were used at the time. The DAOM collection now includes several collections donated by other institutions and individuals such as John Dearness (1852-1954), a remarkable, largely self-taught Canadian naturalist and pioneer plant pathologist. Much of the collection comes from AAFC research programs on plant disease/host relationships in agricultural crops and fungal diversity of national parks.
The fungal collection is arranged in a functional filing system based on traditional morphologic patterns within the different classes. However, fungal nomenclature has been diverging from this traditional system, since mycologists started using gene-sequencing tools to develop phylogenetic relationships. The traditional notion that similar-looking species had a common evolutionary path has not been supported for many groups of fungi. Furthermore, international nomenclature rules now require a single name for both the sexual and non-sexual stages of a fungal species. This will be a significant change for the many species which have had separate names in their different stages.
Donning our coats, we then hurried over to the Neatby Building where we met Owen Lonsdale, one of several curators of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes. The CNC is huge, at over 17 million specimens, including 11,000 type specimens. It reflects decades of exploration and expertise by AAFC on the northern insect fauna and pests of Canadian crops. The dried insects are stored attached to pins in rows, in small boxes, in large wood trays, on shelves, in row after row of compactable units and storage cabinets in the back wing of the Neatby Building. There is also a wet collection for broader bodied critters that don’t dry well: each little jar contains dozens of specimens in alcohol. Every jar and every dry pinned insect bears a label with written information so tiny it is hard to read. We saw battalions of pinned horseflies, gorgeous “charismatic” moths, forlorn mosquitos swirling in amber-coloured alcohol and much more.
We also saw the research library that supports AAFC research and expertise on cultivars, crop pests, biocontrol and biodiversity of Canada. All of our tour guides consider three things necessary for excellence in their service to Canadians: the library, the collections, and interaction with their colleagues.
Ed: Like many things known only to the academic community, the collections are an amazing knowledge resource funded by tax dollars. However, jars of preserved mosquitos aren’t especially trendy for budget makers, so if you get the chance be sure to let your MP know that you value the work done by these groups and the many volunteers who return after retiring to keep our world-class collection healthy! Another great scientific resource that Canadians can access from the comfort of their homes are publications through the National Research Council Canada.