Cover Story / Summer 2003
Animal Instincts

The evolution of zoology. From an ex-minister who denounced Darwin to today’s research juggernaut, zoology at U of T has come a long way in 150 years. And just look where it’s going now


Poor Reverend William Hincks. The father of U of T zoology would scarcely recognize his department today. The fledgling university’s first chair in natural history would be disappointed to see no sign of his beloved collection of stuffed birds, and dismayed by the emphasis on evolution.

When Hincks started teaching biology at U of T in 1853, Charles Darwin was still going over his notes. Six years later, Darwin published The Origin of Species, outlining his belief in “descent with modification” as the defining force in the gradual evolution of diverse life forms. Hincks, a former Unitarian minister, attacked Darwin’s theories, praising the “unity of plan and perfection of design” in the creation theory of the Old Testament. For 18 years, his teaching focused on having his students memorize an arcane method of classifying species in groups of five.

As the U of T zoology department this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, much has changed. Zoology has moved on from identifying and describing species to studying them at the cellular level. A science founded on collections of preserved animals now includes molecular biology, ecology and animal adaptation – the stuff of evolution itself. Today, U of T zoologists explore biodiversity under the canopies of rainforests, study fish populations in the Great Lakes, and unravel the mysteries of cellular behaviour. Whether or not Rev. Hincks would approve, zoology is no longer about what sets species apart, but the characteristics they share – and our growing knowledge of the interdependence of all life on earth.

Ironically, U of T missed a chance to get off to a flying start in the brave new world of evolutionary biology. One of Hincks’s rivals for the natural history post was Thomas Henry Huxley, a 27-year-old medical doctor who had conducted award-winning biological research while roaming the South Seas with the Royal Navy. Huxley’s application included enthusiastic recommendations from the most promising biologists of the time – including Darwin. But the post went to Hincks for political reasons; he was the brother of then-premier Francis Hincks. In his recent book, The University of Toronto: A History, Martin Friedland calls that decision “unpardonable.”

Huxley went on to become one of the 19th century’s best-known scientists (as well as grandfather of Aldous Huxley, author of the anti-utopian novel Brave New World). Hincks, meanwhile, went on “favouring the memorization of outmoded and implausible taxonomic schemes,” notes James Thomson, current chair of zoology. “Hincks tenaciously continued a lacklustre professorial career until his death at age 79.”

The second chair, Professor Henry Alleyne Nicholson, held the post from 1871 to 1874. A young and vigorous researcher (he published 26 papers in those three years), he nonetheless held mixed feelings about the biggest scientific controversy of the time. “There seems to be some great law of evolution,” he acknowledged. “But at the same time, there are many facts that may go to show that there may be some other law modifying the law of evolution.”

It was up to the third chair of natural history to shift the emphasis from nomenclature to research. Biologist Robert Ramsay Wright was the perfect candidate. Charismatic yet refined, Wright had a unique talent: using both hands, he could write two different sentences on the blackboard simultaneously. His ambidextrous talents aptly reflected his dual scientific interests: the outdoor work of ecology (the study of organisms’ relationship to their environment) and the laboratory-based study of embryology (the study of organisms’ formation and development).

Evolution gained acceptance slowly under Wright, but the biological sciences made great leaps forward in his 38-year run. Wright was one of the first professors to incorporate laboratory work into the curriculum and microscopes into the classroom. (Mind you, not all the new scientific trends of the day were worth adopting. Wright is also said to have strongly supported eugenics, a short-lived pseudo-science that aimed to improve the human race by selective breeding.)

For the most part, however, the department made great strides under Wright. The department of natural history changed its name to biology in 1887. In 1889 a new biological building was built on the site of today’s medical sciences building.

The incorporation of practical laboratory work wasn’t painless. On February 14, 1890, fire raged through University College after porter Alexander Pride tripped on the stairs while carrying a tray of oil lamps. The university’s museum, including many of Hincks’s stuffed specimens, was destroyed in the blaze – as were 15 to 20 microscopes worth $60 each, a small fortune at that time. Still, science pushed forward: the microscopes were replaced and practical research flourished under Wright.

(Mr. Pride would later gain employment in the departmental supply room on the top floor of the biological building, and make more claims on history. When the elephant from a travelling circus died in Toronto, Pride dissected it in the building’s quadrangle – an activity not widely appreciated by his colleagues. Later he fled in fear when an electric fan started a fire in his supply room, but students extinguished the flames before they could cause a second catastrophe.)

Wright’s legacy of broadening biology continued under his successor, Benjamin Arthur Bensley. Armed with a dry wit, Bensley reportedly once argued against keeping a live monkey in the department for fear it might be mistaken for one of the staff. He was also willing to test both sides of an issue. Although he objected to women teaching, he grudgingly hired Norma Ford as the department’s first female instructor in 1924.

