Ottawa: a visit to The Canadian Museum of Nature

While in Ottawa, I spent a couple of engrossing hours at The Canadian Museum of Nature. I don’t have a picture of the entire building (built around 1905), but here’s one from Wikipedia. The incongruous glass addition was put on between 2004 and 2010 to replace the original stone tower, whose weight was causing the building to settle into the local clay:


The building is festooned with Canadian-themed animals and decorations. Here’s a carved beaver, one of Canada’s two National Animals (the other is not a moose or a polar bear).


A wolf carved on the staircase inside:


And a moose-themed stained glass window:


Our first stop was the ongoing insect exhibit, with both live and pinned insects. I of course favored the live ones, especially the series of giant beetles. I have no records of what these three are (they’re all huge), but I’m sure readers can identify them. They were all nomming too—and their food looked like banana.


Another huge beetle with horns:


And a big golden one. I have no scale for these, as they were in glass cases, but they were at least two inches long.


The large creature below is a Malaysian jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). It’s famous for laying the largest eggs of any insect (up to half an inch long, or 1.3 cm), and Wikipedia adds this information:

Females reach a length of 25 centimetres (9.8 in), one of the world’s heaviest bugs, and the males a length of 10 centimetres (3.9 in). The females of this species are very aggressive and much larger, wider, and brighter-colored than the male. The female is lime green and has short, rounded wings, however their short length doesn’t allow them to fly. The males are much smaller and a mottled brown colour. Both sexes have small spikes on their upper bodies, more numerous in the female, who also has very large spines on her hind legs that can snap together as a scissor-like weapon.

This one is clearly a male.


Here’s a female (from Wikipedia); note the spikes:


And both sexes; the sexual dimorphism is clear:


Back to my photos: this one is of Mesohippus, one of the “transitional forms” in the evolution of horses. It lived 30-40 million years ago in what is now North America, and had three toes, having lost one from its ancestor. (Modern horses, of course, retain only the single toe, as the two side toes were lost.)


Its relative size from the link above:


And a shot I took of the toes. You can see that they’re already reduced, and wind up as the “splint bones” on the side of the leg of modern horses.


As I said, the toes became the split bones, a vestigial feature (prone to fracture and injury) attesting to modern horses’ descent from multi-toed ancestors:


On to whale evolution and the transitional forms. The Museum had a nice series showing whale evolution, and here’s one putative ancestor, Pakicetus, discovered and analyzed by Phil Gingerich and colleagues. It’s considered a “basal” cetacean because it has certain features of the ear found only in later and modern whales.


Once thought to be semi-squatic, Pakicetus is now thought to have been largely terrestrial, perhaps spending a bit of time in the water. Here’s a reconstruction:


A bit later in whale evolution we get Ambulocetuswhich could clearly walk and swim. It’s thought to have been mostly aquatic, lurking like crocodiles in the shallows to strike animals on land. The rear limbs show modifications for movement in water:

Here’s a reconstruction of Ambulocetus:


The most recent fossil whale in the museum (beside the modern one shown below) is that of Dorudon, which was fully aquatic and lived about 40 million years ago. I didn’t take a photo of the entire fossil, but here are the rear legs, clearly vestigial (unconnected to the rest of the skeleton), but just as clearly the remnants of rear limbs:


Here’s a skeleton from the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main:


And a reconstruction (from Wikipedia), showing the tiny rear limbs sticking out from the side. Modern whales have even smaller remnants of those limbs (see below):


Here are all three stages of leg evolution in one shot, in chronological order starting from the bottom:


Here’s a cool dinosaur fossil with head armor and spikes that point both backwards and forwards. I’m sure either Matthew (a dino aficionado) or a reader can identify it, as I’ve forgotten:


Reconstruction of a feathered dinosaur, probably a theropod:


And here’s a species that wasn’t a felid but shows convergent evolution with the “true” cats. I took a photo of the sign below so I could remember it:


And here it is: Hoplophoneus, a member of the extinct family Nimravidae in the Carnivora. It was the size of a leopard and lived in North America about 35 million years ago. 


A reconstruction of Hoplophoneus from Prehistoric Animals:


I was amused to find that the French word for “raccoon” (which of course is a New World mammal) is “washing rat”. It is not a rodent, but a procyonid.


Finally, the Museum had an entire skeleton of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the heaviest animal known to have existed in all the history of life. It weighs about 180,000 kilograms (multiply by 2.2 to get pounds), or about 200 US tons. I photographed its vestigial limbs, which are unconnected to the rest of the skeleton:


Next post: Canadian noms!


  1. Dominic
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Styracosaurus… the dinsaur?

    Stag beetle & rhinocerous beetle?

