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NEWS & VIEWS FROM MUSEUM VICTORIA

Fin win was no whale fail

Author
by Colin
Publish date
3 October 2014
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You may call me crazy for putting my hand up again for the chance to end up knee-deep in a decomposing whale. This time, the whale that washed up on Levy’s Beach near Warrnambool in Western Victoria was a Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Fin Whales are the second largest species of whale and can reach up to about 25m long and weigh more than 50 tons! They feed mostly on krill and can consume between one and two tonnes per day during the summer months when ocean productivity is high.

Fin Whale washed up a beach The Fin Whale washed up on the beach.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Upon hearing of the news of the wash up, Museum Victoria put together a team to retrieve it, along with the Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation (AMMCF) and Melbourne Zoo. The Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), Parks Victoria and the Cultural Heritage Officer were of great assistance in organising planning, logistics, contractors, public engagement and working near the significant cultural heritage sites in the area.

Bentley Bird on the beach MV's Assistant Vertebrate Collections Manager Bentley Bird ‘gloves up’ ready for tissue sampling.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Kate Charlton-Robb with the Fin Whale Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation’s founding director Kate Charlton-Robb collects a tissue sample for future research.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Whale on beach A wave crashes over the whale’s starboard side. Strong wave action like this posed a significant risk and required the delicate skills of two excavators to move it higher up the beach.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Measuring a whale We took morphometric measurements prior to dissection which will add to what we currently know about the biology of the species.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Sarah Frith with dead whale Melbourne Zoo veterinarian Sarah Frith takes a stab at removing the eye.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Excavator working with whale on beach Tools of the trade: The excavator was invaluable when it came to removing the blubber layer and heavy lifting
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Tools used to dissect whale More tools of the trade: hooks, knives and flensing tools are essential for the removal of blubber (flensing) and flesh from the skeleton.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Brendan Taylor working on the whale Preparator Brendan Taylor gets to work removing flesh and blubber.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Burying whale bones By day two the carcass no longer resembled a whale. The bones were taken to a private location and buried to allow for bacteria and other flesh eating organisms to clean the skeleton. The cleaned bones will be retrieved in 12-18 months and added to the museum’s collection.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The support provided by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), Parks Victoria, the local Indigenous representatives and the enthusiastic farmer who allowed for the storage of bones on his property, was second to none. Without their resources and assistance, the recovery could have not taken place.

Links:

Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation

Steaming through Williamstown

Author
by Matilda Vaughan
Publish date
3 October 2014
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Matilda swapped a life working as an engineer for a life curating the museum’s historical Engineering collection. She’s very curious about how stuff works, how it’s made and why. If a machine’s got a switch, she’ll definitely flick it.

A very satisfying part of my job is participating in the Scienceworks Working Machines program. How else would I find myself steaming down the main street of Williamstown in a historic steam truck a couple of Sunday mornings ago?

View from inside the truck Entering Nelson Place in a historic steam truck from The Strand, Williamstown.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A small and dedicated team of staff and volunteers help demonstrate some of our heritage vehicles to the public on four selected Sundays a year – Machines in Action Days. On four other Sundays we are busy learning and practising the skills needed to safely operate such historic machinery. I spent the first couple of hours in the morning bringing our Cowley Traction Engine up to steam ready for the team, and then it was time for some training by Richard on the Super Sentinel Steam Waggon (circa 1924).

Richard inside the truck Heritage machinery program volunteer, Richard Hayes, behind the wheel of the Super Sentinel Steam Waggon.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Our heritage vehicles have special permits so they can travel on public roads. So on some days, instead of practising around our arena, we get to survey the streets of Spotswood and Williamstown from behind the wheel of one of our steam-driven engines.

Man on vintage bike Sharing the road with another piece of vintage machinery.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So what skill did I practise during that trip? Well, it was basically shovelling the coal into the firebox of the boiler to maintain the correct pressure to suit Richard’s travel speed and load. And make sure the water to the boiler was kept topped up. Sometimes I had time to wave to people in the streets, those enjoying their breakfasts, and even snap a few pictures. But not many – I had too much coal to shovel.

Tower and car park in Williamstown Sentinel in the car park behind the Williamstown Timeball Tower.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We got as far as the historic Williamstown Timeball Tower before it was thought best to head back to Scienceworks, before we ran out of coal. No handy coal depots nearby any more.

Finding the Orchard Pacemaker

Author
by Matilda Vaughan
Publish date
29 September 2014
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Matilda swapped a life working as an engineer for a life curating the museum’s historical Engineering collection. She’s very curious about how stuff works, how it’s made and why. If a machine’s got a switch, she’ll definitely flick it.

A recent Discovery Centre enquirer asked whether there were any images of a Sunshine Massey Harris tractor in a particular trade literature document in our collection. Unfortunately that document did not have the picture she was hoping for. But, as we have such an extensive holding of Sunshine Massey Harris material, I was convinced that there must be a picture of this tractor somewhere amongst it all. So armed with her photo of the tractor’s radiator only, the hunt was on.

detail of tractor Photo of the Sunshine Massey Harris tractor sent in by the enquirer.  

I started with the Price Books. They are not just lists of numbers and descriptions; they often have small illustrations or photos of the product. From these I was able to see, based on the shape and features of the radiator, that the particular tractor was the Orchard Pacemaker model. But the images were too small to make out the feature she was most interested in – the 'SUNSHINE MASSEY HARRIS' impression on the radiator. The Price Books did however reveal that these tractors seemed to have only been available between 1940 and 1942. 

Tractor catalogue An image of the Orchard Pacemaker (bottom line, middle) among other tractors in the Sunshine Massey Harris Price Book.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria Trade Literature Collection TL41010
 

After more searching, I finally found a photograph in a general publicity brochure for tractors (dated 1941) of the Orchard Pacemaker, clearly showing the radiator.

tractor brochure The Sunshine Massey Harris Orchard Pacemaker in a publicity brochure for Sunshine Massey Harris Tractors, W.A., 1941.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria Trade Literature Collection TL45120
 

detail of tractor Detail of the radiator of the Orchard Pacemaker.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

It was not an easy search and most times these types of searches turn up nothing. So it makes these little finds all the more special and it’s immensely satisfying to be able to provide more information to the public. 

Links:

Trade Literature Collection

Publicity Brochure - H.V. McKay Massey Harris Pty Ltd Tractors 1941

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 metre 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 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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Comments (3)

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!

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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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