Bensley kept a collection of living animals that included monkeys, snakes and fish. Residing on the building’s top floor under the care of keeper William LeRay, the animals were brought out for show-and-tell in class. But when LeRay died, all but the aquariums were given up. (Today, fish still swim in tanks in the foyer of the zoology building – the last public remnant of the department’s live animal collections.)

Bensley’s lasting gift to U of T was the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory, which would become a leading centre for fisheries research. Created in 1921 with Ontario government aid, the laboratory was meant to study fish stocks vital to the economy as well as the surrounding waterways. The laboratory, which later came under the jurisdiction of the federal department of fisheries and oceans, remains an important teaching tool and graduate research centre at U of T.

The creation of this centre not only provided further opportunity to observe the natural world; it also marked the transition in biology from understanding animals for their own sake to studying their habits and environment in an attempt to learn more about how life works.

Under the leadership of entomologist Edmund Murton Walker, who headed the department from 1934 to 1948, zoology reclaimed the study of physiology from the Faculty of Medicine. Originally, biologists studied living organisms by noting their form and structure, otherwise known as morphology. Now they wanted to learn more about how organisms actually function. This knowledge, they hoped, would advance our understanding not only of how animals and cells behave, but also of the human body.

To accommodate researchers’ increasingly specialized fields, the department of biology splintered into several different sections in 1940. These fields included pathology and bacteriology (now part of the Faculty of Medicine), botany, forestry and zoology itself.

The next head of zoology, J. R. Dymond, brought an activist’s spirit to the department. A passionate member of the Ontario Federation of Naturalists, he added ecology to the curriculum. With zoology having outgrown its 1889 home, Dymond also began lobbying for a new building. But it was his successor, physiologist Kenneth C. Fisher, who finished the job.

Fisher, who led the department from 1956 to 1967, studied the physiology of lemmings. But the biological building was so cramped he had to maintain his lemming colony in the supply room. Similarly, researchers in the growing field of experimental entomology needed more room to house their insect colonies. Meanwhile, the growing focus on physiology required new staff and new facilities. Overall, the zoology faculty were scattered among six different buildings.

Fisher boldly proposed a grand new building: the quarter-million-square-foot Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories. With its modern laboratories and lecture halls, animal-care facilities and plant-growth rooms, high-tech equipment and closed-circuit television studios, it would be the most modern biology building in North America.

The new facility opened in 1965, stimulating a burst of overdue expansion in staffing levels and teaching at both graduate and undergrad levels. At the same time, Fisher was commissioned by the Science Council of Canada to direct a report on the study of biology, the first attempt to alert governments in Canada to the importance of biological research.

There was much to get excited about. The structure of DNA, the molecular blueprint for organic life, was being unravelled; it would eventually lead to such diverse breakthroughs as forensic DNA testing and cloning. From now on, studying animals would have to include exploring their genetic information as well as their environment.

When entomologist Donald Chant took over as chair in 1967, he made a point of wooing talented staff to fill the budding disciplines of molecular, cell and developmental biology. He also recruited cell biologist Yoshio Masui, whose work would alter cancer research (see “Inside the Cell” sidebar).

Chant’s other lasting legacy would be opening Canadian eyes to environmentalism. An expert in natural alternatives to pesticides, he was one of Canada’s first anti-pollution crusaders, and co-founder of Pollution Probe. “The seriousness of pollution can hardly be over-stressed,” said Chant in a 1969 interview with U of T’s Graduate magazine. “There’s no question at all that many, many aspects of pollution – unless we do something about them immediately – are going to make life in the environment that we inhabit virtually intolerable.” Chant wasn’t satisfied with sounding alarms; he also led the successful fight to ban the deadly pesticide DDT.
I’m like a bird

A fierce advocate of academic research, Chant pushed his colleagues to produce science with real-world applications – and actively participate in the issues they can influence. “Whether in universities or elsewhere,” he said, “scientists can ensure that their work, if at all possible, has relevance to real situations…. Scientists don’t wield many votes, but they do have a certain body of knowledge which they must bring to public attention.” In biology, Chant issued an activist manifesto: “Scientists can assist citizens in mounting rational action programs to help solve problems of environmental quality,” he said. “If satisfactory pollution controls aren’t introduced, then scientists may have to take the lead in organizations that will go to the ultimate extreme of legal action.”

Chant went on to serve as U of T provost and vice-president from 1975 to 1980. A 15-year volunteer as chief science adviser to World Wildlife Fund Canada, he was named to the Order of Canada in 1988.

In the 21st century, zoology is attaining unprecedented importance. The gap between human and animal is closing. We now know that to better understand humanity we must compare ourselves with the other species on our planet. What began with classifying the natural world is now a hunt to head off ecological disasters and solve medical mysteries that have evaded us too long.

