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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: biodiversity (20)

Where the locals know best

by Paing Soe
Publish date
26 November 2013
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Paing Soe is a Master of Environment student at the University of Melbourne.

This is the third post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago.

Dr. Kevin Rowe and Dr. Karen Rowe give their unreserved credit to the local people—the guides, the village heads and the Indonesian scientists—for the discoveries that they've made together in Sulawesi. But it took a bit of work to get them on side, according to Kevin. "They were not convinced that you can make a living doing what we do. So they were suspicious that we probably had a hidden agenda," he says.

Sulawesi field team A photo opportunity with the local team in Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, May 2012.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

"On these mountains, only the local people really know what's there," says Kevin. The locals in Mamasa, a mountain town on the island of Sulawesi, had a name for almost every species, including animals that have not been described by science. Such knowledge was essential in the scientific discovery of an almost toothless rodent, Paucidentomys vermidax.

Man holding rodent Gherzhon, a local guide from Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, holding the recently described Paucidentomys vermidax he helped collect.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

On the last day of a trip in 2012, local guides caught a rare rat that in local tradition is believed to safeguard homes from fire. While some of the guides wanted to keep the rat for this reason, one guide argued how important it could be to the expedition and made sure it was shared with the scientists. The specimen turned out to be the only record of the species at the site. "That kind of support depends on building trust and relationships with local people," says Kevin.

"It's just impossible really, to go in there without a local partner," agrees Karen. Local scientists understand the cultural context, the bureaucracy, and are much more effective with exploration and conservation when it comes to biodiversity on these islands. Working with Anang Achmadi, Curator of Mammals, and Tri Haryoko, Curator of Birds, at the national museum of Indonesia, Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense, their research programs have led to a strong collaboration between Museum Victoria and MZB.

The more that local scientists can work independently, the better. Kevin and Karen Rowe take this approach despite the fact that their own expeditions are going so well. "The future of biodiversity research in Indonesia lies with local scientists. Our hope is that we can promote their training and success," says Kevin.

Anang Achmadi, curator of mammals Anang Achmadi, Curator of Mammals at Museum Zoologicum Bogorinese in camp on Mount Gandangdeata near Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, Sulawesi.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Check out the other posts in this mini-series: The Age of Exploration continues and Exploration of Sulawesi, Indonesia

Alpine Bioscan

by Kate C
Publish date
19 November 2013
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Nearly 30 museum scientists, staff and associates left Melbourne Museum early yesterday morning, headed for the Alpine National Park. They’re embarking on the next major Parks Bioscan – a program of intensive biodiversity surveys that MV performs, in partnership with Parks Victoria, of some of the state’s most wildlife-rich national parks. Volunteers from 4WD Victoria are providing additional help with access to the more remote and rugged parts of this cold and mountainous area.

Scientists at Bairnsdale sign Lunch stop at Bairnsdale for the MV scientists on the trip up the the Alpine National Park.
Source: Museum Victoria

As the team was packing up last week, I talked with Dr Karen Rowe about the gear the crews are taking into the field – namely nine iPads that will be used to collect data about the observations, samples and specimens taken by our experts.

iPad data collection system Karen's iPad ready to collect field data.
Source: Museum Victoria

Using iPads will allow the scientists and collection managers to upload the data directly into the museum’s collection database, EMu. This replaces the time-honoured tradition of recording data with pens and paper… followed by hours of painstaking transcription. Almost inevitably, transcription errors, bad handwriting, rain-sodden paper and other data disasters affect information brought back from the field this way.

The tablets have other benefits, too: an on-board GPS means that every observation is linked with a location, and the data collected for each location is standardised across the scientific disciplines. They also link to topographical maps, vegetation maps, and other useful field tools like the iPad’s camera and audio recording functions. In the case of alpine frogs, there are species that can only be distinguished by their calls so audio recording is vital to correct identification.

