Queen's University Biological Station
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Queen's University Biological Station is the largest inland field station in North America. For over 50 years, researchers and students have gathered at the Queen's University Biological Station (QUBS) to conduct research and participate in courses spanning ecology, evolution, conservation and environmental biology. In 2002, it became part of the United Nations recognized Thousand Islands – Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve. The mandate at QUBS is three-fold: education, research, and conservation.
Description and History
QUBS began operations in 1944. In 1945, the station consisted of 34 hectares of land. A series of real estate purchases and gifts to Queen's have expanded the facility to more than 2000 hectares ( > 5000 acres), including seven small lakes and extensive shoreline on Lake Opinicon and Hart Lake, and habitats ranging from abandoned farmland to mature second-growth forest.
Astride the Frontenac Axis (an extension of the Canadian Shield into the sedimentary rocks that surround the Great Lakes Basin), QUBS provides access to a wide variety of habitats. Lakes of various types and sizes are close by. So, too, are landscapes with a range of human influence and alteration, a varied topography, specialized environments, and high biodiversity. The area offers a fascinating juxtaposition of northern and southern flora and fauna.
The first land for the biology station was purchased in 1945, a culmination of fortunate circumstances and hard work on the part of many individuals. The principal of Queen’s at the time was Robert Wallace, a distinguished earth scientist and senior figure in the conservation movement. When asked by Wallace what the department was not doing that it ought to be doing, Head of Biology, E. O. Earl, identified field biology as an area for improvement, and suggested that biology education at the university could be greatly improved with the construction of a field station. Wallace enthusiastically encouraged plans for the field station and assisted in obtaining funds from the Ontario government. Within the department of biology, Wes Curran was another enthusiastic supporter and became the station’s first Director. In 1945 Queen’s was able to purchase 65 acres of farmland from a Mr. Acton of South Crosby Township. This land forms the current QUBS Point.
Life at the Biology Station in the early days was very basic. The first facilities were completed in 1947 and included a central lodge; the two story boathouse; eleven small, two bunk cabins; a three bedroom cottage for the director; and a full service laboratory with a walk-in incubator and walk-in refrigerator. While the laboratory contained all the latest equipment, the human accommodations lacked hot water and plumbing, and all cooking had to be done on a wood-fuelled stove.
From the beginning, the station supported the duel mandates of teaching and research. Early areas of focus included fisheries studies, forestry and soil studies, entomology, forest pathology, botanical studies, limnology, and terrestrial ecology. Classes were held at the station for the first few years but ceased by 1949. The classroom above the boathouse was converted into a lab and the teaching and research aspects of station life began to meld. Professors began to employ students as summer research assistants, a mutually beneficial arrangement. Professors received help on with their projects and students received a small stipend, a first hand education in field techniques, and data that could be used in an Honours thesis. Classes at the station have since resumed, and the practice of employing students as research assistants has continued to this day.
Growth and Expansion
The first property to be added to the station was Sheep Island, an island off QUBS Point which was purchased in 1950. The first purchase of land away from the point was made in 1975 and officially became Queen’s property in 1976. This 1000 acre property, now called the Hughson Tract, was located at the southern end of Lake Opinicon and in its first year hosted classes in plant ecology, avian ecology, and the ecology of small mammals. Research projects focused on red winged blackbirds, cow birds, tree swallows, plant succession, insect-goldenrod interaction, and bats. The land was purchased with donations from friends and alumni of Queen’s. Many of these donations were the result of a fund raising campaign with the theme “buy an acre”, inspired by the cost of one acre of land, seventy dollars.
The 1970s was also notable as the decade of the “Opinicon Disaster”. On August 16, 1978 a tornado tore through QUBS Point, crushing the bat lab, flattening cabin 11, damaging three other cabins, and ripping the roof off the library and flinging it into the lake. Luckily, no one was hurt. With field courses scheduled to start in ten days and the station looking like a disaster area, the station regulars threw themselves into clean up and repair. Miraculously, by the time the first field course arrived the station was functional once more. The damage also provided the opportunity for substantial improvements to be made upon rebuilding.
