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NEWS & VIEWS FROM MUSEUM VICTORIA

New trees for the plaza

Author
by Paul Howell
Publish date
22 September 2014
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Paul edited the MV Members' magazine Six Months over the past year.

Work starts today on a green upgrade of the Melbourne Museum plaza. The raised seating areas at both the Nicholson Street and Rathdowne Street ends of the plaza between the museum and the Royal Exhibition Building are being remodelled into two large planter boxes, each planted with 16 Tristaniopsis laurina 'Luscious’ trees.

Flowers of Tristaniopsis laurina Flowers of Tristaniopsis laurina
Image: Flowers of Tristaniopsis laurina
Source: Tatters ❀ via Compfight cc
 

These Australian natives, also known as Kanookas or Water Gums, are a common sight in city landscaping. They have bright yellow flowers and quick-growing shady canopies. The trees will grow between 4.6 metres and 9.1 metres tall.

Under the Plaza Planters Project, which has now won agreement from both the Melbourne City Council and the Museum Victoria board, the two 864-square meter boxes will also be grassed over with lawn (as well as mulch at the base of each tree). The three long seats currently in each space will remain, creating a more comfortable area to take in Melbourne’s unique Museum precinct.

The revitalised plaza will help to visually connect both buildings with the established gardens on either side. As well as adding some extra greening to the central corridor through the Carlton Gardens, the trees will create an intriguing contrast of natural beauty alongside the architectural splendour of both Melbourne Museum and the Royal Exhibition Building.

Works on are due to be completed by mid-October. The new seating areas will be ready and accessible well before the start of Summer—which is just the right time to see the trees in full bloom.

Links:

Tristaniopsis laurina (Australian National Botanic Gardens)

Biodiversity Month

Author
by Rosemary Wrench
Publish date
18 September 2014
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Rosemary is a Senior Collection Manager. She was Senior Curator of the Many Nations section of First Peoples.

Australian endangered species registers make sobering reading. They list animals and plants that are vulnerable, threatened, endangered and extinct. Each listing includes detailed information such as scientific and common names, habitats, particular threats, estimated numbers and management plans.

Absent from these lists are the Aboriginal language names, cultural knowledge and connections that for thousands of years have been celebrated through song, ceremony, stories and art. All of these animals were named and included in Aboriginal culture prior to being ‘discovered'—and endangered—post-contact.

The Many Nations section of First Peoples provides a unique opportunity to mark this National Biodiversity Month by learning from Aboriginal artists and material culture about their deep connections with over 150 of these animals and birds, including around 20 that appear on the Threatened Species list.

The Animal Creations case contains many endangered animals: Nganamara, Dilmirrur, Kuniya, Ulhelke, Mala, Mewurk or Goodoo, Itjaritjari, Purinina, Garun, and Pokka. There are also several introduced species: the Ngaya, Rapita or Pinytjatanpa, and Camel, whose stories connect to the demise of the Mitika, Wintaru and Mala. Other cases also contain beautiful pieces connected to listed animals and birds including the Gunduy, Gudurrku, Puntukan, Bilby, Rufus Bettong, Black-billed Stork, Stone Curlew and Kakalhalha.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo Lithograph of Major Mitchell's Cockatoo from Gould's Birds of Australia, 1840-1848, vol 5, pl 2
Image: Artist: John Gould | Lithographer: H.C. Richter
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The latter is a beautiful pink bird that has been given several names since it was ‘discovered’ – firstly Major Mitchell's Cockatoo in honour of explorer Major Sir Thomas Mitchell. It was also named Lophochroa leadbeateri to commemorate the British naturalist Benjamin Leadbeater. To the Arrernte people, this important bird remains known just as it always has been: the Kakalhalha, for the sound it makes. It likes to eat some of the same bush seeds as the Western Arrernte, making it a good indicator of the harvest season, telling the community when it is time to collect the seeds for damper.