Rarely now do zoological breakthroughs come from furry “zoo animals.” Increasingly, U of T zoologists concentrate on smaller organisms that provide important clues about the nature of evolution and the evolution of nature.

Take the spiny water flea, Bythotrephes, a half-inch crustacean related to shrimp. It arrived in North America in 1984 after hitching a ride in European ships that travelled up the St. Lawrence Seaway. The voracious fleas snap up food from plankton, which normally feed native fish.

Something so small may seem insignificant, but it could alter the food webs of the Great Lakes. (More aware of species interdependence within ecosystems, biologists don’t say food chains any more.) Because its spiny tail makes it an unappetizing meal for fish, the water flea is a serious threat to fish stocks that are important to both the environment and the economy. “This is just as serious as the cod fishing disaster in eastern Canada,” says Gary Sprules, aquatic ecologist at U of T studying aquatic food webs in the Great Lakes. “Families on the lakes could lose their livelihood if major changes in the food web occur.”

Monitoring the spread of any new species is particularly important in an area already hit hard by invaders such as the zebra mussel and the sea lamprey. “Right now, the Great Lakes are ghosts of their former selves, so many native species have been replaced by exotic species,” says Sprules.

Even tinier organisms are capturing the interest of evolutionary biologist Dan Brooks, who is recording the parasites found in the Guanacaste Conservation Area, a 400-square-mile protected area in Costa Rica. Guanacaste has become a laboratory of biodiversity in which biologists from all over the world are trying to document every species, from virus to jaguar. Identifying parasites, organisms that live on or inside larger animals, is a crucial part of any conservation plan: they can cause diseases that threaten animal populations and sometimes cross over into humans.

Brooks and his team discovered a roundworm parasite in Guanacaste’s whitetail deer population. Normally, this parasite lives harmlessly in the lining of the whitetail’s brain. But when it gets into other animals, this roundworm can cause a fatal neurological condition commonly called drunken moose disease. (This phenomenon is found occasionally in Ontario’s cottage country, where moose infected by deer parasites lose their faculties and wander unsteadily, often into towns.)

Brooks’s discovery has already proved important. Talks had been underway to reintroduce mazamas, a forest-dwelling deer, into northern Costa Rica, from which they had been driven by hunting and agriculture. But there they would encounter higher numbers of whitetail deer, forest-edge animals whose habitat has been increasing. “Introducing mazamas back in with the whitetail deer population would risk exposing them to a neurological disease,” says Brooks. “Not a good idea.”

Data gleaned from protected areas such as Guanacaste could one day help biologists recreate sustainable environments in areas devastated by development or ecological disaster. “There have been mass extinctions before,” says Brooks. “If we haven’t trashed the planet completely, we can create an environment where life can occur again.”

Zoology research at U of T has big implications in medicine as well as nature. Researchers are using fruit flies, for instance, to understand diseases such as cancer. Fruit flies are favourite objects of study because they experience a complete life cycle – birth, growth, reproduction and death – in a few weeks. Since cancer is a disease where cell development goes haywire, researchers can use fly cells to study diseases developing at Mach speed.

Still, larger animals do play a role in research. Comparative biochemist and physiologist Les Buck is studying how Western painted turtles survive with very little oxygen. The painted turtles, found throughout North America, go without oxygen (a condition known as anoxia) for up to six months at the bottom of frozen ponds.

Buck’s research has uncovered the cellular mechanisms that lower metabolism and allow the turtles to survive without oxygen. “The first step is to determine whether or not these mechanisms are present in a mammalian system,” says Buck. “If so, how can we manipulate them to generate a certain response, such as anoxia-intolerance?” He hopes his work could lead to new treatments for strokes or heart attacks, as well as applications in organ storage and anesthesia, where oxygen levels play a major part.

Could Rev. Hincks have predicted where zoology would be today, with 60 full-time faculty members (at three different campuses) involved in everything from cancer research to evolutionary ecology? Probably not. Can the current chair, James Thomson, predict the next 150 years? He is willing to try. “The next phase of zoology will turn away from data collection and toward theory and synthesis,” says Thomson. Instead of “how,” the question will be “why:” “What does this all mean? What is the big picture?”

The “big picture,” the story of life itself, can only be found by linking all the departments that study living organisms. This is why zoology works with departments such as botany and life sciences, as well as curators at the Royal Ontario Museum. At the undergrad level, first-year course BIO150 is a collaborative effort between botany and zoology. Doing away with textbooks and bringing in top speakers on timely issues of evolution and ecology, the course won U of T’s Northrop Frye Award in 1999 for innovation in linking research and teaching.

