Aquatic facility opens at University of Derby in conjunction with Sea Life Centre to develop research

16 November 2016

Freshwater mussels and African fish are just some of the latest inhabitants at the University of Derby as the institution opens an aquatic facility to help develop vital underwater research.

In conjunction with the National Sea Life Centre, in Birmingham, the University has created a specialist room containing a series of tanks, which will allow students, staff and project partners of the University to answer real world issues associated with marine and freshwater systems.

The space has been designed for dedicated research in animal behaviour, welfare and disease to help fill the gap in zoo and aquarium conservation research and will start by housing tadpoles, reef corals, freshwater mussels and Malawi Cichlids – a species of African fish.

Dr Michael Sweet, Lecturer in Invertebrate Biology at the University of Derby, who helped to officially open the facility yesterday (Tuesday, November 15), said: “The creation of this facility has taken over two years of planning and development and it is a very exciting time to see them progress into a reality. As far as we are aware, we are the only university to have a dedicated aquatic research facility associated with zoo and aquarium research and this is something which we are very proud of because of the impact we believe we can make on the industry.

“Such a facility allows us to design studies with a high level of replication, ensuring any findings are valid and robust and can then be utilised by zoos, aquariums and conservationists for developing management strategies aimed at improving welfare and husbandry for a wide variety of different organisms around the world.”

Biological Sciences student Grace Humphrey has been using the facility for her final masters project to analyse the mating choices of Malawi Cichlids and whether females can detect genetic fitness before mating.

Grace, 25, said: “The results concluded that females prefer males who showed more courtship display and colouration. My results also suggest that maintaining a constant, stable temperature in behavioural research is important to record true behaviours. This supports previous research on female mate choice and also adds important knowledge where it concerns behavioural research methods that can be used by zoologists in the future.

“I am really impressed with the development of the aquatic research facility and it has helped me to carry out my project successfully. It has provided me with a more suitable environment to house the fish, with more space and a scientific setting to conduct my research.”

In a separate saltwater tank, an analysis is currently being carried out on the effect of increases in water temperature on feeding rates of reef building corals.

And another project currently underway is the role of protein in tadpole development and the reduction of spindly leg syndrome – a condition which causes tadpoles to have brittle and turned out legs.

Next year, the aquatic research facility is hoping to welcome freshwater swan mussels, along with white clawed crayfish, various sea star species and could even explore aspects of development in elasmobranch (baby sharks and rays). 

To coincide with the launch of the facility, a public lecture, ‘Tackling Research in Zoos and Aquariums’ was held last night (Tuesday, November 15) at the University to explain how the institution will be using the facility and how it will work with the National Sea Life Centre.

The collaboration between the National Sea Life Centre, in Birmingham, and the University of Derby allows two-way knowledge exchange between the two institutions, as well as further afield for various projects. Sea Life hope to develop the partnership by encouraging students at the University to undertake internships at the attraction, working with the animal care team to mutually educate one another with the aims of advancing animal husbandry knowledge, as well as supporting research projects to deliver valuable results for the sector.

The research conducted at the Birmingham Sea Life Centre was introduced by University of Derby PhD student James Robson, who was also Curator at the National Sea Life Centre at the time. The collaboration is a big step in the industry, as James Robson, now Senior Curator at Sea Life London Aquarium, explains: “The importance of this facility cannot be overstated as it will act as a bridge between industry experts from aquariums and zoos, who have spent their lives learning the best ways to care for and control the environment of the animals within their facility, with the expertise of world renowned researchers and the use of the wider resources within the University of Derby.

“This cross pollination of ideas, skills and resources will enable the in depth research and further the understanding of the behaviour, biology and husbandry of the vast taxa of species found within the Zoo and Aquarium collections as well as design unique life support systems that can recreate the conditions found in the oceans of the past and future which will help to predict the impact of climate change on animals in the wild.”  

Dr Chris Bussell, Dean of the College of Life and Natural Sciences at the University of Derby, said: “Our Aquatic Research Facility offers our students an opportunity to participate in high-level research and work with some of the world leaders in the field of aquarium and zoo research.

“This facility will improve the knowledge for communities and we look forward to developing excellent aquatic research over the coming years.”

To watch a video of the facility being created, as well as the University’s partnership with Sea Life.

Find out more about studying Biological Sciences at the University of Derby.