Take a peek inside the secret location where the ROM stores Canada’s largest fish collection

November 16, 2021
Take a peek inside the secret location where the ROM stores Canada's largest fish collection
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It’s described by staff as the Royal Ontario Museum’s “basement,” but the space is far from the ROM’s main location at Bloor Street West and Avenue Road.

“When you go to visit the ROM, you really only see the tip of the iceberg,” said Nathan Lujan, recently named the museum’s associate curator of fishes.

The ROM asked CBC Toronto not to disclose the facility’s location, which is outside the city and currently holds more than 1.5 million fish specimens from around the world.

“There’s this whole back of the house, specimens that have been collected for over a century and provide an important story about the history of earth and the conservation of our planet,” Lujan said.

He says part of the reason why the space is offsite is because the amount of alcohol used to preserve the specimens is a fire hazard, so it requires intense security.

The collection consists of about 110,000 jars containing approximately 7,600 species.

Highlights include a lake trout weighing a world record 105 pounds, electric eels, fresh water stingrays and piranhas from the Amazon River — which is where Lujan does the bulk of his research. 

It’s estimated there are still thousands of  “undescribed species” of fish and Lujan says his work is focused on discovering and describing those species and adding them to a registry.

WATCH| Take a peek at where the ROM stores Canada’s largest fish collection:

His two decades of research and experience as a scientist and catfish expert is what led him to the new role at the ROM. 

“This is like a lending library where each jar is like a book, and contains information about the evolutionary history of that species and ecology of that species,” he said.

Researchers from across the globe are able to request specimens and they are packaged and shipped to where they’re needed.

Studying fish to understand climate change

Lujan says the collection serves as an archive of ecosystems, and includes species that are now extinct.

“In the modern era where the environment is changing rapidly, climate is changing rapidly, these are an incredibly important resource for understanding how the world existed,” he said.

“We’re learning in Canada that warm water fishes are moving northward. In Lake Ontario, for example, if we compare the fishes that exist today with the ones that existed in the past we notice that there’s this shift in the community structure from very cold water oriented fishes to very warm water oriented fishes.”

Bigger fish like this electric eel are stored in the dispensing room. (CBC News)

Lujan says his passion for fish started when he was young, growing up in the southern United States. He says he was always exploring streams, keeping aquariums and loved the concept of these bizarre organisms living in a whole different three-dimensional environment.

As a researcher, he says he also finds it fascinating that there are thousands of species that range in size and shape.

“They’re incredibly beautiful, and have really amazing behaviours.”

The facility is also home to birds, mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, but currently it’s not designed to allow visitors. Lujan hopes there is a way to share it in the future.

“We’re trying to find means into giving people a window into this side of the ROM,” he said.

“We anticipate these collections will be around hundreds of years into the future so future generations can study the biodiversity of today.”

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