Some of the animals on the Threatened Species list include these from the lands of the Pitjantjatjara in Central Australia, the Yorta Yorta in Victoria and the Trawulwuy in Tasmania. Yorta Yorta artist Treahnna Hamm's Mewurk or Goodoo (Murray Cod) artwork highlights the declining health of this magnificent fish and its river habitat.

Treahnna Hamm with her artwork Treahnna Hamm with her Murray Cod artwork, 2013.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Most commonly known as the Tasmanian Devil, the Purinina made by Trawulwuy artist Vicki West is made from kelp, another species in decline. Said Vicki in 2012: ‘I like using kelp, a plant fibre from the ocean, the old people used it to create the water carriers; I use it as the metaphor of survival… The Devil plays an essential role in the cleaning of and caring for our country through scavenging. I find it ironic that the medium I chose to represent survival has been used to create an animal under threat, itself endangered.’

Vicki West holding her Purinina Trawulwuy artist, Vicki West holding her Purinina (Tasmanian Devil), 2013
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Itjaritjari (marsupial moles) live in the sandy river flats and sand dunes in the desert of inland Australia. They are rarely seen and spend most of their time underground. Aboriginal traditional ecological knowledge is crucial to piranpa (western) science's understanding of this reclusive animal. Virtually all Itjaritjari specimens have been captured by the Traditional Owners of the desert, who play an integral role in Itjaritjari research. The Itjaritjari has great cultural significance also: during the formation of the western face of Uluru, a number of caves and potholes were created by a Totemic Being called Minyma Itjaritjari.

Carving, Australia, Desert Southeast Itjaritjari (Marsupial Mole) made by a Pitjantjatjara artist circa 1920s.
Image: Photographer: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Increasingly, joint management and conservation projects rely on the cultural knowledge and expertise of Aboriginal communities to protect animals at risk.

Cryptozoology – imagination, science or folklore?

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 September 2014
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Where I grew up as a child, in Victoria's Wimmera-Mallee, there were persistent tales of strange animal sightings that fell outside the realm of science. Stories of Pumas, Cougars (which are actually the same thing) or other "Big Cats" living in the Grampians, for example, often seeped into school ground conversations. As a proto-scientist at this stage of my life (reared on Attenborough, How-and-Why books and old issues of National Geographic) I had developed a degree of scepticism to such stories – I knew to keep my 'bulldust detector' switched on but also kept my mouth shut - after all, everybody loves a good campfire story.

Jaguar A Jaguar Panthera onca. Just one of the numerous species of big cats probably not found in the Grampians.
Image: Benamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 
My teenaged mind would sometimes wander - so what if, just supposing for a moment, there really were large felines prowling the forests near Wartook in the Grampians, just an hours drive away? On nearly every occasion, the story-teller swore that their tale was true – to cast doubt on the validity was regarded as an insult to the story-teller's family, as inevitably they were retelling something a family member had seen. Hence, keeping the mouth shut was a wise option– it was a small town, after all.

In later years, I had need to move a little over a hundred kilometres to the west and found that a similar local story existed near Mt Arapiles – the stalking ground of the infamous "Ozenkadnook Tiger". By this stage of my life, my bulldust detector was more finely calibrated, and it pinged incessantly in my head when I heard stories on this animal – but was it really a myth? Everyone who spoke of it swore it was true....but empirical scientific evidence – in the form of clear photographs, verified footprints, samples of fur or other remains - were uniformly thin on the ground, so to speak (although a photograph of an indistinct animal did make its way to the front of the local newspaper in the 1960s, and is analysed in some detail here)

Thylacine A Thylacine Thylacinus cyanocephalus. Might this be a relative of the Ozenkadnook Tiger? Probably not.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria

As it transpires, almost every region of rural Australia has their own tales of strange animals, complete with oral accounts, familial anecdotes and rich folkloric traditions, from bunyips to big cats to presumed late-surviving megafauna. Whilst great fun, these stories are the realm of cryptozoology – a mix of folklore, imagination and pseudoscience – defined as the study of animals whose existence has not been proven. As I'm now a fully-realised scientist, my attitude to cryptozoology is uniform – whether it's Nessie, Bigfoot or the Ozenkadnook Tiger, hard evidence is the cornerstone of the scientific process – without empirical evidence, this is sadly pseudoscience.

