The first animals you pass going down the side hallway to Biology Technical Assistant Miava Reem’s office are a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Normally quiet enough to miss, but if someone tries to pick them up, they hiss and scurry away under the logs in their tank.
Just before the door of Reem’s office are the hermit crabs. The crabs and cockroaches are used as part of student labs in biology courses. Beside caring for the living collections, Reem also helps with the BIO 210: Introduction to Research course.
Besides the collections for student lab use, Reem also takes care of two box turtles in the greenhouse up a flight of stairs from her office. Mason, a three-toed box turtle, was adopted after he was found on campus. Dixon, a Carolina box turtle, is native to the area, unlike Mason. Reem brought Dixon back after saving him from a highway in southern Illinois.
“Dixon has never really taken to life in captivity here. He hates it, I think, because he’s always trying to escape,” Reem said.
Over the years, Reem has also taken care of other animals found on campus like Mason, including a three-foot long iguana injured by a lawn mower and a tarantula. However, she refuses to take care of snakes and all the pet snakes found on campus have been reunited with their owners.
Along with the greenhouse and the collections near her office, Reem also takes care of 250 gallons of saltwater aquariums down the hallway from her office. Just inside the door are the fruit fly collections, used for both experiments and to feed retired Biology Professor Linda Dybas’ poison dart frogs.
The aquariums spread around the room hold soft corals, kelp, algae, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and a single fish. In the center of the room are two cold water tanks holding two special anemones, brought from the Pacific Northwest.
“They have been residing with us here in the Biology Department, probably, I’m going to say at least 12 years, if not longer. And we can no longer collect them, so that’s why we keep this maintained, because they are the only things that are living in there right now,” Reem said.
Current regulations passed in California would require the college to obtain a yearly permit to collect from the cold water areas and other environmental legislations have made it illegal to collect certain species entirely.
The saltwater aquariums are not the only ones in the biology basement. Assistant Professor of Biology Nicholas Gidmark keeps 300 to 400 gallons of freshwater aquariums for his own research.
“I’m interested in anatomy and physiology and often times we can learn things by looking at dead animals and comparing anatomy and looking at what that species eats. But sometimes, in order to really understand functionally why different things have different shaped bones or muscles we have to look at living animals,” Gidmark said.
Gidmark’s research focuses on fish and he started keeping the aquariums when he began teaching at Knox. The fish include a carp, a dozen sunfish, 20 small catfish and 20 golden shiner minnows.
They are stored in racks of interconnected tanks on one side of his lab. His lab also holds his equipment, including high-speed cameras to better observe the fish’s behavior. Having the tanks be interconnected cuts down on maintenance because he does not need to check the water quality in all of the tanks. Gidmark does most of the maintenance himself.
“It would be great if I could have a student do it, but if I have a finite number of student hours I’d like them to be doing the science instead of just taking care of the animals,” Gidmark said.
Other collections have student caretakers. Senior Sarah Gaynor works with the zebra finches, also in the biology basement. Unlike Reem’s collections, the finch colony has been maintained even though no research has been done with them since Gaynor started in Fall Term 2016.
“They’re there kind of on standby until somebody wants to work with them,” Gaynor said.
The finches have presented some difficulties in taking care of them. The finches are kept in pairs in their cages. Gaynor said she had noticed some getting aggressive with their partners, including pulled out feathers and one death. Now many of the birds are kept in individual housing.
Restrictions on the birds mean that other students and faculty not involved with their care cannot see them. Gaynor noted thought that the caretakers themselves were not as restricted.
“They’re usually left to themselves, they’re not really like pets,” Gaynor said.
All research done on animals goes through a committee review to set ethics limitations. Gidmark explained that the professors would have followed the limitations anyways but that having the committee added an extra level of responsibility.
“We’re bound to them, but we’re happy to be bound to them,” Gidmark said.