Mint’s Version of Canadian Boreal Forest is Unreal

A new TV commercial for a commemorative $2 coin is a case of art meeting science. Unfortunately, science loses.

The two-dollar circulation coin celebrating Canada's boreal forest coincides with the United Nations declaration of 2011 as the International Year of the Forest.

The Royal Canadian Mint is advertising a coin that celebrates the boreal forest, a vast ecosystem in northern Ontario, Quebec, and other provinces.

The 30-second commercial shows stylized versions of northern species: Moose, Canada geese, black spruce trees — and monarch butterflies?

Barn owls?

Giant swallowtails? Sycamore trees?

Hold on a minute, naturalists say. Those are species from southern Canada. What are they doing in a forest north of Timmins?

The commercial is all over TV this month (and on YouTube. Search for “Royal Canadian Mint” and “boreal.”) The Mint points out that the plants and animals it shows are “an artistic interpretation only,” not intended to be photographic realism.

The coin and the commercial celebrate the boreal forest and encourage Canadians to think about its importance, a spokesman said.

Still, Ottawa naturalist Dan Brunton swears that the butterflies are popping out of a distinctive monarch butterfly’s cocoon — which would normally be only on a milkweed plant in a sunny field or garden of southern Canada.

The butterfly in the commercial could be a monarch, but looks more like a giant swallowtail, he concluded after checking through the authoritative Butterflies of Canada. The giant swallowtail is even more southern than the monarch, living only along Ontario’s southwestern edge.

And the white owl in the picture? The boreal forest has snowy owls, but this one stares at the viewer with an unmistakable heart-shaped face that only barn owls have.

Like the snowy owl, barn owls are light-coloured. They are endangered, and are native to deepest southern Ontario, around Lake Erie.

It’s possible to find descriptions online of monarchs living in a boreal forest, but there’s a twist. Monarchs migrate to Mexico in winter, where they spend a few months in evergreen trees at high altitudes that are remnants of boreal forest left behind after an ice age.

The tree where the butterflies emerge from their cocoons is odd too, Brunton notes. It has bark that looks like a sycamore, and leaves from a black walnut or butternut. All those are southern species.

“It really looks like some well-meaning but uninformed graphic artist grabbed a handful of Species At Risk and Significant Species images from some picture book or off the Web,” he said in an email.

“That might be good graphic art but, man, it sure makes it clear that this program is all about selling and little about knowing.”

The owl’s soft “whoo-whoo” in the commercial sounds “like a cartoon owl,” he adds. Snowy owls in the boreal forest make a variety of sounds, but they’re mostly harsh shrieks and cackles.

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