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NEWS & VIEWS FROM MUSEUM VICTORIA

Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea

Author
by Melanie Raymond
Publish date
2 September 2015
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Cover of Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea
Cover of Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea
Source: Museum Victoria
One hundred million years ago, Australia was not so much a continent, as a series of islands interconnected by vast shallow waterways. In place of our central deserts, lay great expanses of water, the legendary ‘inland sea’ once sought by European explorers a hundred million years too late. The Eromanga Sea teemed with a rich and diverse fauna and flora which left their remains to fossilise on the bottom of the ancient sea floor.


We didn’t end up using this blurb but it did catch my interest. Danielle Clode, a science writer and previous Thomas Ramsay Fellow at Museum Victoria, sent it to me as part of her sales pitch for a new title. That title, now called Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea, has just been published. It is the third book in the Museum Victoria Nature series.

The first book was Tom Rich’s Polar Dinosaurs and the second, Danielle Clode’s Prehistoric giants. The megafauna of Australia. The latter was shortlisted in the prestigious CBCA awards in 2008 and continues to be a bestseller for Museum Victoria Publishing.

Platypterygius australis: Ichthyosaur Platypterygius australis skull and rostrum specimen. An extinct ichthyosaur from the Cretaceous period.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Prehistoric marine conjures up the vanished world of the Aptian/Albian period. Written for a young audience who may never have heard of the Eromanga Sea, Prehistoric marine introduces us to a foreign landscape and its inhabitants. Monstrous Kronosaurus queenslandicus ruled the shallow inland seas, and other sharp-toothed predators, including sharks and ichthyosaurs, cruised around, looking for prey. On the sea floor, there was also an abundance of life, including the impressive Tropaeum imperator, an ammonite which measured up to 75 cm wide and was mistaken for a tractor tyre when first discovered.

Platypterygius australis cartilage muscle overlay Reconstruction of platypterygius australis, an ichthyosaur from the Cretaceous period with cartilage muscle overlay showing developmental process of drawings.
Image: Peter Trusler
Source: Peter Trusler
 

You can hear Danielle talk about her book with Robyn Williams on ABC Radio National's Science Show.

  Artist's interpretation of a Kronosaurus catching a pterosaur Prehistoric marine creature Kronosaurus (similar to a crocodile) leaping out of the ocean to catch a pterosaur
Image: Tor Sponga
Source: Bergens Tidende
 

Explore our collections 24/7

Author
by Ely Wallis
Publish date
28 August 2015
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Over the past two years, a team of programmers, designers, curators, collection managers and database experts from across Museum Victoria have been working on a new, integrated website for our collections. We are excited to announce that the MV Collections website is now live.

The new site provides a single website to explore our Humanities (including history, technology and Indigenous collections) and Natural Sciences (including zoology, palaeontology and geology) records, with over 1.14 million item and specimen records from our collections, and over 3000 authored articles and species profiles, representing our research.

Museum Victoria Collections website homepage Museum Victoria Collections website homepage  

As well as providing lots of information, there are more than 150,000 images on the site. Over 80,000 were taken by our own MV photographers and staff. We have applied a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license to these images so that anyone can reuse them, as long as the image is credited back to MV. In addition, 31,000 more images are shown as being in the public domain, which means that there are no known copyright restrictions on their use.

The text is also all available for reuse and there’s a handy ‘Cite this page’ reference for students and teachers.

Use the site on your mobile device

The website has been designed to be used on whatever size screen suits you best. Desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones of all sizes will all work.

For programmers

For programmers and developers, the Our API section makes our data available for use by other institutions on their sites. You’ll already find MV data in DigitalNZ, the National Library of Australia’s Trove and the Atlas of Living Australia.

Also, the website code is available as open source on GitHub in Museum Victoria’s repository for any developers who wish to explore what’s under the hood.

Search

The search function is powerful, and quick, but there are a few hints that are handy to know.

Firstly, you don’t need to enter any search term at all – and if you don’t, you’ll get back every record in the system. That’s over a million results!

Each word you type is searched separately. For example, a search for Melbourne fashion will give all records with Melbourne plus all records with fashion. Records with both words should come up high in the results.

Museum Victoria Collections search with search term of "Melbourne fashion"Museum Victoria Collections search with search term of "Melbourne fashion"

If you want to force the system to search on a phrase, use quote marks “” around the phrase. E.g., try “Port Phillip Bay”.

