New-fangled fish facilities delight biologists
To find the most interesting places at Concordia, wander through its basements. While lack of natural lighting makes these subterranean levels undesirable as class or office space, they are ideally suited for laboratories — especially messy ones.
“All of these rooms were specially built for us,” explained Grant Brown (Biology). “Concrete floors that slope down to a drain. We didn’t have that in the Hall Building, and the chemists complained every time we flooded their offices.”
Brown, a fish ecologist used to “duct tape fixes,” is tickled pink with the new lab facilities he shares with department chair Jim Grant in the basement of the Loyola Campus Science Complex.
In fact, he can’t find enough superlatives to describe how much better the space is over what they had in the Hall Building, “It’s an immense improvement, a huge improvement. It’s orders of magnitude better.”
The three-unit lab has a warm room for breeding tropical fish (convict cichlids) used in behavioural experiments, a cool room for holding larger fish like bass, trout and salmon, and a flow-through (or stream-channel) room where four 3,000-litre tanks are used to mimic river and lake conditions. There’s even some storage, although as Brown pointed out, “We still don’t have enough room for all our field work equipment.”
Perennial storage issues aside, the spaces were designed and custom built to department specifications.
In the flow-through room, the one-metre-by-three-metre green plastic stream beds are hooked by PVC piping to two separate water supplies. The set up allows users to easily change any of the variables they want to study. “It’s a matter of minutes for us to change conditions like temperature, water level or anything we need to create an ecologically realistic experiment,” Brown said.
Set in two groups of two, the isolation of the tanks also makes it simple to vary conditions in three and use the fourth as a control environment. Brown describes the entire system as “a model of simplicity, a thing of beauty.”
City water is first piped in and de-chlorinated. Once in the tanks, the system becomes largely closed. Pumps recirculate the water, which is cleaned of waste products by sock and biofilters. It is extremely efficient. “Right now we run at about 10-per-cent top-up per day, a bare minimum to account for evaporation.”
It is also very easy to maintain, “Once a week we wash the sock filters and open valves to get rid of any waste which has sunk to the bottom of the tanks.”
With an $80,000 price tag, 75 per cent of it in the flow-through room, the new system was not cheap, but it has tremendously expanded the work that biology faculty and their students (both undergraduate and graduate) can do.
Whereas in the Hall Building they had no facilities for holding large fish, now they use warm summer months to collect specimens from the field or hatcheries. And Brown loves it.
“It’s expanded our ability to do field work from two months of the year to 12. We have much more control over experimental design. We can test in the lab and verify in the field. We can get more students in the lab at any time. I can’t say enough good things about it.”