Wild Discoveries
New Species Found in the Oil Sands Region
By Elyse Williams, ABMI

If you live in the Oil Sands Region (OSR) of Alberta—comprised of the Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River Areas—the boreal forest is your backyard. You’re probably familiar with many of the plants and animals typically found in boreal habitat. A day hike can take you through upland forests marked by trembling aspen and white spruce trees, and then down into lowlands dotted by black spruce and larch. If you’re a birdwatcher, no doubt you’re familiar with the unmistakable call of the boreal chickadee–“chick-a-dee-dee... chick-a-dee-dee.” You may have also caught a rare glimpse of one of Canada’s most iconic species—the boreal caribou— seven populations of which can be found in the OSR.

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ABMI field technicians identify vascular plant species in the field and collect specimens for expert identification. Photo by Emily Chow.

What may come as a welcome surprise, however, is that experts continue to find new species in your backyard. Every summer, the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) sends teams of trained field technicians to survey land and wetland sites throughout the region. Their goal is to compile an inventory (or list) of species living at each site.

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Milky-skinned Centipede Lichen: a new species to Alberta that loves to hang out on mature deciduous trees in Alberta’s boreal forests. Photo by Diane Haughland. © Royal Alberta Museum.

Often times, something interesting will catch the eye of these data collectors, be it a rare or unusual species. Other times, exciting new discoveries only occur once highly trained taxonomists (biologists who describe, name, and archive species) examine the samples at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) (Watch videos about the RAM’s taxonomists working on the ABMI program here!).

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An ABMI field technician discovered Alberta’s first Dragon’s Mouth Orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) on the border of the OSR in 2014. Photo by Chris Meloche.

As of 2014, the museum’s taxonomists and technicians involved in the ABMI program have processed a staggering 650,000 field samples. These specimens have included vascular plant, bryophyte, lichen, mite, and aquatic invertebrate species. Related taxonomic research has led to numerous exciting finds from the OSR, including:

  • The first-ever records of Pine Stubble Lichen (Calicium pinastri) in western North America were identified at seven ABMI land survey sites, three of which are within the OSR.
  • A new species to Alberta, the Milky-skinned Centipede Lichen (Heterodermia galactophylla). This organism had been hiding in plain sight in museum archives for decades, but was misidentified. New ABMI samples from the OSR, combined with new research from eastern North America, led to its proper identification.
  • At a single wetland site in the OSR, a tiny and rare snail (Valvata lewisi ontariensis) was discovered. This species was previously only detected a handful of times in Ontario, or as empty shells and fossils in Minnesota and Manitoba.
  • The discovery of a new plant species for the province, the Dragon’s Mouth Orchid (Arethusa bulbosa),  which recently occurred on the border of the OSR.

 

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The ABMI’s taxonomists at the Royal Alberta Museum sort, identify, and archive samples of vascular plants, mosses, lichens, soil mites, and aquatic invertebrates from across Alberta. Photo by the Royal Alberta Museum.

The value of new species discoveries cannot be overestimated. To manage and protect Alberta’s species, we first need to know that they exist. Then, we can investigate their habitat preferences, conservation status, interactions with other species, role in ecosystems, and response to human activity. This research supports the ABMI’s mission: to provide relevant scientific information on the province’s living resources to Alberta’s land-use decision makers and Albertans.

So, the next time you find yourself exploring the boreal forest, scan the ground, part the trees, or examine a rotting log with a hand lens. If you see something unusual, who knows? It might be a species new to Alberta, to Canada, or beyond…

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