So, whilst my bulldust detector remains active and fully charged, nobody would be happier than I to be presented with definitive, empirical evidence of these animals. Sightings, family stories and other anecdotal evidence are simply not enough. In the spirit of true science, we remain unmoved until provided with empirical evidence.

In the meantime, sightings and the like can be lodged via the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association. But not us!

For your eyes only

Author
by Simon C
Publish date
27 August 2014
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Simon is a presenter with MV’s Outreach Program. He travels all over metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria in one of our two Outreach vans with a dinosaur sticker on the side. You should give the vans a toot if you see them.

Quick! Look at this fossilised fern!

You are one of the first people to see it!

Fossil fern Fossil fern
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We at MV’s Outreach Program travel all over Victoria, bringing the MV’s collections to those who may not be able to get to one of our museums. During our presentations we encourage those we meet to explore and interact with the interesting things we have brought on the road that day.

fossil fern What the fossil looked like at the start of the day...
Source: Museum Victoria
 

This is one of the fossils we use in the Outreach Program’s Dinosaurs and Fossils presentation to communicate the idea of plants being an important part of the fossil record; it’s not all T. rex claws and Stegosaurus tail spikes. (Although, we do have a T. rex claw and a Stegosaurus spike, and they are pretty awesome.) We have fossils with leaves, seashells, bones and teeth for our audiences to handle and investigate.

During a kinder visit yesterday, one of our keen, young palaeontologists was testing his revolutionary new ‘drop’ technique and managed to unearth a new fossil running across and through one of the specimens.

Fossil fern Fossil fern enhanced with a large split thanks to the 'drop' technique pioneered in a kinder visit.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As we gazed upon the freshly split rock back in the office, it occurred to us that only a handful of people – the probably-panicked kinder rock-dropper, our Outreach presenter, and a few of our team – have ever seen this fossil. So we thought it would be only right to bring you into the fold and invite you to be among the first humans to ever set eyes on it. The count currently stands at approximately six people, or seven if you include Kate who proofs the blog posts before they go out. I'm 004, but she’s lucky to get 007.

So get your peepers around these pictures and join our very exclusive club. We’re going to get jackets made!

Fossil fern Two is better than one, right?
Source: Museum Victoria
 

An empty bower

Author
by Jessie
Publish date
21 August 2014
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We farewell Jack, our resident Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), who died in the Forest Gallery this week.

Jack the Bowerbird Jack the adult male Satin Bowerbird
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Since Melbourne Museum opened on 9 December 2000, Jack has been a big part of the Forest Gallery. His daily calling, mimicry, aerial acrobatics and dancing entertained and excited both staff and visitors and gave him the reputation of a great entertainer. He was upwards of seven years of age in 2000, meaning this Forest Gallery icon made it to 21 years old.

Up until autumn he was still taking it in turns with his enclosure mate Errol to dance in their bowers and practise courtship behaviours. As winter progressed we started to note that Jack had slowed down and was not as vocal in the mornings. We had discussions as a team as to whether it was time for retirement but decided that Jack had spent his life in the gallery and should end it there when the time came. His time finally arrived yesterday and it feels as if a chapter in the life of this long-term exhibition has also come to a close.

Jack had many interesting adventures in the gallery. He almost died in 2000 when he for some inexplicable reason flew into the empty creek tube that runs under the earth path. He would have drowned in the water at the bottom if Luke (our then Live Exhibits Manager) hadn't raced to his rescue. This year he was a part of an exhibition at MONA with a live feed from the Forest Galelry showing Jack and the other bowerbirds cavorting with a blue teapot. His wing feathers were clipped countless times to slow him down on his over-excited exploits to court a female.  He shared the gallery with number of females, but since 2004 he only had eyes for our resident female Britney. They produced over 20 offspring which are now held in institutions and private collections across Australia.

