Where Science Meets the Wild
Just as we are grateful to the visionaries who fought to set aside parts of the Canadian wilderness as parks that we can all continue to enjoy, so too are students and researchers at Queen’s indebted to those who created spaces for the preservation and study of the natural world. This particular legacy consists of some 3,400 hectares amidst the dense forests and countless lakes making up the Canadian Shield country north of Kingston, where members of the university have been able to go about their scientific work for 70 years.
This precious ecological resource is the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), pronounced “cubes” by those who have come to know and love the place. Its beginnings date to 1942, a time when most people’s attention would have been on the state of war in Europe and the Pacific rather than the state of nature in Eastern Ontario. Nevertheless, Principal Robert Wallace and Biology Department Head Rollo Earl convinced the provincial government to help the university acquire a pristine, 34-hectare site on Lake Opinicon, about 70 kilometres north of main campus.
Within a few years, the “station” part had taken the form of rustic laboratories and bunk-houses to accommodate those engaged in seasonal investigations of plants, fish, birds and land animals, as well as the influence of human activities on these inhabitants and the landscape as a whole. This was the dawn of an environmental consciousness that we now take for granted as we began to assess our civilization’s ever mounting impact on the fate of species that share this planet with us.
The earliest work at QUBS therefore consisted of straightforward biological inventories, such as a survey of local wildlife conducted by founding director Wes Curran. Other work has lasted for decades, such as studies of tree swallows begun in the 1970s by then-director Raleigh Robertson that have continued to this day with Professor Fran Bonier and her students.
Current director Stephen Lougheed oversees a diversity of activities that would have been unimaginable in the 1940s. Almost 25 years after first arriving as a post-doctoral fellow, he still delights in simple outdoor pleasures such as identifying bird calls or keeping tabs on a beaver dam. And he is even more devoted to nurturing these pleasures in others, which can often be nothing less than a life-altering, career-shaping event.
“Thousands of students have gained some of their formative experiences in ecology and field biology here,” he says. Lougheed points to no fewer than 300 undergraduate and graduate theses that are based exclusively on work conducted at QUBS, along with more than 1,000 papers, many of which have appeared in the world’s leading scientific journals. Such statistics testify to the facility’s invaluable role, not simply by inspiring individuals to dedicate their lives to field research, but in providing a comparative large-scale setting where environmental processes can be examined for extended periods.
Since becoming director five years ago, Lougheed and his colleagues have worked with like-minded organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada to add some 600 hectares to QUBS. The station’s infrastructure has also evolved to accommodate offices, audio-visual equipment, and even high speed internet access.
New buildings have replaced the old ones, with the latest addition revealing what may be the heart and soul of QUBS. The Jessie V. Deslauriers Centre for Biology, officially opened in the summer of 2015, was named after an alumna who was among those who have attached some of the most rewarding moments of her life to QUBS. She provided a $1 million gift for a new research and teaching facility that now houses the official station library, several laboratories, and the 144,000 plant, lichen and moss specimens of the Fowler Herbarium, a globe-spanning collection that dates back to the Victorian era. Visitors are greeted by a life-size photograph of Deslauriers’ father, Jack Hambleton, an outdoor enthusiast and journalist who wrote books about hunting and fishing for young people. Copies of those books, along with Hambleton’s favourite fishing tackle box, adorn the library, which is named after him.
Lougheed treasures such heirlooms as much as the land held by QUBS, since they embody the spirit that must have inspired Wallace and Earl at the inception of environmental science. If they could see it today, they would undoubtedly regard their project as a success. “In the pantheon of Canadian field stations,” he concludes, “it’s certainly amongst the top.”