Five ecosystems, 250 animal species, one stop: the Biôdome

Photos: Melani LitwackPhotos: Melani Litwack

A rare glimpse at the inner workings of the Biodôme, home to otters and capybaras

A rare glimpse at the inner workings of the Biodôme, home to otters and capybaras


The Biodôme is not a zoo. It is an immersive exploration of five ecosystems—three of which are distinctly Canadian.

In 1989, a feasibility study was conducted on Montreal’s former Olympic Velodrome and three years later it was repurposed as the Biodôme—a zoological marvel unlike anything Montrealers had ever seen. Twenty years later, it houses more than 1,500 plant and 250 animal species seen by more than 800,000 visitors each year.

The tour begins in the heat of a tropical rainforest where birds roam free, monkeys swing in the trees and the world’s largest rodents, capybaras, lounge below.

On exiting, a blast of cold air might catch you by surprise as you head for the Laurentian maple forest, where you’ll find freshwater fish, beavers, porcupines, lynx and river otters.

The Gulf of Saint Lawrence can be viewed from below. Sturgeons swim and birds fly through the water as easily as the air above, where you can watch them roost on the rocks.

Then it’s on to the polar opposites: a Labrador coast featuring auks and other arctic birds and the Antarctic shore with its popular penguins.

Photos: Melani Litwack

Photos: Melani Litwack

Managing such diverse habitats is challenging—temperature and lighting have to be tightly controlled and the animals have to be cared for and stimulated. In February, the Botanical Garden, Insectarium and Biodôme, known collectively as Space for Life, won an award for their energy initiatives.

Energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions in the three buildings have been cut by nearly half. The Biodôme is upgrading its skylights, which will not only save on energy costs but will allow better control of lighting in the exhibits. The climate control system is particularly impressive—water is pumped from an underground spring where the temperature is a constant 12C. Heat is removed by a heat pump and sent to the areas that need it while the cold water cycles through the other environments. Additional heat can be provided through the use of a geothermal system.

The attention to detail has paid off. In the last two decades, more than 160 chicks have hatched in the polar habitats and a female Gentoo penguin recently celebrated her 33rd birthday, making her the oldest avian at the Biodôme.

Like the plants and animals that inhabit it, the Biodôme continues to grow and evolve. Plans are being drafted for the 25th anniversary in 2017, which is also Montreal’s 375th birthday.

The Biodôme is offering a free visit to anyone born in 1992.

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