Museum Matters

​Freshwater microplastics research

Text by Andrea Morden

In 2012, graduate students sampling the riverbed for freshwater invertebrates near Becancour, Quebec observed small, colourful spheres in the sediment. Further examination revealed them to be microplastics: polyethylene beads ranging from 0.4 to 2.2 millimetres in size. In 2013, the Ricciardi lab returned to the St. Lawrence River and systematically sampled the sediments at ten sites between Lake Saint Francis and Quebec City. Their results showed that eight of the ten sites were contaminated with synthetic microbeads, and that microplastic concentrations in the most contaminated sediments at Becancour were comparable to reported levels of marine sediment microplastic contamination (Castañeda et al. 2014).MAP: Castañeda et al. 2014



During the past five years, research teams have detected microplastic pollution in freshwater systems around the world. Until these discoveries were made, freshwater systems were considered to merely be pathways delivering plastic debris to the ocean.

Microplastic pollution comprises many types of synthetic polymers in various forms including spheres, fragments, fibres and pellets. Their sources are also diverse, and include fibres shed from synthetic clothing, exfoliating microbeads included in personal care products, and fragments of larger plastic waste degrading in aquatic systems. Microplastic pollution has also been detected in the stomachs of aquatic wildlife around the world, including commercially important fishes. Wildlife that consumes microplastic debris may be harmed because they displace nutritious food items in their diet, and because the particles may leach toxic additives in the plastic as well as organic pollutants (such as pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) that adhere to their surfaces (Dris et al. 2015). Further research is needed to assess if contamination in seafood and fish is linked to negative health effects in people that consume them. 

Scientific advances made by Prof. Ricciardi’s laboratory in Redpath Museum support the museum’s mandate to foster the public’s understanding of the natural world through research. Their discovery of microplastic pollution in the St. Lawrence River triggered a media storm, and Prof. Ricciardi has shared his findings through interviews with La Presse, Radio Canada and the CBC. The research team has also provided expert feedback to representatives of the US Consulate General and the International Joint Commission on proposed policy recommendations to mitigate microplastic pollution. 


The Canadian government recently listed microbeads as a Toxic Substance under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and proposes to have them removed from all personal care products by 2019. This regulatory success is directly linked to research fostered by Redpath Museum. Future policy to control microplastic pollution in aquatic systems should address other key sources, including microfibres shed from synthetic clothing. Wastewater treatment plants are important pathways transmitting microplastics to freshwater systems, with recent estimates suggesting that approximately 13 billion microbeads are emitted into USA waterbodies from treated wastewater discharge every year (Mason et al. 2016).

The research carried out by Dr Anthony Ricciardi and his lab on microplastic pollution in the St Lawrence River has been featured in the Gazette and by La Presse. Click to watch the news item.


Castañeda RA, S Avlijas, MA Simard, A Ricciardi. 2014. Microplastic pollution in St. Lawrence River sediments. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 71:1767-1771. 

Dris R, H Imhof, W Sanchez, J Gasperi, F Galgani, B Tassin, C Laforsch. 2015. Beyond the ocean: contamination of freshwater ecosystems with (micro-) plastic particles. Environmental Chemistry 12:539-550.

Mason SA, D Garneau, R Sutton, Y Chu, K Ehmann, J Barnes, P Fink, D Papazissimos, DL Rogers. 2016. Microplastic pollution is widely detected in US municipal wastewater treatment plant effluent. Environmental Pollution 218:1045-1054.

PHOTOS: © Anthony Ricciardi, Musée Redpath Museum

Tacos, beer and bloodroot - the spring  2016 Bio-Blitz @ Redpath Museum

Text by Ingrid Birker

It is the last day of the spring term at McGill and the sun is shimmering on the sculpted marble bums of the Three Bares fountain.  Around the fountain thousands of students are chilling amidst the smoke billowing out of the BBQ pits of the OAP (Open Air Pub). On the crudely constructed sound stage a local garage band is tuning up for some entertainment.  All this collegial spirit is sheltered under the grey limestone walls of the oldest free- standing museum in Canada- the Redpath Museum. Inside the Redpath Museum, with the windows open to the OAP revellers, a team of about 20 dusty, bedraggled but bemused Bio-Blitzers are ripping open sample bags full of dirt and wiggly invertebrates while sharing their photos, recorded notes and adventures. They have just finished the first “Redpath End-of-Year  Bio Blitz”. 

PHOTO (left): Wood squill (Scilla siberica), in the Asparagus family, this plant is native to southwestern Russia but invasive to Montreal. It is rampant on the flanks of Mont Royal, on the Pine Avenue side where Victorian gardeners used it as a hardy horticultural accent to traditional floral beds.

A Bio-Blitz (alternately spelled bioblitz) is an intense period of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. The April 26, 2016 Redpath Bio-Blitz initiative was meant to specifically survey Mont Royal because of the dearth of biological records of the diversity and abundance of life on the little hill of heavily used recreational land located just behind the downtown campus. Under the clarion call of the Museum’s Director, Hans Larsson, a group of about two dozen Museum naturalists, interns, graduate students and volunteers headed out at around 3 pm armed with collecting cards, sample bags, field guides, and binoculars specifically to walk the ‘mountain’ and  document exact localities and species names of living organisms. The most excited were the herpetologists and the botanists. Spring is the perfect time for spotting the worm-like Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), a small, hardy woodland amphibian that plays dead under rotted logs. It is also a brief window when the plant lovers can rhapsodize over woodland ephemerals such as Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with it’s red poisonous root juice and Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum).  The allotted collection time was 2 hours. Everyone was asked to return to the Museum with all their samples and records by 5 pm. So what did they find from this inaugural McGill Bio-Blitz?