    • Dominic
      Posted February 29, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      A dinsaur being dinner for a dinosaur! Sorry…

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 1, 2016 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Styracosaurus was my call too.
      Not so sure about the theropod. It’s definitely a theropod, but I can’t see the forelimbs well enough to tell if it’s Mononykus, or if my eyes are playing tricks on me.

      I have no scale for these, as they were in glass cases

      A comment filed under “things to remember if I ever end up curating a museum”

  2. Mark R.
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the virtual museum tour. Nice shot of the blue whale btw.

    I agree with Dominic above, the dinosaur looks to be a Styracosaurus.

    Looking forward to the noms post.

  3. Sarah
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink


  4. Posted February 29, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The Museum of Nature is neat – and the building is pretty wacky. Though I wish the “permanent” exhibit changed more.

  5. Markus Koebler
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    thx for coming to Canada in the winter. We drove in from Montreal and enjoyed a terrific presentation + a signed kindle.

  6. rickflick
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Looks like the place to visit! Love those old bones.

  7. Billy Bl
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    The place sure has changed. I worked there a few decades ago when the “Museum of Natural Sciences”, as it was misnamed back then, shared the building with the Museum of Man, which got moved across the river to Hull, which was renamed Gatineau, and was renamed the Canadian Museum of Civilization (American spelling), which was renamed the Canadian Museum of History (which I suspect is actually a museum of Canadian history). I got out just in time. A coworker who was into rock climbing used to practice on the outside walls.

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    The stag beetle looks to be the giraffe stag beetle (Prosopocoilus giraffa.
    The other large horned beetle is a species of hercules beetle, with the great name Dynastor napoleon.
    I don’t know the other large golden beetle, but it reminds me somewhat of a kind of goliath beetle.

    • John Scanlon FCD
      Posted March 2, 2016 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      All the photos and museum mounts of Goliath beetles I’ve seen had zebra stripes, but that was my first thought.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted March 4, 2016 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      I think you mean Dynastes sp. Dynastor napoleon is a butterfly

  9. Posted February 29, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I was going to comment that “Figure 1” appears mislabeled, but a little searching shows that I was wrong. The joint just proximal to the metacarpal bones in a human would be the wrist. Here they label it the knee. Apparently, it is called a knee in a horse, even in the front limbs. In fact, it seems that the next joint up from there is still called the elbow. Weird. I didn’t bother looking at the hind limbs, but now I wonder. If they call the ankle, the knee. What do they call the knee? Another elbow?

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 29, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I know, that threw me, too. I can understand using “knee” as a common name in everyday parlance, as that’s how most people would visualize it, but I’d have thought it would be labeled differently in a diagram like this! “Wrist,” at least, if not “Carpals” or similar.

    • Posted February 29, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      this “ankle/wrist-as-knee” (mis)nomenclature regarding quadrupeds has always bothered me …

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 29, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        I suspect we’re not alone in feeling that way!

        The trouble starts, though, by calling the first set of limbs the front legs. But OTOH, calling them arms sounds ridiculous! Maybe it wouldn’t have, though, had they been called that from the very beginning. (But then the “quadruped” designation would be wrong. 😀 )

  10. Hempenstein
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    This seems to be the original version of the building.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 29, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Thanks! Shame to lose that tower but surprising the rest of the building isn’t having similar problems!

  11. Posted February 29, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    The German name for the raccoon is “Waschbär” washing bear.

    I’ve always loved visiting museums, so much to see and to explore, more than one visit was almost always needed.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 29, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Made me curious about the provenance of “raccoon”:

      raccoon, c. 1600, arocoun, from Algonquian (Powhatan) arahkun, from arahkunem “he scratches with the hands.”

  12. harrync
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I was sure the other national animal was the loon – it’s on the $1 coin, after all.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 29, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      I would never have guessed the second national animal, possibly because I’ve never heard of it. (Have most Canadians, I wonder?)

      The British list is interesting. 😀

      • Peter
        Posted February 29, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think most Canadians realize that Cheval Canadien is our ‘other’ national animal. Most would guess the moose or loon. I have ridden several Canadien and they are sturdy, smart, even-tempered animals.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 29, 2016 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the additional info!

      • Posted March 1, 2016 at 5:25 am | Permalink

        I had NO idea that the Canadian horse had such an elevated status!

  13. Posted February 29, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff, thank you!

  14. Diane G.
    Posted February 29, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Great tour! Thanks!

  15. Posted March 1, 2016 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    I would like to shair this with you guys.

  16. Posted March 1, 2016 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Great post! Thanks.

  17. Mike
    Posted March 1, 2016 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    The Horned Dinosaur looks to be a Sub Set of the Ceratopsians called Styrachosaurus

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