Science Tourist: Biodome in Montreal

Let’s go to the Olympics! What? Too late? Oh.

Then let’s just go to an Olympic park. We’ll visit the velodrome that was built for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Biodome_Montreal

I wonder what’s inside…

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What?

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Oooh!

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What is this place?

The old Olympic velodrome was re-opened as the Biodome in 1992. The outside still looks like the original sports venue. The inside, not so much. What was originally one central space built for cycling races is now divided into four separate sections that each have the same climate as ecosystems of the Americas: both polar regions, a Laurentian maple forest, an estuary of the St Lawrence river, and a tropical rain forest. I’ve been here twice in the middle of winter, and the rain forest is especially attractive then. Remember warmth? This is what it was like!

The temperature of the Canadian regions varies with the time of year, although they never make it as extreme as it is outside, and it doesn’t snow either. Lucky beavers.

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Beaver dam. Beavers not pictured.

The building feels much larger inside than it actually is, because the route that takes you through all the ecosystems is a long winding road, and the vegetation makes it hard to look very far ahead.

The Biodome is also used for scientific research in areas as diverse as ecology, physiology and geography. Researchers even discovered two entirely new species at the Biodome: a mite-like creature named Copidognathus biodomus and a previously unknown bacterium. These tiny creatures also exist in the wild, but it’s much easier to find them in a smaller area, like a velodrome.

Just like real ecosystems, the fauna changes over time, although it’s bit more controlled: A few months ago, a baby lynx was born in the Laurentian forest area of the Biodome. It has now moved to the Toronto Zoo, to increase genetic diversity in captivity, but a new inhabitant arrived just last week: a 7kg (about 15 pounds?) lobster moved into the St Lawrence gulf exhibit.

There are similar regulated indoor ecosystems, or simulated biomes, elsewhere in the world. Biosphere 2 in Arizona is the largest one, and was built as a research facility to study the interactions between humans and nature in a confined space. (The experiments at Arizona’s Biosphere inspired the movie Bio-Dome, which is entirely unrelated to the Montreal attraction of this name.) You can visit Biosphere, but it’s primarily a research facility. It’s now owned by the University of Arizona, which uses it for climate studies. (And I just discovered they run science writing internships!) The Eden Project in Cornwall is another collection of indoor biomes. Like the Biodome in Montreal, the Eden Project was built primarily as tourist attraction. All three projects date from the eighties and nineties, when preservation and ecological outreach were at their peak. Both the Eden Project and Biosphere are on my list of places I want to visit, but I need to plan trips around them.

Unlike its rural cousins, the Montreal Biodome is right on the subway line, so it’s much more accessible, and I’ve made a point of visiting it every time I’m in Montreal. Some nearby buildings are science museums, too: Together with the insectarium, botanical garden, and soon to open planetarium, the Biodome is part of the “Space for Life”. It’s well worth the trip on its own, though, and it’s one of my favourite destinations in this travel series, if only for the capybaras.

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Capybara!


(Photo of outside of Biodome by PtitLutin on Wikimedia commons.)

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