“All in all, over 85 samples were collected. About one quarter of these samples were woodland ephemerals, while nearly half of all specimen collected were invertebrates – including specimens of annelida (aka worms), hymenoptera (aka bees and wasps), Mollusca (aka snails) and coleoptera (aka beetles). Rounding out the list were several different species of fungus, a few geological samples, and even a fossil brachiopod. Many vertebrates, such as red-backed salamanders, grey squirrels and several species of birds were observed, but not collected. It was quite a day!”, said Anthony Howell, the Redpath Museum Zoology Collection Manager.

So, while snacking and sorting after the Bio-Blitz, we realized that what we assembled was a pretty good read on the spring species inventory for Mont Royal.  “This will form the basis for a more complete inventory, and maybe indicate what species could benefit from a further study such as the salamanders. Who expected us to carry about a dozen salamanders in our pockets this afternoon?” , said an elated Hans Larsson, at the end of the sort. “Of course we released them before coming back to the Museum”, he added with a twinkle in his eye.  Editor’s note: It is not legal to ‘collect’ living tissues from protected areas such as Mont Royal because it puts a strain on native species. The tiny woodland ephemeral plants especially should not be picked. These flowers take advantage of the limited sunlight available to the soil that filters through the bare boughs of the trees. They must bloom early and set seed quickly before the sun’s energy dissipates with leaf-out of the forest canopy. You can try and collect the seeds after the bloom finishes but you will be competing with ants that will carry off the seed to eat the fleshy elaiosome (also called aril). On Mont Royal we spotted several large ant colonies thriving with brood, eggs and larvae situated adjacent to large outgrowths of Bloodroot. It would have been unscientific and really mean to carry off the food supply for thousands of our most important soil nourishers. PHOTO (left): Patch of Bloodroot near ant colony.

Even though we did not achieve what E.O. Wilson envisaged in 1998 when he developed a program to catalogue Walden Pond, we have officially started our Mont Royal Catalogue of biological recording. Bio-Blitzes are usually held in urban parks or nature reserves close to cities in order to encourage public participation. A Bio-Blitz has different opportunities and benefits than a traditional, scientific field study. For the Redpath crew this was an enjoyable way of learning about the local environment. Rather than a highly structured and measured field survey, this short time frame Bio-Blitz made the searching more exciting.

“Being able to head out at the end of a day and really get a feel for the mountain made me realize that even this heavily used and populated area has high and important biodiversity worthy of conservation. “ said Ingrid Birker, Science Outreach Administrator.

Gathering basic taxonomic information by specialists intensifies the validity. Although the Redpath Museum Bio-Blitz did not identify rare, or unique species or groups it offered a snapshot of diversity about a small but noteworthy chunk of Montreal. The fact that it is so close to the downtown campus provided some unexpected delights. In the end, as I cycled home, I realized that even though the Redpath is not as politically active as the Royal Ontario Museum, where they sponsored a 2014 Humber  River Bio-Blitz with over 500 participants and counted 1,560 species, including 2 spiders that were new to Canada, we still could boast about our gleanings. My reflections echoed those of Hans Larsson and I can hardly wait for next spring’s outing:

“It felt somewhat like a journey into the past – foraging about, as our predecessors did, collecting specimens that would be the foundations of so many museum across Canada. I’m honored to be part of that tradition, and I realize the true value of the material we collect. Not only for the museum, but for our community, as an instrument of teaching and learning, and as a resource that can be shared throughout the global scientific community.”

Redpath Museum and Researchers in the News

  • Dino Hunt Canada - A new series on the History Channel. Featuring some of Canada's top paleontologists and the latest researrch on dinosaurs, this series is narrated by George St. Pierre. Dr. Hans Larsson, Associate Professor here at the Redpath Museum and Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution, is featured in one of the episodes.
  • Les cercles des jeunes naturalistes (CJN), founded in 1931, visited the Museum in January 2015. You can read about it and learn more about them in the latest edition of Les naturalistes.
  • A Walk on the Wild Side -Researchers at McGill University turned to a living fish called Polypterus — an African fish that can breathe air and 'walk' on land — to help show what might have happened when fish first attempted to walk out of the water. Read about Emily Standen's Polypterus article in Nature.
  • What does a 66M-year old forest fire reveals about dinosaurs? Read about Dr. Hans Larsson's latest finds in Saskatchewan and how they help us estimate climate conditions for the closing period of the dinosaurs in southwestern Canada.
  • "Entre Nous with Rowan Barrett: Between the Genes of Adaptation" (McGill Reporter, May 5th, 2014) >> Read More
  • Watch the interview with Redpath Museum Collections Manager Anthony Howell on Global TV.
  • Virginie Millien discusses the link between her research and the ticks that can carry Lyme's disease in the October 10th edition of David Suzuki's The Nature of Things. PHOTO: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster. Wikipedia Commons.
  • Museum history and current research work in the January / February 2014 issue of MUSE, published by the Canadian Museums Association.


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