The 1980s saw a period of rapid expansion at QUBS, not only in land holdings, but in programming as well. In 1983, the QUBS Point landholdings were expanded with the purchase of five hectares from Robert Curtis. This new land provided the station with control over the entire Cow Island Marsh area. The 1980s also saw the addition of two more properties; Bonwill Tract and the Cape-Sauriol Environmental Studies Area. The Bonwill Tract was purchased from Allan and Ellen Bonwill in 1986 and provided researchers with accessible yet relatively undisturbed habitats on which to work. In December 1989, a 315 hectare tract of land was purchased from Opinicon Properties Ltd. The property was renamed the Cape-Sauriol Environmental Studies Area in 1990 in honour of Brigadier General John M. Cape, who made a generous donation towards the acquisition of the land, and Charles Sauriol, who played a crucial role in the fund raising efforts. Other additions that occurred during the 1980s included the Brown lab and the aquarium building. 1982 also saw the initiation of the “visiting field scientist” program, a precursor to the summer seminar series.
Recent History at QUBS
In the 90’s QUBS expanded its facilities by purchasing three additional properties. The first of these properties to be acquired was the Pangman Conservation Reserve in 1994. The Pangman tract is 1500-acres, and comprises many forests, wetlands, 6 lakes, the Lindsay Lake Road nature trail and prime breeding habitat for the endangered Cerulean Warbler. The property would have to be purchased from the Rock Lake Association, at the hefty sum of $540,000, so the station began a fundraising initiative. Mrs. Hilda Pangman, knowing the value this property would have for teaching, research and conservation, as well as in honour of her nature loving husband, made a very generous donation of the full purchase price of the property. With the addition of Pangman tract, the QUBS landholdings increased by 50%.
There was yet another generous donation of land that occurred in 1994. This property, encompassing some 500 acres, was donated by George and Margaret Bracken in memory of George’s parents. This tract is located near the village of Newboro and has extensive frontage on Newboro Lake. The majority of the Bracken tract is composed of open old field (that provides grazing for a few cattle), with the rest of the tract being covered in moderately old forest dominated by maple, ironwood, basswood and ash trees. The tract also contains wet woodlands and swampy areas boarding the lake as well as several small islands that once were home to an old iron mine. With the remains of this old mine, this tract also helped foster interconnections between different departments at Queen’s, especially that of Geological Sciences and Biology.
The final addition to QUBS in the 1990s occurred in 1996. This tract of land was donated by Frank and Beth Moores and comprises three distinct zones: an old field section, a lakefront/inlet zone fronting on Benson Lake, and interior mixed hardwood bush/hills.
Throughout the 1990s, while the land holdings were expanding, substantial improvements were being made to the existing properties. In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, QUBS adopted a composting program in 1991. Though the initial infrastructure lacked certain necessities required to keep out various animals, the intention to create a more sustainable biological station was there. In June of the same year, Hewlett-Packard made a substantial donation of computer equipment to the station, forming the heart of a computerized environmental data network. This was expanded on in 1993, with the acquisition of two IBM computers for GIS made possible by Dr. Rollie Tinline, and in 1997 with funds from the Faculty of Arts and Science. The GIS capabilities of QUBS also expanded during this time, with QUBS receiving an NSERC equipment grant in 1995, securing $15k for the purchase of a Trimble Excel GPS receiver with real-time correction via radio beacon. This receiver enabled high accuracy and came with the basic mapping software of Pathfinder.
The 90’s also saw the introduction of new cabins, a water purification system, and bathymetry equipment. It also marked the last days of the original lodge. In 1999, after 12 years of planning and fundraising, the old lodge was demolished and construction of the new Operations Centre started in the fall. The old lodge served the station well for more than 50 years, however the usage demands of the station outgrew the abilities of the old building. To say farewell to the old building, a “last supper” was held on August 28, 1999 with many staff, students, alumni and friends of QUBS.
The expansion of QUBS thrived into the new century. In 2000, the new operations center opened for the first time providing research space, conference rooms, computer networks, office space, and year-round kitchen and dining facilities. The following year saw the donation of a parcel of property along the Massasaugua Road. A second parcel of land was donated in 2002. Combined, these landholdings totalled 193 hectares and were named the Missassaugua Tract.
Exciting developments were also occurring in the Frontenac region. In 2003, the United Nations Environmental, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the area between Westport, Brockville, and Gananoque the Thousand Islands-Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve. QUBS falls within this area, as does Charleston Lake Provincial Park and St. Lawrence Islands National Park. In 2004, QUBS received get another donation of property, this time from Ralph and Elizabeth Boston. The property, named the Boston Wildlands, consists of 153 acres, some of it very rugged. More changes to both the buildings and personal took place in the 2000s, including the appointment of a new director, Dr. Bruce Tufts, who took over from longtime director Dr. Raleigh J. Robertson in 2005. Dr. Tufts was replaced by current director, Dr. Stephen Lougheed, in 2010.