But why do the scientists collect all this data? Surely a biodiversity survey is just a big checklist of species? Karen explained that if you collect a specimen (or make an observation) without recording all the other information about that collection event, you "might as well have not collected the critter. We have a lot of specimens in the museum that have no provenance or location data. It’s useful as an exercise to help you understand that particular species but not the context in which it lives." Careful notes about the exact location (under a rock, up a tree), time of day (dawn, midday), and other factors help to flesh out the ecology and behaviour of a species.

"Particularly in areas that are hard to get to – and Sulawesi is a prime example – a lot of the species listed in the IUCN Red List are data deficient," continued Karen. "We don’t know anything about them or the habitats they’re in." Without that information, biologists can’t be sure of the scarcity of the species; a little-known tree-dwelling rat could seem extinct if you’re only looking for them on the ground.

The iPad will also help the museum photographers to attach species information to photographs taken in the field, which makes the images much more useful for research and reporting what we’ve found. Plus, teams can make accurate observations about animals outside their field of expertise – the entomologists can record the calls of birds, for example – for verification by the ornithologists later. That means a more thorough survey of the region.

Of course, in case of technical malfunction, Karen has a backup plan: the folders, clipboards and data sheets of yore. They’re charmingly labelled ‘Old fashioned iPads’ and to be used only in case of emergency.

box of field notebooks Old-school: the back-up field notebooks packed and ready to to to the Alps Bioscan.
Source: Museum Victoria

In addition to traps and sampling equipment, these field scientists have packed gear for extreme weather, including four-season tents, sleeping bags, thermal underwear and more. And of course, the field gear most important for maintaining morale after 12-hour days in hilly wilderness: comfort snacks!

  Supplies for the biodiversity survey Field supplies packed up for the Alps Bioscan. Left: bait for the mammal traps include cat food and vanilla essence. Right: while the bush rats are drawn to fishy and floral scents, the scientists prefer chocolate.
Source: Museum Victoria

If you live in the Victorian Alps, come along to our Science at the Pub event at the end of the Bioscan at Omeo's Golden Age Hotel, Friday 29 November 6:30 PM. Meet the scientists and see what they've found in the park.


Parks Victoria media release about the Alps Bioscan

Wild: Victorian Alps

MV Blog posts from the 2011 Prom Bioscan and 2012 Grampians Bioscan

The Age of Exploration continues

by Chenae Neilson
Publish date
6 November 2013
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Chenae Neilson is a Master of Science in Human Geography student at the University of Melbourne. This is the first post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago today.

Over the last 250 years, the taxonomic classification of life on Earth has described approximately 1.2 million species that share the planet with us, Homo sapiens. However, every year, we discover thousands of new species. Often these are organisms that have been concealed from scientific observation within impassable forests or the dark of the ocean abyss. A 2011 estimate suggests there are over eight million species on Earth, which means we have described fewer than 15 per cent of them. This stems, in part, because we have explored only five per cent of the world’s oceans, and scientists have yet to survey many terrestrial environments.

This celebration of exploration marks the centenary of the death of explorer, naturalist, and evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who died on 7 November 1913. To commemorate Wallace we return to the region of his most famous exploration.

Alfred Russel Wallace, circa 1895. Alfred Russel Wallace, circa 1895.
Image: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
Source: Wikimedia Commons

"Nature has taken every precaution that these, her choicest treasures, may not lose value by being too easily obtained."
Alfred Russel Wallace


From 1854 to 1862, Wallace traveled across the Indonesian archipelago from the Sunda shelf in the west through the island of Sulawesi and to the Bird's Head of New Guinea in the east. On this journey he noted a distinct transition from more Asian fauna to more Australian fauna – the line demarking this dramatic transition became known as the 'Wallace's Line'. The broader region between Asia and Australia, including the island of Sulawesi, is termed Wallacea, which hosts an endemic combination of Asian and Australian lineages. Wallace’s exploration of Sulawesi made a significant contribution to the species catalogue in this region and also became the backbone of evidence for his own theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace’s adventures in Wallacea were later chronicled in his book, The Malay Archipelago, written in 1869.