Search on a phrase: “Port Phillip Bay”Search on a phrase: “Port Phillip Bay”

If you have already done a search, e.g. for the word tractor, you can add extra terms by typing in the additional word or phrase then click the “plus” button to the right of the search box. Adding an extra term will result in a smaller set of results. For example, the search below will give you results for all tractors in the collection that are associated with Shepparton.

Search which will give results for all tractors in the collection associated with SheppartonSearch which will give results for all tractors in the collection associated with Shepparton

Another way to refine your search results is to use the filters on the left of the screen. You can turn on or off as many filters as you want.

Museum Victoria Collections website search filters Museum Victoria Collections website search filters  

Features coming soon

We’re still working on a few features. Next up to be added is the ability to download images.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy exploring MV Collections, any time of the day or night.

Read our historic field diaries online

Author
by Nicole K
Publish date
14 August 2015
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In November last year, Museum Victoria started a project to digitise and transcribe the field diaries in our collection. These diaries, handwritten by Australia's early field naturalists long before the days of electronic notetaking, are rich in scientific data and historic detail. They provide insights into past species distribution and abundance, as well as the trials and wonders experienced on historic expeditions.

  Afternoon tea with Graham Brown (this diary, volume 4, is now viewable on the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Afternoon tea with Graham Brown (this diary, volume 4, is now viewable on the Biodiversity Heritage Library).
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

They are fascinating sources of information and yet very few people have ever read them. As handwritten documents, each was created as a single hard copy. They have been carefully stored in the museum's archives for decades, protected from dust and light but inaccessible to anyone but the few curators who knew of their existence. Until now.

Rebecca Carland, MV's History of Collections Curator, with Graham Brown's field diaries. Rebecca Carland, MV's History of Collections Curator, with Graham Brown's field diaries.
Image: Nicole Kearney
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Over the past nine months we have digitised 24 historic field diaries from our collection and have been steadily uploading them onto DigiVol, the online volunteer transcription portal developed by the Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian Museum. In DigiVol, the pages can be individually transcribed, with a verification process ensuring the quality of the result.

We are immensely grateful to the volunteers who have contributed their time and attention to transcribing our field diaries. Ten field diaries have been fully transcribed and the volunteers are now working on a diary written by notable ornithologist Frederick Lee Berney between 1898 and 1904.

The first collection of five field diaries to be run through the digitisation and transcription process was produced by Graham Brown between 1948 and 1958. Now that they have been transcribed, the contents of the diaries can be searched and the data extracted. When analysed, Brown's diaries contained 5611 bird sightings, complete with dates and locations. This historic data will now be made available to scientists and can be used to inform climate change studies and species management plans.

A small fraction of the 5611 bird observations Graham Brown recorded in his diaries. A small fraction of the 5611 bird observations Graham Brown recorded in his diaries.
Image: Nicole Kearney
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The next step is to make the images of the field diaries available through a publicly accessible website. We have just uploaded four volumes of the Graham Brown field diaries and their transcriptions onto the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and we will continue to add more over time. Museum Victoria has already contributed over 500 rare books and historic journals to this global repository of historic literature (through a project funded by the Atlas of Living Australia). We are thrilled that our field diaries are now joining these other significant volumes.

Help us unlock the observations in our historic field diaries
If you would like to become a transcription volunteer, sign up on the DigiVol website.

“Your PhD is on dragons?!”

Author
by Kirilee Chaplin
Publish date
12 August 2015
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People often give me startled looks when I tell them I am doing a three year zoology doctoral study on dragons. After a few Game of Thrones references and Harry Potter-esque jokes, I remind them that not all dragons breathe fire. My PhD is, of course, on dragon lizards, also known in Australia as agamids.

Thorny devil (left) and common central bearded dragon (right) Australia – a land of dragons. Left: the highly unique thorny devil (Moloch horridus). Right: the common central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps).
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

Australia, with more than 80 species of agamids, is one of the most dragon-diverse regions in the world. We have dragons of all shapes and sizes, ranging from 10cm to 1m, and include iconic species like the frill-neck lizard and thorny devil, and common species such as bearded dragons and water dragons. The family I am studying are called earless dragons (Tympanocryptis spp.): a group of small (10cm), ground-dwelling native dragons. There are currently about 12 species of earless dragons spread throughout Australia, and we are discovering or distinguishing new species more frequently than you might think. In the last couple of years, researchers at Museum Victoria have described three new species of earless dragons (T. pentalineata, T. wilsoni and T. condaminensis), and know of at least five more which are currently under assessment and yet to be named.

