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NEWS & VIEWS FROM 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).

Invertebrate Keeper Workshop

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
12 August 2014
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Children are sponges: if kids see and hear that invertebrates are fascinating, wonderful and complex, they are eager to appreciate them. Likewise, the next generation of spider-squashers is created when children are told only that bugs and spiders are disgusting, dangerous or scary. Naturally, when you get a roomful of invertebrate keepers from zoos and fauna parks in a room, they’ll discuss how best to show kids that invertebrates are magnificent.

Invertebrate Keeper Training Workshop Invertebrate Keeper Training Workshop participants ponder the big issues with Maik from Live Exhibits: how do you know if your millipede is male or female?
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

And so it was at the Invertebrate Keeper Training Workshop at Melbourne Museum last week. Presented by the Australasian Society of Zoo Keeping (ASZK) and run by Jessie, Chloe and Patrick from MV Live Exhibits, the workshop covered all kinds of techniques for keeping, breeding and displaying living invertebrates, and their educational value. When I dropped in, they were poised to begin a snail race—a contest of extreme athleticism where snails compete to reach the edge of a circular arena.

Snail race And they're off! Snails racing.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The purpose of the race was to show ways to get kids thinking about the biology of minibeasts. Jessie from Live Exhibits explained that in the time it took for the snails to slide over the finish line, you can discuss why they prefer to crawl over damp surfaces, why they don’t like being blown upon, and other quirks of snail life. Jessie also described an excellent way to overcome insect fear in small children while holding large invertebrates like stick insects. “Ask them, can you see its eyes? Can you see the claws on its feet? And they come closer and closer without realising it.”

The workshop also covered how to house, feed and breed invertebrates; how to collect them legally and ethically, and how to keep populations healthy. Participants also got a tour of the Live Exhibits back of house facilities where the museum’s invertebrate colonies are kept, our Entomology collections, and a trip to Melbourne Zoo to see their Butterfly House. Invertebrate keepers talk about stuff you don’t hear every day, like how to breed whip scorpions (it’s tricky but not impossible), and what type of heating to use create a humid insect room (hydronic is best).

And the winner of the snail race? This tearaway Garden Snail streaked across the line not once, but twice, before most of the others had even left the centre ring. The Phar Lap of the snail world. 

winning snail The winner of the snail race glides over the finish line.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fat-tailed Dunnart

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
4 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.

There are 360 mammal species native to Australia. I'd challenge you to name them all, but even as a mammalogist (albeit early in my career) I'm still coming across species I haven't heard of. Even so, there are relatively common species I'm always surprised people don't know, for instance: what is a dunnart?

The Fat-tailed Dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata) is one of 19 dunnart species. It is a small (10-20g) insect-eating dasyurid, which means that although it's mouse-sized, the dunnart is in the same family as the Tassie devil.

Fat-tailed Dunnart Fat-tailed Dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata).
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The females give birth a mere 13 days after conception to 8-10 tiny immature young that are about one-eightieth the size of a new-born house mouse. The young suckle for around 65 days, moving from the pouch to their mother's back once they grow too large to fit.

Fat-tailed Dunnart Fat-tailed Dunnart scratching an itchy spot.
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Aptly named for their thick tails, the Fat-tailed Dunnart stores about 15 per cent of its body fat in the tail. This provides the animal with a back-up energy reserve during times when food is scarce. Torpor is another method the dunnart uses for dealing with an uncertain environment – when food availability becomes unpredictable they curl up, let their body temperature drop, and their metabolic rate slows. Torpor allows a dunnart to conserve energy when there is so little food around that they would burn more energy finding it than they could obtain eating it.

Fat-tailed Dunnart The thick tail of the Fat-tailed Dunnart contains fat stores that helps it survive in harsh conditions.
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fat-tailed Dunnarts occupy a wide range of habitats across most of south and central Australia. They are one of a few native mammal species that can be kept as a pet in Victoria with a basic wildlife license, provided the animal is legally obtained and not taken from the wild.

If you want to learn more about our native fauna check out the Museum Victoria Field Guide app, and our sister apps for the rest of Australia.

