One day in 1960, David Latimer inserted a sprout, some soil and a little water in a glass jug, which he then sealed. A plant has been growing there ever since that day, with no outside intervention – well, just once, to add a bit of water.
There you have a very simple example of an artificial ecosystem: an environment where life develops in balance with all the elements in place.
Nature is rich in ecosystems of that sort, although a lot more complex! They can take the form of a field, a forest, a lake or a desert, for example.
A visit to the Biodôme allows you to discover representations of five of them. After a spell in the humidity of the tropical rainforest you’ll pass through the Laurentian maple forest and then the Gulf of St. Lawrence aquatic ecosystem before discovering the austere environment of the subarctic territories and the sub-Antarctic islands.
Concealed behind the creation of each one is painstaking work. You can find out how much by watching the documentary L’arche de verre. Each ecosystem includes not just its fauna and flora, but also its own microorganisms!
For instance, the creators of the Biodôme inoculated the soil of the tropical rainforest with mycorrhizae, those fungi that help tree roots capture nutrients. They also introduced bacteria in the aquatic environments that break down waste left by animals.
Through the impact they have on their living environment, each of the species in an ecosystem plays a key role and contributes to the creation of an overall equilibrium. That holds true both for the controlled environments of the Biodôme and for those found everywhere in nature.
But the latter have to deal with external elements such as variations in temperature, light, or humidity levels, among others things. If one of those factors varies drastically, or if a new living element joins the ecosystem, the great balance of the populations located there could be seriously upset. The arrival in a habitat of a parasitic insect, for example, will harm not only the plant being targeted by it but also the animal species that depend on that plant, until a new balance is established among the species.
The controlled environment of the ecosystem representations at the Biodôme allows them to avoid a similar situation. Which is not to say that the creation of those artificial habitats didn’t amount to quite the challenge – just like the one created by David Latimer 58 years ago!