Posts Tagged ‘beaty biodiversity museum’

Today I had the privilege of attending a memorial to celebrate the life of Dr.Rex Kenner, curator of the Cowan Vertebrate Museum (now housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum), who passed away earlier this year on January 23.  It was held inside the peaceful sanctuary of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver.

I’ve always considered Rex one of my foremost mentors.  When I was doing my undergrad in biology at UBC, he was one of the few scientists I met who really seemed like a “real” biologist.  So many times you meet people who major in biology, but they are only concerned with biology on the small scale – genes, metabolic processes and the like.  Even myself, who majored in genetics.

Rex was the kind of scientist who cared about the big picture – the ecology, the biodiversity and the nature of the species he studied.  Every time I came to the museum to volunteer or dropped by his office to say hello, he’d have an interest tidbit to share about a specimen he was working on or a project he was involved with.

Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered today that Rex’s undergrad and Ph.D work was in the realm of physical chemistry!  More surprises followed, as I learned about his work with the Taiwanese community, his contributions to the many nature groups throughout the Vancouver area, his monthly rounds of bug sampling and bird watching, and the origin of his collection of brightly hued sweaters.

Many speakers rose today to share their memories.  Each one emphasized Rex’s generosity, his contributions to the community, and his passion for the natural world.  I was gratified to see representatives from the Cowan Vertebrate Museum come up on stage to acknowledge and remember his work and his impact on students, staff and researchers.

For myself, Rex taught me an appreciation for biodiversity and a passion for science outreach.  I truly believe that an institute like the Beaty Biodiversity Museum contributes more to our understanding of life and our place on this earth than any of the myriad of minor “breakthroughs” we hear about in the news on a daily basis.  And within these institutions, it’s people like Rex who will inspire people to love science and nature.  I continue to strive to match his example, though I doubt I am half as selfless as he was!

In closing, a few words from the celebration today:

Rex was green before green was cool; didn’t drive a car, didn’t own a home, didn’t need a lot of stuff. He stepped lightly on the earth. We are all better for having known him.

And the parting words:

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

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It’s finally here!

The UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum opened it’s doors today, Oct 16, to the public after a series of tantalizing summer previews.

I was there mid-afternoon and wow, there was a lot to see! Volunteers in red shirts were swarming the area, ready and eager to answer questions from the public. I was gratified to see so many people volunteering for the museum but a part of me was bitter – why did it take UBC so long to bring this museum into the public eye?

The entrance to the museum is the same as during the previews: an awe-inspiring, 360 degree walk around the blue whale skeleton to the lower levels. Once there, rows upon rows of carefully sealed cabinets held the vertebrate, avian, fish, fungi, plant, bug and fossil collections. Each cabinet was labeled with beautiful photographs of the contents, a far cry from the sticker-and-marker approach taken when the specimens were housed in the old Biology building!

And most importantly – the displays!

Many of the specimens that UBC owns were donated from private collections amassed in the 1800s and early 1900s, when it was more popular to have mounted stuffed animals on display. Included in this group are numerous antlered species and a beautiful penguin specimen! More recent specimens are thanks to the diligence of volunteers (like myself in days gone by!) who painstakingly turn dead animals (often road kill or birds who have crashed into glass buildings) into carefully dried and preserved specimens which can be used for teaching, display and research.

Now, interspersed between the cabinets, these specimens are proudly on display. Mounted birds, jars of fish, carefully pressed plants and even fossils, embedded into the floor – all this, and more!

Many activities were running during opening day, including cake cutting, a presentation from Dr. Wayne Maddison, and a scavenger hunt that earned participants a pin to take home.

For myself, my favourite activity was the craft station, where participants were asked to write a message on a maple leaf shaped piece of construction paper. The messages would adorn a wall in the far end of the museum. I dedicated my leaf to the late Dr. Rex Kenner, who worked tirelessly in the museum, maintaining the collections year after year, with UBC cutting the budget, limiting work hours, and generally being the pain in the ass bureaucracy that it is. My leaf read: “For Rex Kenner – It’s finally open!”.

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I squealed like a 10 year old girl today when I found out the news 🙂 The Beaty Biodiversity Museum, located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC, is scheduled to officially open October 16. Finally! They’ve had series of tantalizing “previews” throughout the summer, but this is finally the real thing!

The website suggests that the “treasure trove” of specimens will be available for the public to view on the 16th and 17th. I desperately hope this is true – these gems have been locked away in a dusty wing of the Biology building for far too long! I was disappointed earlier in the summer when I attended the preview and only saw a handful of specimens on display so I’m really crossing my fingers on this!

Hours are 11am to 5pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Mondays and Tuesdays are reserved for research.

Passes are $12 for an adult or $35 for a family. Free for current UBC staff and students!
If you’re a UBC alumni, bring a friend and admission is 2 for 1!

Remember, this is a research and teaching collection – Many of these specimens have been lovingly prepared by volunteers (such as yours truly, back in the day) and over-worked curators (Rex Kenner – I don’t forget you! Your baby is finally open) who make memories from road kill. Be respectful, be ready to learn, and be in awe of the AMAZING diversity of life you will find.

Check out the website! I’ll be there on opening day!

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Saturday was the first of five preview openings for UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum. All five events run 10am to 3pm or 4pm and are free to the public and feature activities for the entire family.

