The century-old skins, skulls and specimens inside the Collections Room at Algonquin Park live like little hermits in the basement of the Visitor Centre, stunningly preserved and rarely seen by anyone except park naturalists and visiting scientists.
Yet every now and again, the doors swing open and the public is invited to visit this treasure trove of natural history dating back 50 to 100 years.
Preserving natural history records
“Part of our job is to collect natural history records so these tours are a great way for visitors to go behind the scenes to see exactly what that involves and why it’s so important,” says Rick Stronks, Chief Park Naturalist at Algonquin. “For someone like me with a naturalist background, it’s just the coolest room.”
Many of the older samples in the Collections Room speak to life at Algonquin Park during a simpler time, when specimen collection involved just that – literally collecting what you could and storing it away for posterity, not really knowing what future mysteries it may reveal. There were no digital cameras, no DNA analysis kits or even the preservation protocols we have today.
Preservation has come a long way
“The collection room is a reminder of how far naturalists and scientist have come,” says David LeGros, Natural Heritage Education Leader at Algonquin. “By having access to these specimens today, we can then go back and analyse them using the data analysis tools we have now. This would have been impossible back then. What makes the specimens so valuable is that each is accompanied by a data label, which is critical; as the old saying in museums is ‘A specimen without data is just a corpse’.
“Data takes us to a time, a place and a specific collector and really gives us vital information about that time, that specimen, that species and the park as a whole,” says LeGros.
What to see inside the Collections Room at Algonquin Park
- Taxidermy – animals that have been professionally “stuffed” and preserved. Artists often come to study the anatomy of the animals to improve the accuracy of their paintings and drawings
- Animal specimens – Visitors can flap owl and raven wings to hear the differences in sound, which reveals their flying patterns and habits. A 50-year-old study of Grey Jay specimens reveals why food supplies are dwindling (stored food spoilage due to warmer temperatures) and therefore their endangerment
- Bones and skulls – Bones and skulls from park animals unveil mysteries behind animal habitats and mortality. Naturalists can also learn a lot about an animal just by studying their teeth
- Insects – There are more than 7,000 insects at Algonquin Park. Studying them reveals much about park eco-systems and biodiversity. Visitors can see specimens up-close to discover the diversity of insects..
- Plant specimens – Perfectly preserved plant samples at the Herbarium dating back decades also reveals bio-diversity in the park. Visitors can learn tips for preserving their own plant samples at home or in school and why it’s important. University researchers often visit the Herbarium for DNA samples
Helping to prevent future problems
“Because we have a responsibility to collect natural history records, the collections room is a place where we can do long-term monitoring and further understand the important part we play in preserving protected spaces,” says LeGros “So for issues 50 to 100 years from now like climate change or invasive species that will likely continue to challenge us, we can use the data to react and hopefully get ahead of the problem to work towards finding solutions.”