Adventures in botany, on Earth and Mars
By Mike Foster
Tucked away in forestland on the borders of Gatineau Park, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s sprawling 76-hectare Natural Heritage Campus houses some 10 million specimens, everything from mammoth bones to meteorites.
Paul Sokoloff (MSc ʼ10), senior research assistant, botany, for the Canadian Museum of Nature, leads the way through corridors and laboratories to one of 42 collection rooms. He opens one of the hundreds of cabinets that hold cardboard folders of dried plants. When he rattles off the Latin name, Saxifraga oppositifolia, it sounds like a Harry Potter spell.
It is just one example of the more than one million plants preserved at the National Herbarium of Canada, some of which date back to 1766. Each file includes the crispy wisp of a plant and a label that states where and when it was collected, who was there and what the surrounding habitat looked like.
“I kill plants for a living,” Sokoloff jokes. In June 2016, he and a team of researchers collected and pressed around 800 plants in Arviat, Nunavut, an Inuit community on the western shores of Hudson’s Bay, under the watchful gaze of armed monitors looking out for polar bears. The team was there at the request of Nunavut Parks and Special Places, which hopes to establish a new territorial park in the area. It was Sokoloff’s sixth expedition to the Arctic.
Impact of climate change
Sokoloff says meticulously cataloguing plant diversity in the Arctic is one way to monitor the impact of climate change. It will also help park managers decide how to protect plant life as sites are opened up to tourism.
“Arviat did not have a lot of collecting prior to us going there,” he said. “Ours was the first comprehensive inventory of everything.” Day in, day out, he and other researchers from the museum — expedition leader Lynn Gillespie, lichenologist Troy McMullin, research associate Geoff Levin and uOttawa graduate student Samantha Godfrey — scoured every square centimetre of the terrain.
They found a few surprises, including the northern bog orchid and the coralroot orchid, which are normally found in the boreal forest, and two species of carnivorous plants that eat mosquitoes, the common butterwort and the hairy butterwort.
One highlight of the trip was the connection with Inuit elders and the local community. The team stayed at the Nunavut Research Institute’s bunkhouse in Arviat and was helped by field assistant Ruth Kaviok, who is from the community.
“We really got to know the people,” Sokoloff said. “Elders told us what they know about plants and their traditional uses.” Labrador tea, not surprisingly, is used to make tea. Other plants have medicinal uses and some just smell nice. The museum team will provide the community with a full scientific inventory, which will be cross-referenced with Inuit names and uses for the plants.
In addition to pressing specimens, examining their DNA and cataloguing, Sokoloff also blogs for the general public and helps design exhibits. He was a content developer for the Arctic section of the Landscapes of Canada Gardens on the west lawn of the museum in Ottawa, which tells the story of Canada’s plant life.
Clearly, Sokoloff is happy with his career choice. He came to uOttawa’s Faculty of Science to pursue a master’s degree supervised by Gillespie, whom he would later work with at the museum. His thesis examined Fernald’s milkvetch and determined that it was not a rare, endangered species but, rather, a variation of an existing species.
“It wasn’t until I got to the University of Ottawa that I realized I could study plants, travel to amazing parts of Canada and get paid to do it!” he said. “Not two weeks after I started my grad degree, I was on a plane headed to Newfoundland to study my first plant species. I haven’t looked back since.”
The Martian botanist
Sokoloff is also a science investigator for the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station. In 2014, he spent two weeks living in the Utah desert with five other scientists from France, Russia, the U.S. and Canada in a simulated space module. He wore a space suit and collected lichens. Today, he continues to advise the crew of a new three-month mission, which began in October.
“That is my fun side project, being the Martian botanist,” Sokoloff said. “I taught the latest crew how to conduct an in-depth lichen survey. Once they are done collecting all the samples, they will send them here and together we will identify them and publish a paper. We’re learning more about how to explore Mars while exploring planet Earth.”
Even though he has already travelled far in the name of botany, the sky’s not the limit for Sokoloff. If ever there were a manned mission to Mars…
“I like adventure. I applied to the Canadian astronaut program. They put out a call for applicants earlier this year, so I threw my name in the hat. I’m still in it so far!”
Paul Sokoloff during a botany expedition to Cunningham Inlet, on the north coast of Somerset Island, Nunavut, in 2013. Photo: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature