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A-toad hunting we will go

Great Plains toad (top and left) and plains spadefoot toad (right) with inflated throat sacs calling to attract females. These species are  southwestern specialties and not found elsewhere in Manitoba. The bodies of these males are under 60 mm long. © Randall Mooi

As we enter June, Manitobans spend time outside gardening at home or swimming at the cottage, except for herpetologists (reptile and amphibian scientists) when June is time to look for toads! This is a good month to be listening for Great Plains toads (Anaxyrus cognatus) and plains spadefoot toads (Spea bombifrons) as males gather in wet spots to call and attract mates. These two species are almost unknown to most people, despite being found in good numbers if you look and listen in the right places, and their “love songs” can carry for over two kilometres! But they are overlooked because they generally don’t call until it is dark, and in June that means well after 10 pm; most of us (if you are not a herpetologist) are inside avoiding mosquitoes and likely getting ready for bed.

Another reason these two toad species “call under the radar” is that their ranges are restricted to the southwestern corner of the province. As many Manitobans head east to lake country, they are missing one of nature’s incredible sound and light shows – hearing dozens of each these two species calling together under a clear, moon- and starlit prairie sky is a special experience. Here’s a taste of that sound (you might want to turn the volume down!):

The metallic trill in the foreground is a Great Plains toad and in the background are the nasal snores of plains spadefoot toads. These were calling from a temporary wet spot in a farmer’s field near Melita.

The ecology of Manitoba’s southwest is unique and worth exploring. In addition to these two toads, there are many species of plants, birds, mammals, and invertebrates that are found nowhere else in Manitoba. Birds and mammals are always the most obvious to people, but smaller creatures like amphibians make up a considerable portion of the wild animal biomass of the southwestern corner (perhaps equalling that of small mammals and exceeding that of birds). In wet years, the numerous temporary ponds, prairie potholes, and other wetlands provide habitat for amphibians to breed and lay eggs, and for their larvae to grow and transform into frogs, toads, and salamanders. Once adult, most Manitoban amphibians are essentially terrestrial, returning to wetlands only to breed and lay eggs.

Great Plains toads and plains spadefoot toads are no exception, and avoid detection by people and predators by spending much of their lives buried underground. During our cold winters, these two species need to hibernate below the frost line. They are good diggers and can burrow into softer ground or sand – spadefoot toads are so-named for the hard, keratinous, sharp-edged bumps on their back feet that they use as “spades” to dig backwards into the soil. Great Plains toads are also known to use old rodent burrows to get underground. In spring and summer, when it can be hot and dry on the prairies, these two species escape the searing heat by remaining below ground during the day and hunting for food at night when it is cooler. Even then, they often remain buried for long periods to retain moisture and come to the surface only after heavy rainfalls to breed.

Northernmost record of Great Plains toad in Manitoba (top; © Peter Taylor, used with permission), found crossing the road at 4 am (yes, surveys can run from 10 pm to dawn the next day!). Typical habitat for our southwestern toads (bottom; © Manitoba Museum).

The Manitoba Museum is studying the Great Plains toad because it is considered threatened in Manitoba. For many animals in the southwest of the province, loss of habitat and pollutants are concerns because much of our original prairie landscape has been considerably modified by commercial agriculture, resource extraction, and transportation corridors – all through the demands of our modern lifestyles. Some good news, though, has come through research at the Museum, where Great Plains toads have been found to have a larger distribution than originally thought. Last spring’s heavy rains meant that there were many temporary ponds providing suitable habitat, even in places that are usually quite dry. The result was that toads in these areas, likely inactive as breeders for several years, had opportunities to attract mates and reproduce. Museum researchers discovered the species at several new sites, some up to 25 km outside of the previously known range!

The previously known range of Great Plains toad (in solid blue on the inset map of Manitoba; bounded by a blue line on the close-up of the southwest corner), with red dots showing the new sites discovered last spring by Museum researchers. Base map modified from data provided by the MB Conservation Data Centre, used with permission. © Manitoba Museum

Within this revised distribution of Great Plains toads, plains spadefoot toads were found throughout and in higher numbers. Both toad species, despite the extensive use of pesticides and loss of habitat, seem to be surviving today’s highly modified conditions, but how successfully remains guesswork. Without consistent monitoring programs, it is impossible to measure the size of toad populations or to determine if their numbers are stable, increasing, or decreasing. And because spadefoots and Great Plains toads adjust breeding activity to cycles of drought and wet periods, it is a huge challenge to determine population sizes. In wet years, like 2022, the toads seem to be everywhere, but in a dry year they seem to disappear. This means that monitoring programs need to be maintained over long periods through several wet/dry cycles. And climate change is making these even less predictable.

Installing recording units and data loggers on hydro poles (with a permit, of course) near suitable habitat (left). A white data logger mounted above a green recording unit beside a temporary pond (right). © Manitoba Museum

The Manitoba Museum has just begun a pilot project to monitor these two amphibian prairie specialists. Automated recording units have been set up at a handful of locations where Great Plains and spadefoot toads have been found in previous years and where temporary ponds existed at the time the units were deployed, all with the hope that this will increase detection rates. The units are set to record at particular times over each 24-hour period throughout the spring and summer months. Temperature and humidity loggers are paired with the recording units. The goal is to determine what triggers breeding activity in the two species, what times of the year it occurs, and in what numbers. These data will help determine measures that can conserve these two toads and, perhaps, other species that rely on similar habitat.

We hope that this will mean that Manitobans can go a-toad hunting and experience their incredible chorus on the prairies in perpetuity.

And, of course, everyone has the opportunity to visit the Museum’s new Prairies Gallery to learn the calls of prairie toads and frogs and explore their fascinating life histories – above and below ground!


Strange History

Maxillary denture; porcelain, plastic; M 20th C. Catalogue Number: H9-15-188. © Manitoba Museum

Post by Cortney Pachet, Collections Registration Associate (Human History)

Our human history collection is full of special objects, highlighting significant points in Manitoba’s past –like Cuthbert Grant’s medicine chest or the replica of the Nonsuch. Yet we also make a point of collecting objects that represent everyday life in Manitoba – cans of soup, well-loved toys and farming implements. These mundane objects surprise people, since most of us consider objects we use routinely to have little historical value. Then there are objects that baffle even the seasoned museologist, begging questions like what and, most importantly, why?

Early in my days working with the human history collection, I was searching for a medical-related artifact in an area of our storage room rife with old medicine and surgical tools. I pulled an unlabeled box off a high shelf to have a look inside and was shocked to find it full of dentures –it gave me quite a start. I wish I could say it was the only time that box of dentures had scared me.

Only one pair of our dentures can be linked to a specific person; the others were donated by the Manitoba Dental Association or have no known source. So if they don’t belong to a historical figure, why collect them? Dentures have been made of various materials for centuries. Wood, human and animal teeth, ivory, bone, and porcelain have all been used to fashion false teeth throughout history. Modern dentures are made from synthetic materials like acrylic. The dentures in our collection capture techniques and materials at a specific moment in time, allowing researchers to make comparisons to older and newer generations of false teeth.

A few years ago, some of our staff took part in an AMA on Reddit during Ask a Curator day (#AskACurator). One of the questions asked was “what is the weirdest object in your collection?” I immediately thought of an inflatable doll, which made her way into our collection in 1984 as part of a much larger donation from the old Winnipeg Musical Supply store. The doll is in excellent condition, meaning that she has never been used. And no, she doesn’t inflate – we’ve tried. Her face is coming away from her body, creating a hole where air can escape. This object is close to my heart because when I was in university, doing my Masters in Museum Studies, I wrote a paper about collecting sexual artifacts and discussed the inclusion of the doll in the collection and staff’s reactions to her presence. It’s highly unlikely that “Dolly” will ever be exhibited and her provenance isn’t clear, but she definitely captures a period of time when novelty and gag gifts were popular.

Inflatable doll; vinyl; L 20th C. Catalogue Number: H9-16-182
© Manitoba Museum

The previous artifacts are odd, true, but everyone knows that teeth are needed for chewing and enunciating and everyone loves a good laugh, but this artifact can turn stomachs and bewilder minds better than no other.

Hair wreath, human hair, L 19th C. Catalogue Number: H9-18-67
© Manitoba Museum

During the Victorian era, the popularity of jewellery made of human hair saw a definite rise. Hair would be collected from a loved one and woven into intricate patterns to make bracelets, brooches, earrings and necklaces. Wearing mourning jewellery fabricated from the hair of deceased relatives was common amongst Victorian women. People also made wreaths from human hair to display on their walls, often taking hair from multiple family members to complete a single wreath.