Education has always been an important focus at the biology station. In the early years, students served as research assistants, and received training in field biology while working for various professors on established studies. This type of training continues today. But as often as not, students now work on their own projects. They do field work as part of the requirements for an advanced degree—an Honours BSc, Master's, or Doctorate.
Field courses offered at QUBS are a great way for university students to get hands-on experience in field biology. Course topics include:
- Ecology of Reptiles and Amphibians
- Ecology and Evolution of Plant Sex
- Applied Wildlife Ecology
- Insect Ecology and Taxonomy
- Applied Fisheries Biology
- Systematics of Flowering Plants
- Ecology of Birds in Winter
- Biodiversity and Conservation
Of late, the education mandate has expanded beyond university students to include members of the community, friends and family, public schools, and other interest groups. This ramped up public outreach and education initiative is aimed to demonstrate the wonder of local biodiversity and provide simple solutions for protecting it. It includes weekly Nature Walks to explore local ecosystems and discover the flora and fauna. Public Seminars are given every week on various topics of public interest. Every year, QUBS hosts an Open House to show off to the public what researchers are up to. Workshops are also being offered on subjects ranging from Nature Photography to Wetland Ecology. Some workshops are one-day long affairs and others, weekend retreats.
QUBS is the base of operations for research scientists to study species found in the area. Over the years, the research conducted at QUBS has resulted in over 800 scientific publications in many different areas of biology.
Part of the success of QUBS is the admixture of researchers from a variety of institutions. On a regular basis, the field station hosts researchers from Queen's, Carleton U. (Ottawa), U. of Toronto (both St. George and Erindale), Illinois Natural History Survey (Champaign, Ill.), Ithaca College (Ithaca, N.Y.), University of Western Ontario (UWO), University of Windsor, etc. In addition, international researchers also make use of QUBS. The interaction between researchers from various universities, pursuing myriad research questions, makes the field station a lively, challenging and interesting place to conduct field work.
The large and diverse landholdings at QUBS provide unique opportunities to protect and study species whose populations (worldwide) have been in serious decline. In the face of continuing development, these additions have provided crucial long-term security for study sites. Long term data sets collected at QUBS also help us to understand the impacts of environmental disturbances such as climate change and zebra mussel invasions. For many species of plants and animals, especially those with large home ranges or particular requirements, the conservation value of the QUBS property is substantial.
Research at the Queen's University Biological Station is conducted to study species of conservation concern. Current research focuses on the threatened black rat snake, snapping and map turtles and declining populations of Cerulean warblers.
The main facility (34 ha) consists of some 32 buildings, including the Operations Centre, a library, conference rooms, 12 separate laboratory areas, a workshop, an aquarium house and a variety of accommodation, ranging from one-person sleeping cabins to large cottages and dormitory space. The Operations Centre includes year round kitchen and dining room, washrooms, conference room/classroom, administrative offices, computer rooms, a technical lab, storage areas, laundry and an interpretive area. Although several of the Station's buildings are original, dating back to the late 1940s, others have been added to provide comfortable accommodations for up to 80 people. The Station now boasts a fleet of boats, reference collections, audiovisual equipment, computer rooms, and optical and electronic equipment, including an automated weather station. A full list of facilities can be found at the QUBS Website
Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre
The Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (400 ha) is a new addition to QUBS properties, and is home to the new Eco-Adventure Camps. The facility consists of several sleeping cabins with kitchenettes, a large main lodge with full kitchen, bathrooms, and classroom, a recreation lodge and a small converted museum area. There is also extensive lake frontage with a large dock off the recreation centre.
QUBS has ownership of eight other properties located in the surrounding region
- Bonwill Tract (453 ha)
- Boston Wildlands (62 ha)
- Bracken Tract (200 ha)
- Cape-Sauriol Environmental Studies Area (315 ha)
- Hughson Tract (335 ha)
- Massassauga Tract (193 ha)
- Moores Tract (90 ha)
- Pangman Tract (607 ha)
- Katy Littlejohn (2009-02-02). "Science students head into the woods". Queen's Journal. Retrieved 2013-05-13.
- "Biosphere Reserve Nomination Form: Canadian Thousand Islands - Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve" (pdf). Canadian Biosphere Research Network. 2002-11-08. Retrieved 2013-05-13.