Earless dragons in Australia Earless dragons can be found throughout most of Australia, with some common species distributed widely across the country, and other rare species restricted to small regions of habitat. Top left: Roma earless dragon (Tympanocryptis wilsoni). Bottom left: Darling Downs earless dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis). Right: distribution map of Queensland grassland earless dragons.
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

This is where my PhD study comes in. As part of my doctoral research, I am looking at the three recently described species of earless dragons, as well as a couple of potentially new species, all of which are habitat specialists and live only in grasslands of Queensland. We know very little about these earless dragons, except that they are relatively rare and are each restricted to small grassland pockets across Queensland. My focus is on improving our limited knowledge of the evolution, ecology and taxonomy of these earless dragons, and using this data for conservation of these little lizards. These species are all of conservation concern, as their native grassland habitat has suffered extreme degradation and fragmentation in recent decades due to agriculture, mining and other anthropogenic impacts. Less than 15% of native grasslands remain in Queensland, with less than 5% in some regions. The continued decline in available habitat has prompted these earless dragons to be a research priority, and for their suitability for conservation status under legislative protection to be assessed.

Grassland habitats Left: open-cut coal mining and CSG fracking are the two most common mining practices in the grassland habitat of earless dragons. Right: agriculture, including farming and mono-culture cropping, has cleared and destroyed much of Queensland’s native grasslands.
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

However, conservation legislation requires taxonomic recognition of a species. That is, for something to be considered endangered and have appropriate legal protection in place, it needs to have a name and be formally accepted as a distinct species. One of the major problems with the earless dragon group, and many other taxa worldwide, is that multiple species can look very similar, but are actually very different in terms of their evolutionary and genetic history. These are called cryptic species, and are a taxonomist’s and conservation biologist’s worst nightmare, as they cannot be easily distinguished without complicated physiology and genetic analyses. Unfortunately, due to cryptic species within the earless dragon group, the taxonomy is still unresolved. Conservation protection cannot occur until this is sorted out.

Earless dragons Can you see the difference? Cryptic species look almost identical, but are evolutionarily very different. Left: a new species of earless dragon found near Emerald (Tympanocryptis sp. nov.). Right: Darling Downs earless dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis).
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

Follow my earless dragon adventures on Twitter (@KirileeChaplin) and watch out for my next MV blog where I continue my quest to untangle the Tympanocryptis taxonomy.

The New Holland mouse

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
31 July 2015
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The New Holland mouse (Pseudomys novaehollandiae) is one of Victoria’s threatened native rodents. The charismatic little species has only been recorded in three areas across the state in the past 15 years (the blue dots in the map below), whereas historically it was recorded in ten, including metropolitan Melbourne (the red dots in the map below). That’s why I embarked upon a PhD to determine the status of NHMs across Victoria and help protect this species from further decline.

New Holland mouse detection sites New Holland mouse detection sites across Victoria. Red dots indicate sites in areas where the species has not been detected in at least 15 years, blue dots indicate areas with more recent detections. Dates show the range of years during which New Holland mice were known at each site.

One of the greatest challenges for studying the status and conservation of New Holland mice (and many native Australian rodents) is that they can be very difficult to find; you can’t just see them with your binoculars or hear them calling in the bush. Many native rodents, including NHMs, go through natural periods where they persist in such low numbers that traditional survey efforts fail to detect them. New Holland mice are also particularly fickle about their habitat preferences and may only persist locally for a few years before moving on, making their populations even more difficult to track.

New Holland mouse captured and released New Holland mouse captured and released using live trapping.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

That’s why I’ve been trialling the use of cameras to detect the New Holland mouse. Traditional live trapping can be a great method for detecting a species in an area, and it’s critical if I want to know about health and reproduction, estimate abundance, or get DNA samples. However, sometimes when a species is at low densities, it takes a huge amount of effort to be reasonably confident that the species isn’t there, which in a world of limited time and funding drastically reduces the area you can survey. This is a real challenge when your species moves in the landscape.

This is where cameras can come in handy – you set them once and, rather than having to come back every morning and afternoon to check each trap, you can just leave them in place for weeks at a time. The animals are attracted to a tasty lure (I like to use peanut butter, oats, golden syrup and vanilla essence), and while they investigate, the camera senses the heat and motion and snaps a photo.

New Holland mouse Camera trap image of a New Holland mouse clinging to a bait station.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

Cameras allow you to survey much wider areas, for longer periods of time with a fraction of the effort of live trapping – at least until you have to sift through all the images and identify the animals. Once I know that NHMs are present in an area from the camera trapping, I can target those areas for live trapping to collect the rest of my data. My challenge, and the reason I did a camera trial, rather than just jumping straight into using cameras as a survey method, was identifying New Holland mice in the images.