The last century saw the Age of Physics and the rise of computers. Could this be the Age of Biology? Thomson arches a skeptical eyebrow, but he does believe biological knowledge is exploding – and none too soon. “It’s a depressing thought, but worse-case scenarios such as massive extinction are entirely possible,” says Thomson. “A major thrust of research will be the effect of large scale human changes on the basic processes of life.” A thrust that will doubtlessly keep U of T zoology evolving, along with the fruit flies, for the next 150 years.

Back to Nature
Among the honking cars and concrete buildings of the St. George campus, undiscovered by most passersby, a natural ecosystem is struggling to survive.

The project began in 1994 as a joint venture between the zoology department and U of T Facilities and Services staff to test a theory: that native plants would thrive better on campus than non-native ones, thus requiring less in the way of pesticides or maintenance. They transformed a manicured lawn just south of the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories into Zoo Woods, a patch of woodland planted with native species of plants and trees rather than plain grass or exotic flowers.

What’s wrong with a lawn? “Acres of lawn with just grass is a desert,” says zoology professor Ann Zimmerman, director of the Faculty of Arts and Science’s division of the environment. “It provides no ecological integrity; it has no species that are adapted to that landscape.”

Complete with fallen trees, waterfall and artificial pond, ZooWoods should make prime animal habitat. One department initiative is to reintroduce frogs, long ago driven away by urban development. Frogs are an important part of an ecosystem, keeping insect and algae levels in check. On a deeper level, they are a vivid reminder of what’s been lost. “We’ve become so far removed from nature,” says Zimmerman. “Sometimes it’s just nice to hear the frogs and the toads croaking.”

Introducing any animal into a changed environment is a tricky business. The young trees in Zoo Woods still offer little shade from the summer sun. And January’s deep freeze turned the pond to solid ice, killing the frogs waiting out the winter in the mud at the bottom. But Zimmerman remains undaunted. “This is all part of a recipe that we need to get just right,” she says. “They would never have returned on their own. Hopefully, we’ll be able to bring them back.”

Inside the Cell
When Yoshio Masui arrived at U of T in 1968, his area of expertise was practically unknown. But developmental biology, the study of development in living organisms, would soon become an essential discipline. And Masui himself would become one of U of T’s most honoured scholars.

“It was challenging,” recalls Masui, who chose Toronto over his native Japan because he thought Canada offered young scientists more freedom in research. “There were very few developmental biologists in Canada. I thought if I workedas hard as I could, I might make some contribution.”

That contribution proved to be a major breakthrough in cancer research. Masui and his students decoded the process that governs cell division in organisms.

After years of research with oocytes (unfertilized eggs), Masui was able to pinpoint two protein factors that rule cell proliferation. The first, the maturation promoting factor (MPF), initiates cell division; the second, the cytostatic factor (CSF), stops it. Masui also developed a microinjection technique to transfer controlled amounts of MPF and CSF directly into cells. Controlling cell growth is significant; cancer results from excess cell proliferation.

Masui received the 1990 Manning Award for Innovation for what the judges called “a major step forward in the battle against cancer.” In 1992 he received Canada’s Gairdner International Award; he donated half the prize money to endow two graduate awards for international students in zoology at U of T. In 1998 Masui won the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, often considered America’s Nobel Prize.

Retired from teaching, Masui continues his research and still ponders the mysteries of the cell. “We basically understand the molecular mechanisms of how cells can divide and proliferate, so we’ve just jumped one hurdle,” he says. The next step is to investigate the timing: “How do cells know when they have to divide?” A challenge for the next generation of biology pioneers.

Reality 101
It is zoology’s version of Survivor. In February, 23 U of T students found themselves working in the hot, steamy tropical forests of Ecuador. Sleeping in tents, dripping from humidity, these students discovered first-hand the unique lifestyle of a field biologist.

“You leave a lot of your comforts,”says Nicole Mideo, a third-year undergraduate who paid her own expenses and airfare to take the field course. “I didn’t realize there were so many bugs around me, but my body showed it. I was covered in bites.”

Every year, U of T undergrads participate in biology field courses held around the world, to further their research prowess and get a taste of life in the field. “It’s a nice filter,” says Royal Ontario Museum senior curator Chris Darling, who taught this year’s Ecuador course through his cross-appointment with U of T zoology. “Some people just can’t operate in these situations, or they say, ‘This is the last time I’m doing this.’”

Mideo’s research involved comparing ferns and flowering plants to see which came most under attack from herbivores. “I always thought I wanted to do some sort of research, so getting to go on a field course was like getting to test out what you want to do,” she says. Her verdict after one week in the wild? “It definitely didn’t change my mind,” she says. “But I think I’d like to do it again to be sure.”

Karen Kelly is a freelance writer in Markham, Ont.


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Ken Pride on December 29th, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

Alexander Pride was my great grandfather.

Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, Not for Publication
optional, eg: BSc 2008

Next story in this issue: »
Previous story in this issue: «