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A Century's Worth of Natural History Specimens Enter the Digital Age

Enbridge-funded Indigenous youth internships at the Canadian Museum of Nature will accelerate international access to records and data

A Century's Worth of Natural History Specimens Enter the Digital Age

Enbridge-funded Indigenous youth internships at the Canadian Museum of Nature will accelerate international access to records and data

Published 12-20-22

Submitted by Enbridge Inc.

A beaver skull, note card describing it and scale measurement.
A beaver skull, recovered in Alberta's Jasper National Park in 1930, is part of the Canadian Museum of Nature's digitization project.

Out from the depths of the collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature, natural history specimens are ready for their close-up.

The nation’s natural history museum, based in Ottawa, is undertaking a major project to digitize over 14.5 million of its collections that document biodiversity and geodiversity, mostly within Canada. Once completed, the online records will live on indefinitely for researchers, scientists and the general public to access.

“These records are critical components of the permanent scientific record and help us document biodiversity’s distribution over time and space,” says Jeff Saarela, vice president of research and collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “Much of what we know about biodiversity today is based on collections like this one.”

In 2023, two Indigenous youth will embark on 16-week internships to capture images and upload records from the museum’s biodiversity collections. About 25% of the collection has been digitized to-date.

“There’s a lot of work left to do,” says Saarela.

The museum’s specimens, some collected more than a century ago, represent many types of organisms: amphibians, fish, birds, insects, plants, mammals, lichens, mosses, reptiles, fossils of animals and plants, and more.

The two Indigenous youth internships are set to be based out of the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus located in Gatineau, QC. The science facility has about 50 permanent staff and several associate researchers, all of whom provide key contributions to the museum’s research and collections work.

Enbridge’s Fueling Futures program supports sustainability projects that help improve, grow and nurture our environment. By providing a $36,000 grant to the Canadian Museum of Nature, we’re funding these Indigenous youth internships in 2023.

Students will focus first on recording specimens from areas in the Prairies. The work is far more sophisticated than simple data entry, as students receive training to generate high-quality images for three-dimensional objects like bird and mammal skins.

“There’s a lot of technical skills that go into getting a really good image of specimens that aren’t flat,” says Saarela. “We use a technique called stacking, which involves taking many different slices of images at different focal lengths and using software to make one picture that’s fully in focus.”

Students involved in the museum’s internship program are generally biology and biodiversity majors. Saarela says student opportunities don’t begin and end with their projects—the internships help these students open up career pathways and develop professional networks within the museum’s community.

“It’s really a win-win for everybody.”

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