Hair wreath, detail. Catalogue Number: H9-18-67
© Manitoba Museum

This example was made in Ontario by Mary Jane McKague and brought to Manitoba in 1881, first to Emerson by train and then transported by ox cart to the community of Coulter south of Melita where Mary Jane and her husband John homesteaded. Mary Jane died in childbirth delivering her sixth and final child in 1895. Her wreath was carefully kept by her eldest daughter and later three of her granddaughters before they donated it to the Manitoba Museum in 1985. It is one of several examples of Victorian hair art and jewellery in our collection. Even if the thought of handling human hair is unsettling, these objects are an important part of our understanding of 19th century society, fashion and the Victorian mourning process.

What commonplace objects that we think nothing of today will give pause to museum collectors of the future? Only time will tell!


Exploration of Local 2SLGBTQ+ Activism Featured in Collaborative Exhibition at Manitoba Museum

Winnipeg, Manitoba – May 23, 2023 – Opening on May 26, the first day of Pride 2023, If These Walls Could Talk: 50 Years of 2SLGBTQ+ Activism in Winnipeg, explores the issues addressed by the 2SLGBTQ+ community in Winnipeg after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969. 

If these Walls Could Talk provides visitors the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of different types of activism used to advance and protect rights of the 2SLGBTQ+ community over the past 50 years and was developed in partnership with the Rainbow Resource Centre.  

“Today, Canada’s 2SLGBTQ+ people have some of the most inclusive rights in the world, but it’s easy to forget these rights are recent and fragile. Where we are now is the result of the hard work of individuals, dreaming of a better future for 2SLGBTQ+ people, uniting and speaking with one voice,” says Ashley Smith, Director of Advocacy at Rainbow Resource Centre. “If These Walls Could Talk is a timely lesson in how far the 2SLGBTQ+ community has come and how much there is to lose.” 

This community exhibition on display at the Manitoba Museum features reproductions of historical posters and photographs, a video, interpretive panels, and a unique interactive rainbow light wall. The exhibition covers campaigns to include sexual orientation in Manitoba’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, combat HIV/AIDS, marriage and adoption rights, protection for gender diversity, and more. 

“The Manitoba Museum is honoured to facilitate this telling of Winnipeg history,” says Roland Sawatzky, Curator of History at the Manitoba Museum. “It’s an important chapter of our collective story, a chapter that has made the city a kinder and wiser place.” 

If These Walls Could Talk opens to the public on May 26 and access to this exhibition is included in General Admission to the Museum Galleries.  

Please join us for a free panel event, Queer Activism: Now More than Ever, June 2, from 7 pm to 8 pm, during the Manitoba Museum’s First Fridays evening, during which the Museum offers free admission between 4 pm and 9 pm. In this panel discussion, Rainbow’s Ashley Smith will be joined by contemporary queer activists and academics to explore how the global rise of an anti-queer rhetoric threatens the rights of 2SLGBTQ+ people here in Canada, and how the fight against discrimination needs the active support of Manitobans.  

Members of the media are invited to preview the exhibition in the Urban Corridor between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm on Thursday, May 25, 2023. For pre-arranged interviews, please contact Brandi Hayberg: [email protected]

To learn more about If these Walls Could Talk: 50 Years of 2SLGBTQ+ Activism in Winnipeg, here.  

This exhibition was produced in partnership with the Rainbow Resource Centre, and funded in part by the Manitoba Government, Department of Sport, Culture, and Heritage.




Media Contacts: 

Brandi Hayberg
Manager of Marketing and Communications
Manitoba Museum
[email protected]

Ashley Smith (He/Him)
Director of Advocacy 
Rainbow Resource Centre  
204-474-0212 ext. 255 
[email protected]


Planting for Pollinators

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) attracts a wide variety of midsummer pollinators. © Manitoba Museum

By Dr. Diana Bizecki Robson, Curator of Botany

The loss of biodiversity, including wild pollinators, is an ongoing environmental problem. In Manitoba, our main pollinators are bees, flies, butterflies, wasps, moths, beetles, and hummingbirds (see www.prairiepollination.ca for help identifying them). Fortunately, there are things you can do to make life easier for these important creatures, including providing them with water, food, and nesting and sheltering habitat.


Pollinators need water (not just nectar) to stay hydrated, particularly in drought years. Since bird baths are too deep for most pollinators, instead provide a dish filled with pebbles or sand and water, or build a small pond.


The most nutritious nectar and pollen is produced by native plants. Native plants also have the correct flower shape to fit the local pollinators’ mouthparts. Although cultivars of native plants, like bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), may produce good forage, those that are highly modified (e.g., double-bloomed species), or lack nectar and pollen (e.g., sterile hybrids) are often useless for pollinators.

