The Canadian Museum of Nature is part of an international movement of natural history museums that are digitizing their archived collections of plants and animals.

The Ottawa museum has a collection of three million specimens and, so far, a million have been entered into an online database for the benefit of researchers and the general public.

"Essentially every museum and every institution that has a collection is part of this digitization movement," says Mark Graham, the museum's head of research and collections.

Scanning specimens

Canadian Museum of Nature technician Laura Smyk prepares to scan a plant specimen. The digitized archives will be put online for the use of researchers and the general public. (Canadian Museum of Nature)

"This is a time in our history where information is hugely useful en masse in a digital way," he adds.

Along with its name, each specimen — no matter how large or small — has a tag attached to it with two pieces of information: where it was found and when it was found. The nature museum is entering each of these data points and creating a web portal that will go live this year.

Jennifer Doubt runs the museum's herbarium, which houses the best collection of Arctic plants in Canada, including specimens that were collected in the late 1700s. The collection also has plants that were collected by Sir John Franklin on one of his earlier Arctic expeditions before the doomed mission in 1845.

Because the plants are flattened when they are preserved, they can be digitally scanned.

"This is a national resource and anybody who is interested in looking at plants from the Arctic or anywhere in Canada can browse through our cabinets," she said. 

Web portal on the way

Doubt can't wait for the web portal to launch.

Specimen drawers

These specimen drawers of assorted crustaceans are part of the museum’s collection of invertebrates. The specimen data for these have been put into the online database as part of the museum’s digitization project. (Jean-Marc Gagnon/Canadian Museum of Nature)

"Collections online mean that our door is open anytime. As soon as we start serving that information it just makes everything easier for our clients."

Among those to benefit is Heather Kharouba, whose doctoral thesis at the University of British Columbia was on butterflies. She used the digitized records to determine how the insects' life cycles have been affected by climate change.

"We can detect this all across Canada, and for all these species, I couldn't have done it without these digitized records," said Kharouba, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Davis. 

"Digitization is important, because otherwise we wouldn't have the resources to deal with these records, because there are just so many of them," she told the CBC.