One of the first things I noticed was that UBC has finally figured out that it is damn hard to find anything on campus if you’re not a regular student. (Even today, I encountered a very lost Asian man looking for a building whose name started with “L”. Hmm…) From the bus loop, there were maps and numerous signs directing people to the museum.

The museum is located within the Beaty Biodiversity Centre, a multidisciplinary research institution situated between the Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratories (AERL) and the Food, Nutrition and Health (FNH) buildings. From the road, the whale skeleton is visible – it is a mammoth 25m long and hangs suspended in a giant glass atrium.

Inside, there was a long line up of amateur photographers, families and science enthusiasts jostling for the best view. The whale is visible from a full 360 degrees, thanks to a cleverly designed descending ramp.

25m long blue whale skeleton hanging in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC

At the bottom of the atrium were displays of selected specimens from the various collections housed in the museum, including mounted and unmounted birds (Wilsonia species, flightless cormorant), small mammals (weasels, chinchillas), skulls from various antlered species, an incredibly well preserved turtle, and some GIANT bugs. While impressive, I was a little disappointed at the relatively few items on display. I hope the finished museum will feature more specimens – I saw no pelts (the Vertebrate collection has a beautiful tiger pelt which was donated privately, for example), and very few plant, fish and invertebrate representatives.

Aside from the displays, visitors also had the opportunity to view a movie detailing the journey of the Blue Whale from the East Coast to UBC. One interesting factoid: The whale skeleton actually broke into over 1000 pieces while in transit. When it arrived at the university, museum staff had to reassemble the broken bones!

Outside on the grounds surrounding the museum, tents were set up with family-friendly activities such as bone assembly games, microscope stations, and arts and crafts. All of the stations were staffed by enthusiastic red-shirted volunteers. It was a welcoming atmosphere, with lots of people wandering around, watching, listening and learning.

The next preview session is May 29th, which is also UBC’s Alumni Weekend. It’s free, it’s hands-on, and it’s science celebrating the diversity of life. I would encourage everyone to check it out!

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I was first introduced to jumping spiders during an undergraduate class in biodiversity with Dr. Wayne Maddison at UBC. Dr. Maddison is the current director of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC. His lab studies the phylogeny and evolution of jumping spiders.

Now, to be clear, I hate bugs. With a passion.


Jumping spiders are pretty neat (so long as I never have to be face to face with one…)! They are part of the family of spiders called Salticidae, consisting of over 5000 described species. Many more are undescribed. That is, species are thought to exist which have not been formally named and described in the literature.

The number of species in Salticidae make this family an excellent model for phylogenetic studies. Phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relationships between species using genetic data. Combined with morphological data, phylogenetics helps to unravel the relatedness of different species.

Like many spiders, jumping spiders have acute vision. They are also able to sense vibrations from hairs present on their body. Some groups have evolved elaborate courtship displays which rely on these senses. The example I remember most involved the male spider performing a “tap dance” while frantically waving his front legs in an intricate pattern for the female. Bad dancers are not only rejected, but sometimes killed!

At this point, I thought to include a video clip of a dancing jumping spider but I nearly had a heart attack while looking at spider pictures…

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When I was an undergrad I volunteered the natural history museum on campus.  Now at the time, calling it a museum was a bit of a stretch.  It was an amazing collection of specimens, no one would deny that, but they were all housed in locked cupboards in the recesses of the old biology building.  Worse, they were not even housed on the same floor or even the same wing.  There were fish specimens in the basement, birds and bugs on the top floor… No one knew about them!

I was introduced to the museum during a class on biodiversity, from Dr. Wayne Maddison.  He introduced the class to Dr. Rex Kenner, who ran the vertebrate museum.  Rex showed the class examples of endangered species, extinct species, beautiful animal pelts, exotic insects… It only took one visit to the museum, and I signed up to be a volunteer.

To be accurate, UBC has more than one natural history museum collection – there’s a vertebrate collection, a bug collection, a fossil collection… and so on and so forth.  Rex was in charge of the vertebrate collection.  He was a bit of a bird hobbyist, so my role in the museum was to help prepare bird specimens.  Taxidermy!

From Rex, I learned how to take a dead, bird – usually one who met an unfortunate fate, like flying into a window – and create a specimen which could be used indefinitely for research and for teaching.  Until I became a volunteer, I had no idea that museum archives could be used for research.  But over the course of my time in the museum, I would often see grad students taking measurements, photos, and sometimes samples.

Taxidermy isn’t for the faint of heart, certainly, and I won’t go into the details here.  But I was fortunate enough to work with many beautiful species of birds – everything from Stellar’s Jays to owls to little thrushes.  I was able to hold in my hand a representation of so many species which I never would have seen up close.  Without the museum, I never would have been able to pull back the wing to see the iridescence feathers, nor examined an owl to find it’s “ears”.  And, thanks to the museum, other students and researchers will be able to see, hold and use these specimens as part of their studies and research.

Most exciting is the upcoming public opening of the new Beaty Biodiversity Museum which will finally house these collections!  Gone are the dusty corridors of the old biology building – they are demolishing it even now.

It will be a bittersweet event for me.  For several weeks now, I had planned to visit Rex and extend my congratulations on the move to the new museum.  But I kept putting it off, thinking that I would have all the time in the world.  I received an email a few days ago from his assistant.  Dr. Rex Kenner passed away the previous weekend, only weeks before the museum would have opened to the public.

I’d like to thank him, even if it is a bit late, for all his hard work and dedication to maintaining and promoting the collections.

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