Bowerbird with blue objects Errol the Satin Bowerbird with Toby Ziegler's contribution to the cache of blue things in the Forest Gallery. This is a still image from the video feed going in to MONA.  

With the absence of Jack, a new era has begun in the Forest Gallery. Errol, our younger male, may become the dominant make of the population. With any luck, he will continue to entertain both staff and visitors. 

Eastern Pygmy Possum

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
15 August 2014
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Phoebe is a University of Melbourne Masters student supervised by Dr. Kevin Rowe at MV. She is passionate about the unique mammal fauna of Australia.

Early one morning, while up in the Grampians searching for Smoky Mice (Pseudomys fumeus), I peeked inside an Elliot trap and was greeted by a delicate little face, huge ears, big bright eyes and fat, gently curled tail. Expecting to see the pointy face and straight, slender tail of an Agile Antechinus (Antechinus agilis), I hastily shut the trap, took a second to process the surprise and then beamed at my bemused volunteer. Another tentative peek in the trap confirmed it; I had trapped my first Eastern Pygmy Possum (EPP; Cercartetus nanus).

Eastern Pygmy Possum Eastern Pygmy Possum
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The EPP weighs in at a miniscule 15-38g1, yet still looks truly possum-like. It is one of seven possum species you could fit in your pocket, but is far from the smallest. The Little Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus lepidus) weighs only 6-10g and a full-grown Honey Possum (Tarsipes rostratus) can weigh as little as 5g1.

Like several other possum species, EPPs can obtain all required nutrients, including protein, from nectar and pollen alone.2 However they also eat insects, seeds and fruit, providing flexibility when few plants are flowering. Like the Fat-tailed Dunnart, the EPP stores fat at the base of its tail as a reserve for when food is scarce, and can go into torpor when keeping active is energetically too expensive.

Eastern Pygmy Possum Eastern Pygmy Possum
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As another of Australia’s amazing marsupial species, the female EPP gives birth to tiny eyeless, earless babies that suckle in her pouch for 30 days. Once the juveniles are too big for the pouch, they nest with their mother for another 30-35 days then head off alone.3 EPPs don’t build their own nests; they use whatever is available and change nest sites frequently. Researchers have found EPPs nesting in tree hollows, abandoned birds nests, burrows and natural collections of leaves and twigs in tree forks.3

Phoebe Burns with an adult female eastern pygmy possum Phoebe Burns with an adult female eastern pygmy possum (Cercartetus nanus) in the Grampians National Park.
Image: Kara Joshi
Source: Museum Victoria
 

 

Eastern Pygmy Possums are patchily distributed from the southeast corner of Queensland to the southeast tip of South Australia, Flinders and King Islands and throughout Tasmania. They are listed as near threatened in Victoria; at risk from predation by foxes and cats, competition with feral honeybees and increasing fire frequency.4 I consider myself so lucky to have encountered such a charming species and hope there are many more (pleasant) surprises in my traps for years to come.

References

1.         Menkhorst, P. & Knight, F. Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. (Oxford University Press, 2011).

2.         Van Tets, I. G. & Hulbert, A. J. A Comparison of the Nitrogen Requirements of the Eastern Pygmy Possum, Cercartetus nanus, on a Pollen and on a Mealworm Diet. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 72, 127–137 (1999).

3.         Ward, S. Life-History of the Eastern Pygmy-Possum, Cercartetus nanus (Burramyidae, Marsupialia), in South-Eastern Australia. Australian Journal of Zoology 38, 287 (1990).

4.         Harris, J. M. & Goldingay, R. L. Distribution, habitat and conservation status of the eastern pygmy-possum Cercartetus nanus in Victoria. Australian Mammalogy 27, 185–210 (2005).

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.

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