To provide a regular food supply, ensure you grow at least some native species that flower in spring, summer and fall. Good choices for southern Manitoba include:

Spring (May-June)
Cherries and plums (Prunus), wild roses (Rosa acicularis), raspberries (Rubus), meadowsweet (Spirea alba), Western Canada violet (Viola canadensis), and Alexanders (Zizia).

Summer (July-August)
Giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), milkweeds (Asclepias), prairie-clover (Dalea), Western red lily (Lilium philadelphicum), wild mint (Mentha arvensis), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), and blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia).

Fall (September-October)
Coneflower (Echinacea), blazingstar (Liatris), white aster (Oligoneuron album), goldenrods (Solidago), and asters (Symphyotrichum).

Nesting and Sheltering Habitat

Pollinators need places to build their nests, and shelter over winter. However, all pollinators have different needs. Some bees prefer bare, sandy soil to nest in, others under leaf piles or clumps of grass, and yet others in plant stem cavities. To attract butterflies to breed, you must provide them with their larval host plants, often native flowers or grasses.

You can create potential nesting and sheltering habitat by leaving small leaf and wood piles in your yard, perhaps in an area that you don’t use regularly. By not mulching all your bare soil, especially in sunny spots, you can also provide breeding habitat for ground-nesting bees. Another thing you can do is delay your yard clean up until late May. The layer of dead vegetation will help to insulate overwintering pollinators from the cold.

Happy gardening!

You can see a wide variety of pollinating insects up close at the Manitoba Museum’s insect wall in the Boreal Forest Gallery.
©Manitoba Museum


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Investigate Aquatic Animals

Male sea horses and male giant water bugs are both the primary caregivers for their young. © Manitoba Museum


For the month leading up to Earth Day, the Manitoba Museum is celebrating water and aquatic life. In the Learning and Engagement department, Erin Buelow has worked with curators and collections specialists to bring seldom-seen specimens to the public. These preserved animals from the museum’s natural history collection come from Manitoba and beyond, including an Australian duck-billed platypus.

The diversity of aquatic life is astounding, but it can be just as interesting to notice the adaptations that animals living in water share in common.

In a few species of aquatic animals, single fathers care for their young. The giant water bug, who you can find in Manitoba, shares this trait with the seahorse. After mating, a female giant water bug lays up to 150 eggs on the back of the male! He will tend to them for a couple weeks until they hatch. These underwater dads stay close to the water’s surface to make sure their young get enough oxygen. Similarly, the male seahorse carries fertilised eggs in a special brood pouch on the front of his body.

For semi-aquatic mammals like the beaver, ringed seal, polar bear, and platypus, fur can be nearly waterproof! When submerged, their  outer layer of fur, the guard hairs, form a shield to keep the animal dry and reasonably warm. Beavers spend hours a day grooming to stay waterproof, using an oily liquid that they naturally secrete from a gland near their tail.

It’s easy to see why the name “Sawfish” was chosen for this unique creature. © Manitoba Museum.

Two aquatic animals known for their bizarre appearance are the duck-billed platypus and the sawfish, each notable for a distinctive looking snout. The long rostrum on a sawfish has what appear to be jagged teeth along its sides. These “teeth” are actually modified scales that they use to attack prey and dig through the sediment. These animals have something else in common: special sensors in their bills to detect tiny electrical currents coming from their prey! This is especially important for the platypus, whose eyes and ears pinch shut underwater.

You can learn about these amazing aquatic creatures and many more at the Manitoba Museum this April! Every Saturday and Sunday, from 1 pm to 4 pm, leading up to Earth Days @ the Manitoba Museum, you can see and touch a diverse array of shells, bones, furs, and  fossils as you discover the amazing adaptations that help these animals live and thrive in lakes, ponds, rivers, and oceans throughout the world.

Dr. Amelia Fay

Curator of HBC Collection

See Full Biography

Amelia Fay is Curator of Anthropology and the HBC Museum Collection at the Manitoba Museum. She received her BA in Anthropology from the University of Manitoba (2004), an MA in Archaeology (2008) from Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), and her Doctoral degree from MUN (2016). Amelia’s doctoral research focused on Inuit-European contact along the Labrador coast, and her research interests have since expanded to explore the effects of colonialism and Indigenous-European contact throughout Canada. As an anthropological archaeologist, she studies material culture to better understand the human experience, and finds ways to share knowledge about the Museum’s collections with a wide range of audiences. Amelia joined the Museum in 2013, and is responsible for more than 40,000 artifacts, primarily of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis origin.