Cougar pelt among secrets prowling nature museum warehouse
This is part of a series called Hidden Treasures that will run for several more weeks this summer, taking a look at what museums in the National Capital Region have in storage. We'll post a new story every Wednesday, and you can find them by visiting the CBC Ottawa website.
Long before Canada was a country, before the U.S. civil war broke out, and before Queen Victoria began her rule, an eastern cougar stalked its prey around Trois-Rivières, Que.
Today its thick pelt and skull are housed in a grey steel cabinet inside a Gatineau, Que., storage facility, along with the rest of the Canadian Museum of Nature's vast collection of items the public rarely gets to see.
The eastern cougar specimen was collected in 1828 by a long defunct organization called the National History Society of Montreal, which later donated it to the Ottawa museum in 1913.
Kamal Khidas, the nature museum's curator of vertebrate zoology, says there's a lot of present-day science that can be done with the decades-old specimen.
Cougars — sometimes called mountain lions or pumas — are virtually extinct in eastern Canada, though isolated reports of eastern cougar sightings persist.
If one is ever found, the 190-year-old pelt and skull could provide a useful comparison.
"It has a historical value and a scientific value," Khidas says. "It was used for DNA analysis. That is why it has a very high scientific value."
But the cougar is just the tip of an enormous iceberg. The museum's storage facility has row after row after row of steel cabinets and shelves housing fossils, bones and pelts from a wide variety of creatures.
"We have about 14 to 15 million specimens here that we preserve in this facility," Khidas says. "From this collection we select a very tiny fraction to display downtown."
The Gatineau facility is opened once a year for an open house, but the rest of the time the collection sits in the dark, waiting for the researchers who need it.
While the museum is an important educational tool, a lot of people don't know it operates an essential research facility, which is why they hold onto such a large collection.
"We have a good facility here that helps in preserving for many centuries," Khidas says.