Quirks & Quarks

Rain, spiders and bears are all part of discovering Canada's backcountry biology

To study life on our planet, you have to know what's out there. That means going to remote places and searching for plants and animals to discover what's living there and how those things live together. 

Leaving no stone unturned as scientists establish a baseline for further studies

Biologist Darren Copley from the Royal BC Museum takes stock of various wildlife species as part of a team that ventured to the remote Rocky Mountains in eastern British Columbia. (Molly Segal)

Originally published on October 20, 2018.

Discovering new species in the Canadian Rockies

To study life on our planet, you have to know what's out there. That means going to remote places and searching for plants and animals to discover what's living there and how those things live together. 

That's exactly what a team from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria did in the summer of 2018. They, along with freelance science and environmental journalist Molly Segal, set out for the B.C. back-country. Their objective was to take stock of the various species living on Mount Whitford in the Hart Mountain Range in a remote eastern part of British Columbia accessible only by helicopter. 

Botanist Ken Marr says there's a lot we don't know about the distribution of plants in British Columbia, especially in remote alpine regions. 

"We're dozens of kilometres away from where anyone else has made what we call a 'comprehensive collection.' So it's just part of documenting the life in the province and looking for patterns on the landscape," said Marr.

"Once you start looking more and more, you find that some plants that were thought to be rare aren't so rare, and some plants are thought to be rare really are rare, but you can only make that judgment call if you've gone to as many places as as you can reach." 

Establishing a baseline for future research

On a similar expedition in 2017, these scientists added more than a dozen species to the British Columbia list and even discovered four species new to science. 

"On average since we started in 2008, about 20 new records every year were added to the B.C. list," said arachnologist Robb Bennett. "And we get new records (...) never before seen in Canada and never before seen in North America."

Bennett finds a tiny spider about 2 millimetres long, which he collects and drops into a vial of ethanol. Once they get back to Victoria, he'll send that spider and some of the other specimens the team discovered on this trip to a genetics lab to determine if it's a new species. Then it'll get stored in the Royal BC Museum's collection, so that one day, it could be resurrected by a curious scientist doing some research. 

Claudia Copley, the Royal BC Museum's Entomology Collections Manager, pins insects she and her team discovered in the remote regions of eastern British Columbia's Rocky Mountains. (Molly Segal)

"So we do the baseline inventory and then eventually we get that stuff worked out and then we can start asking ecological questions," said Bennett.

Each field expedition helps capture a picture of an ecosystem at a place in time. And after a while, those snapshots start to tell stories.

"You don't know what questions will be asking from the specimens a 100 years from now, 200 years from now," said Claudia Copley, the manager of the museum's entomology collection. "So we collect for the future and the specimen provides proof the particular animal was in a place at a certain time. And it really forms the foundation for the conservation work that people do."

Racing against climate change 

In this remote meadow up on Mount Whitford, there are large patches of snow and ice mixed among the wild flowers. That snow and ice are important to the ecosystem, but are quickly disappearing. 

Climate change is a major threat to northern alpine areas like this one. It's one of the reasons the scientists are so eager to get a snapshot of these ecosystems — because they might soon be gone.

"The species occur at these elevations are adapted for these cold temperatures. And if they live at the top of the cold mountain now there's nowhere left for them to go when the climate around them warms up," said Copley.

"So they won't have options in terms of their future. And they can't just move to a more suitable habitat because they're there trapped in those high, high elevations that are only available in certain places. And British Columbia has got a lot of high places, but they're the most severely affected in our province by climate change." 

Royal BC Museum botanist Ken Marr collects alpine plants from Mount Whitford in the Hart Range of Rocky Mountains in eastern B.C.. (Molly Segal)

Species the team collected here may already be affected by climate change, but it's hard to know since nobody's explored this area like this before. So it's important to understand what's living here now — so we can tell how much more it has changed in the future.

"And so there really will be potentially loss of species and we don't know which ones and we don't know how many," said Copley. 

Without doing this kind of baseline work, we may never know what we could lose.