The rich ocean environments along the coast of British Columbia are a veritable treasure trove for museum invertebrate biologists. Bordered by one of the longest, most complex coastlines in the world, and represented by a mosaic of unique marine habitats, BC offers vast and diverse seascapes ideal for scientific exploration. Each year researchers from the Royal BC Museum collect and study thousands of marine invertebrates, from sponges to snails to sea squirts. The collective knowledge that stems from such work chronicles the story of this extraordinary province and connects us to the world by way of our ocean.
Over the past century, the RBCM has assembled an immense collection of marine invertebrates, carefully curated to reflect the remarkable diversity of species and communities living along our seascapes. Today the Invertebrate Collection contains more than 65,000 ‘lots’, with each ‘lot’ representing a distinct species from a single collecting event. In studying the collection, museum researchers have estimated that more than 5,000 species of invertebrate (and perhaps as many as 10,000) inhabit the marine waters adjacent to British Columbia. Each species – indeed each specimen – in the collection offers a profound narrative about life within our ocean that connects us across place and time.
Several specimens in the collection connect us to places where few others have ventured. An exquisite Bubblegum Coral takes us on a field trip to explore deep-water communities, a Hot Vent Tubeworm transports us to an offshore hydrothermal vent, and a delicate Cloud Sponge allows us to discover first-hand the giant, ancient glass sponge reefs. Other specimens, representing the many non-native species that arrived on our shores during the past century, link us to places beyond our borders. But perhaps the most cherished specimens are those that are most familiar, connecting us to our home. A Giant Pacific Octopus, Gumboot Chiton, Giant Acorn Barnacle, and Sunflower Star – all remind us that BC is home to several superlatives, and that our ocean is astonishingly unique.
In addition to place, our collections also tie us to both past and future worlds. For millennia, marine invertebrates have been highly prized as sources of food, tools, trade, and adornment. While today, species such as Northern Abalone, Wampum Tuskshell, and Dungeness Crab are widely considered iconic species of the Pacific Northwest, other historically valued species such as the Olympia Oyster have been nearly erased from our collective memory. By showcasing our extraordinary collections, we hope to renew interest in our marine species so that future generations continue to appreciate their importance in this world.
Despite centuries of exploration and scientific inquiry, our museum researchers are still making important discoveries. Newly described species and distribution records are forever improving our knowledge of the invertebrate richness and diversity that exists within our ocean. Now with the advancement of molecular techniques, we are also able to characterize genetic uniqueness and diversity, and use such information to better understand historical and contemporary processes of gene flow and population connectivity. While such discoveries may seem somewhat academic, the knowledge that we gain about marine biodiversity is fundamental for becoming better stewards of these living treasures.
Indeed, as we learn more about our natural world, it is becoming increasingly apparent that humans are inextricably connected to the ocean. Today as in the past, we rely on the ocean for food, for trade, for inspiration, and for solace. Our treasured collections help tell this valuable story: we live among a remarkably rich and diverse world that in turn enriches our lives. And vital to our future is a better understanding and improved stewardship of these living seascapes.
Cite “Discovering Diversity: Specific to the Pacific”
Dr. Melissa Frey, “Discovering Diversity: Specific to the Pacific, ” Curious Quarterly Journal 001 (2014), accessed August 3, 2020. https://curious.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/discovering-diversity-specific-to-the-pacific/