Discovering Mexican Food

Author
by Adrienne
Publish date
1 August 2014
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Adrienne creates and presents public programs at Melbourne Museum.

White bean soup, crunchy crickets, sweet amaranth tamales. Sound familiar? If you've visited Mexico, perhaps, but for many of the guests at the museum's June master classes, the food of the Aztecs was surprising and new.

Crunchy crickets dish Crunchy crickets dish
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Mexican food and particularly its Aztec roots were presented by those in the know: three VIP food experts who flew into Melbourne from Mexico for a unique opportunity to highlight the Aztecs exhibition on display at Melbourne Museum.

Two visiting Mexican chefs Two of the VIP Mexican chefs. Left: Yuri de Gortari, Head Chef. Right: Leon Aguirre, Sous-chef and translator
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The three VIPs established the School of Gastronomy, History, Art and Culture in Mexico and for more than a decade have researched and presented Mexican food history. Yuri de Gortari is the Head Chef of the school and is a well known Mexican television celebrity, presenting traditional Mexican recipes on morning TV. Sous-chef and translator Leon Aguirre has just recorded his first television series focusing on more modern Mexican food. And behind the scenes, Edmundo Escamilla has been undertaking research on Mexican food history for the past two decades, amassing thousands of historic recipes.

Agriculture was practised in Mexico as early as 7,000 BC. Early cultivation, of corn and chillies, expanded over the millennia to include tomatoes, amaranth, chia, vanilla, avocado, papaya and guava. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, the Emperor's table proffered 'a large feast... with a type of gold cup serving cocoa drinks scented with vanilla; a large variety of rabbits and hares, as well as wild boar, venison, partridges, pheasants, ducks and turkey, all of them prepared in a variety of different sauces, and a wide variety of fruits from all over the Empire.*' 

Guests at the master classes didn't quite get Moctezuma's feast but were treated to a menu which started and finished with tamales, one savoury, one sweet. Tamales are corn husks stuffed with goodies such as beans or amaranth, a small seed that looks like sesame. Edmundo has collected more than 5,000 recipes for tamales.

Man in kitchen Food Historian Edmundo Escamilla preparing tamales for guests at the masterclass.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The savoury black bean tamales were followed by the fried grasshopper dish, reportedly tasting like anchovies. Then came a delicious white bean soup with strips of pickled cactus, followed by fish in an Acuyo sauce made from the Piper auritum plant indigenous to tropical Mesoamerica. This plant is used to make green sauce (mole verde), and to flavour meats, tamale mixes, eggs, soups, chocolate drinks, goats' cheese and a liquor called Verdin.

Two Mexican dishes Delicious Mexican food. Left: tamales - steamed beans wrapped in corn husks. Right: Fish in Acuyo Sauce.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The last savoury dish was rabbit with guajillo chillies. Apparently there are at least nine indigenous species of rabbit in Mexico and two types of hare. Along with fish, turkey, dog, duck, possum, peccary and armadillo, rabbit was common Aztec fare, and continues to be popular in Mexico today. The chefs used a wide range of chillies in their dishes from fat chocolatey-looking ones to fine red hot slim chillies, but said that chillies were meant to be used for their deep flavouring of dishes not for their heat.

Two Mexican dishes More tasty dishes the Aztecs would know. Left: White bean soup with strips of pickled cactus. Right: Rabbit slow-cooked in chilli and tomato.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Sweets and sweet drinks are common in Mexico and the guests were treated to cacao flavoured water and a selection of amaranth candy and peanut candy to round off the day. The cacao beans were handed around for taste, and the bitterness was distinct. Apparently it was only in Victorian times that sugar was added to cacao to make what we know as the flavour of chocolate today.

Mexican cooking master class Maste rclass goodies. Left: a display of types of grain. Right: showbags!
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

With a bag of goodies donated by Mexican businesses around Melbourne including sweets, tortillas, sauces and candies, guests left knowing more of the cuisine that has influenced the world since the Spanish conquest and a greater understanding the wholesome, balanced and nutritious gastronomy of the Aztecs.