New Holland mouse and house mouse Camera trap image of a New Holland mouse climbing on a bait station with a house mouse standing up against the base.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

Rodents tend to look very similar on camera, particularly if the images are in black and white. It doesn’t help that New Holland mice are about the same size as the non-native house mice (Mus musculus); they can be hard for some people to tell apart when they are holding them in their hand. Since the house mouse has infiltrated all known New Holland mouse habitat in Victoria, I needed to tell them apart from less than perfect images in colour and in black and white.

New Holland mice and house mice Infrared camera trap images of New Holland mice (left) and house mice (right) investigating bait stations.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

Tens of thousands of images later, I can happily say that New Holland mice and house mice are distinguishable from one another in both colour and black and white images. In the colour images the species can be distinguished by differences in colouration, but in black and white the distinction is all in the shape of the two rodents. New Holland mice have a much sturdier build, a thickset neck and a snubby nose, whereas house mice are much more slender, with a pointed nose. It's not unlike the difference between rugby and footy players.

Now that I’ve got the IDs sorted, I’ll be using cameras (and live traps) to survey across Victoria and see where the New Holland mouse is persisting, so that we can do our best to halt the species’ further decline.

You can follow my PhD progress and fieldwork on Twitter and at my website to stay up to date with the status of New Holland mice as I search for them throughout Victoria.

Additionally, you can try your hand at identifying New Holland mice in my New Holland mouse quiz.

Welcome to the family, Pluto

Author
by Tanya Hill
Publish date
16 July 2015
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image of planets Welcome to the family. Ben Gross/twitter, CC BY-SA

What an amazing time for space exploration. The picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and distributed via twitter.

I love this image because it shows each world in close-up, using some of the latest pictures from space exploration. As we celebrate seeing Pluto for the first time, it’s remarkable to think that this completes a 50 year task.

It has been NASA that has provided the first close-up views of all these worlds. Here’s the rundown:

  • Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
  • Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
  • Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
  • Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
  • Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989) and
  • Pluto: New Horizons (2015)

But science never stays still. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, Pluto was a planet. Later that year an important reassessment was made of the Solar System and Pluto became the first of the dwarf planets.

The ‘Not-Planets’

The Planetary Society’s Senior Editor, Emily Lakdawalla, has teamed together the ‘Not-Planets’. These are the close-up views, shown to scale, that have been captured of the largest moons, asteroids and dwarf planets.

image of non-planets in the solar system Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

It clearly shows that there are many diverse and interesting worlds to explore beyond the eight planets of our solar system.

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to start exploring the Kuiper Belt, an icy realm of objects orbiting 5 billion kilometres or more beyond the sun. It’s the chance to observe a dwarf planet, something distinct from the terrestrial planets and the gas giants.

It was in 1992 that astronomers discovered Pluto was not alone. The first Kuiper Belt Object, designated 1992 QB1, is a 100-kilometre sized object that orbits well beyond Pluto.

Now more than 1,000 objects have been detected in this realm, and the belt likely contains many more. Most are small compared to Pluto, but there are some stand-outs such as Quaoar, and the dwarf planets Eris, Makemake and Haumea.

Don’t forget to phone home

The suspense of the mission has certainly been high. To maximise the amount of data that New Horizons could collect, the spacecraft did not communicate with Earth for the duration of the flyby. As described by Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, it was the moment when you let your child free.

The team had prepared New Horizons, told it what work needed to be done and in that radio silence they had to trust that all would go to plan.

Just before 11am today (AEST), New Horizons checked in – showing it to be the perfect child to the relief of its many anxious “parents”. It was only a brief phone home, but in that short time the scientists confirmed that all telemetry was spot-on, the spacecraft followed the path that had been set for it and there were no error messages recorded on any of the systems.

No data was transferred in that brief connection, but it was established that the main computer system, which records all the data collected by the spacecraft, showed the expected number of segments had been used. In other words, data had been collected.

We will soon see Pluto and Charon in even higher resolution. Their geology will be mapped, the surface compositions and temperatures will be measured, atmospheres will be probed and new discoveries will be made.

A love note from Pluto

It’s also been wonderful to see the public become so enthralled with the latest image from Pluto. Humans are incredibly good at spotting patterns and it seems that Pluto wears his heart on his sleeve for us.

 

I’m also equally intrigued to discover that the smooth part of Pluto’s heart is made of carbon monoxide ice. This was already known from ground-based observations, except never before seen in such detail. It’s reassuring to have a good match between the old and new data.

But look again … is it a heart or something entirely different stealing the show?

 

 

Tanya Hill is Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy) at Museum Victoria.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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