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What do you mean fish are swimming in the walls?

A conversation with CMU’s first-ever aquatic vivarium manager

Contact: Dan Digmann


​​​The living wall and two freshwater aquariums are like natural works of art adorning the first floor hallway of Central Michigan University's new Biosciences Building. Michael O'Neill — CMU's first-ever aquatic vivarium manager — is the point person for maintaining these and the building's vivarium, which includes water tanks and temperature-controlled spaces that replicate real-life aquatic conditions for research.

On the job for about six months, O'Neill is busy settling everything into place before students start taking classes in the facility in January. More than 20 trout were added to the aquarium in early November, and additional, different species of fish will join them as research continues to develop within the 170,000-square-foot facility.

O'Neill recently took a break for this conversation about where he's been, his new role at CMU and how he sees students will benefit from the new Biosciences Building.

What is your role here?

As CMU's first-ever aquatic vivarium manager, I oversee the aquariums and the living walls. As research goes on, I'll help ensure all the research is being run the way it was intended, make sure all of the animals look happy and healthy while they're here.

What's the purpose of having these aquariums?

The faculty will come to me with a species they're conducting research on, so if we can bring those fish in and have them on exhibit, it's a fantastic opportunity to promote their research. There also are two monitors to help share information and inspire students to want to work with specific research projects. I think those monitors are an enormous benefit to the aquariums as opposed to someone just walking up and seeing some fish.

Where did you come from and why CMU?

I came from Chicago. As far as coming to CMU, I saw the posting and it was just something that I thought would be a nice change, as far as working at a university. To be able to bring my background to the research that faculty and students want to do is pretty exciting, as is the ability to be involved with more research than in a typical zoo or aquarium setting.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school in Chicago at St. Xavier University. It was fairly small when I went there, but it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I studied biology, and then I had a focus in ecology. I always like to see how everything sort of goes together. Because everything's connected.

What is your dream job?

When I was in school, I did an internship and volunteered at Shedd Aquarium. It just happened when I graduated, there was a spot open. It just worked out perfectly. I never wanted to leave Chicago.

And here you are in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Actually, I love it because I've always loved the outdoors and hiking, photography, fishing. And in order to do that in Chicago you have to drive at least two hours to find something relatively nice.

How much did CMU's Institute for Great Lakes Research influence you to pursue this job?

When I was interviewing for this position and was reading more about the university, the Biological Station on Beaver Island was very impressive. So was the amount of grants they've brought in to do more and more research on the Great Lakes. If you look at it, most zoos and aquariums don't focus on stuff that's in your own backyard, but that's where it starts, to educate people that they can actually do something right in their own backyard to help the area where you're living.

How do you do inventory of the fish in the aquariums?

I guess that's just with experience, I can come in and you look for them. You can spot them and you can tell little subtle differences. One may have a slight deformed fin or one may have an odd marking or something like that so you just kind of pick up on those things. I think I would accredit that to when I was working at Shedd, working in the health part of it. You have to make sure they're completely healthy.

At capacity, how many fish will be in the aquariums?

There are so many factors: species of fish, the temperature, compatibility, so it can vary. We could have a tank full of darters and minnows, or we can have it where it is now with trout and salmon.

How many are native to Michigan?

Right now, just the brook trout. We're looking to bring in some arctic grayling, which are actually extinct in Michigan now, but there are efforts to bring them back. That's probably one of the most exciting things.


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