The master classes were developed by the Education and Community Programs team at Melbourne Museum as part of the Aztecs exhibition. The Mexican VIPs were brought to Melbourne by the Mexican Embassy of Australia especially for the master classes. Peter Rowland Catering at Melbourne Museum partnered and supported the events in the Treetops Restaurant at Melbourne Museum.

* Source: Notes provided by the School of Gastronomy, History, Art and Culture, Mexico City

National Science Week - Meet the Scientists

Author
by Priscilla
Publish date
30 July 2014
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Priscilla is a Program Coordinator for Life Sciences and works on education programs at Melbourne Museum.

In National Science Week this year, we're running a special program called Meet the Scientists just for students in Years 9 and 10.

If you're a teacher, you can book your Year 9 or 10 classes in to chat with our researchers about their day jobs. And if you're not, here's a taste of what the students will get: interviews with scientists who work on our natural history collections.

Meet Mel Mackenzie, Collection Manager of Marine Invertebrates

From scallops to squids, crabs to octopuses, Mel’s day job sounds more like she works in a restaurant than a museum. That is until she gets into the nudibranchs, echinoderms, flatworms, sponges, isopods and jellyfishes – just to name a few. Meet Mel Mackenzie.

Mel looking down microscope Mel Mackenzie, Collection Manager of Marine Invertebrates, on an Antarctic research trip.
Image: Pete Lens (BAS)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

How did you get into being a Collection Manager?

I started working at the museum as a volunteer docent in 1994, educating public visitors in various marine exhibitions while studying Zoology at Melbourne University. From there I moved down to the dungeons of the previous location of the museum on Russell Street as a volunteer research assistant to Dr. C.C. Lu, busily counting squid suckers and tentacles to assist in descriptions of new species. I went on to work as a Relocations Officer during the Museum move from Russell Street, then as an assistant collection manager in Invertebrate Zoology at various temporary locations before finally settling at Melbourne Museum.

After a ten-year stint away (in Learning, Development, Training and Publishing both here and in Japan) I’ve now been back working in the collections at Melbourne Museum since 2010.

Which collections do you look after?

The Marine Invertebrate Collection, though we do also have some freshwater invertebrates (like crayfish) and also some land snails and slugs. The collection is a specimen 'library' of everything from tiny tanaids (a type of crustacean) to giant squids. We keep the collection organised, viable and accessible for ongoing morphological, genetic, and environmental research. 

Have you got a favourite marine invertebrate?

Holothurians; more commonly known as Sea Cucumbers. Apart from my usual collection management responsibilities, I get to work closely with other scientists on this group of animals and contribute through fieldwork, lab work, research and photography to a variety of scientific projects and publications. I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to Poland, the Falklands and even the Weddell Sea in Antarctica to collect and identify these curious critters.

 

Meet Dr Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator of Palaeontology

When you’re studying the past, life came in many more forms than just the dinosaurs. Palaeontologists study fossil birds, plants, snakes, insects, or even pollen, which all help us to build up a picture of the past. Meet Dr Erich Fitzgerald.

Erich with whale skull Dr Erich Fitzgerald, with the fossil skull of the early whale Janjucetus hunderi.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria
 

What area of palaeontology do you specialise in?

I investigate the evolutionary history of aquatic vertebrates, especially marine mammals such as whales, seals and sea cows. This research involves exploring the fossil record as well as investigating aquatic adaptations of living species. I seek to document the diversity, evolutionary relationships and palaeobiology of marine vertebrates through time and uncover the drivers of their evolution and extinction.

How did you get your job?

I studied earth science and zoology as part of a Bachelors of Science at Melbourne University, and then studied fossil whales for my PhD at Monash University. I was then a Smithsonian Institution Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, and more recently was the Harold Mitchell Fellow at Museum Victoria (2009–2012) before getting my job as the Senior Curator.

What are you researching now?

My major ongoing program of research involves the documentation and analysis of the little-studied fossil record of marine mammals in Australia, exploring how and when the remarkable biological adaptations of today’s whales, dolphins and seals evolved. I am interested in the questions opened up by looking at extinct and living marine mammals as a continuum: to understand the present we must grasp the past. That’s what Wallace and Darwin showed us: life only makes sense in light of its evolution.

Links:

Meet the Scientists program

National Science Week

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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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