Map of Sunda and Sahul Map of Wallacea, featuring the island of Sulawesi and the biogeographic lines defining breaks between Asian fauna within Sunda and Australasia.
Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker
Source: Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the countless scientific findings made during the Age of Exploration in the 1800s, exploration still remains important today, particularly in a world where natural environments are under threat.

Wallace's trail of exploration has been retraced many times by contemporary scientists, amateur naturalists, and television personalities. Exploration may mean something different to each. For the scientist, these areas are revealing new species and answering questions about the evolutionary history of the region. To the naturalist, the 'discovery' of animals found nowhere else on earth and the chance to walk in the footsteps of an influential figure may be the very definition of exploration. Regardless of our definition of exploration, areas like Wallacea hold many new possibilities.

Over 100 years later, two research scientists at Museum Victoria, Dr Kevin Rowe and Dr Karen Rowe, have been following in the footsteps of Wallace. Some of their recent findings will be the subject of the next blog in our mini-series.

Woman in rainforest in Indonesia Karen Rowe hiking into a remote field camp on Mount Dako, Sulawesi where scientists from MV, Indonesia and the United States inventoried mammals and birds for the first time in 2013.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Return from Mount Dako

by Kevin Rowe
Publish date
2 April 2013
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Kevin is our Senior Curator of Mammals. He investigates the systematics, evolution and conservation biology of mammals with a particular interest in rodents.

On Saturday 23 March, we returned to Melbourne from our expedition to Sulawesi, Indonesia. Our last week we spent at the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense sorting specimens and preparing permits to return to Australia. A week earlier on 16 March, we left our camp in the forest of Mount Dako on the island of Sulawesi. We hiked all day from 1600 metres above sea level to the village of Malangga Selatan at 200 metres. Our team at 400 metres elevation also left camp and met us in the town of Toli Toli.

Sulawesi field team The mammal team and guides at 1600m elevation on the last day in the high camp on Mount Dako. Left to right: Kevin Rowe, Mardin Sarkam, Anang Achmadi, Jamudin, Jake Esselstyn, and Jamal.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

It wasn’t easy to get to our camps on Mount Dako. After a week of permits in Jakarta, a week of scouting two mountains, and several days arranging local assistance, we finally arrived in Malangga Selatan ready to hike up the mountain. With over 300 kg of gear, our team of ten researchers, and fifty local men waiting to help us up the mountain, our local guide, Jamudin, suddenly expressed concern about water on the mountain. Apparently we were going farther into the forest than he was accustomed. We showed him the many drainages on the map that all fed into a big river to the east, but our only option to convince him was to send another scouting party two days hike up the mountain. The rest of our team and the porters set the low elevation camp. After two days, I reached the crest south of Mount Dako with our scouting party and made camp beside a small stream. That night the rain fell heavy for several hours and our tent flooded in the rain. We sought shelter with our guides under a tarp and spent several hours sitting on a small log until the rain subsided enough to return to our tent. The next day we sent two of our guides down the mountain to return with the rest of our team and our gear two days later. We moved our camp to a drier location farther up the ridge and enjoyed the only two days without rain for the rest of our trip.

Sulawesi moss forest Lush and wet lower montane moss forest near camp at 1600 metres elevation on Mount Dako.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Our high camp was set in lower montane rainforest with moss-covered trees including oaks and pandanus. Even when it’s not raining, clouds bring moisture to the forest and there is nearly constant dripping. Orchids and pitcher plants grow in the moisture of the moss. Spiny rotan erupt from tiny plants on the forest floor to tree size vines emerging from the canopy. They climb with the aid of curved thorns that grip human hands and bodies as easily as the trunks of trees.

Plants of Sulawesi Left: Spiny palm tree along the trail to the high camp on Mount Dako. Right: Pitcher plant in lower montane forest.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Over the last two weeks, our two camps documented 26 species of bats, rats and shrews and 31 species of birds in the forests of Mount Dako. In total, our surveys produced nearly 500 mammal and 150 bird records.

We documented a wide range of mammal species including the giant rat, Paruromys dominator, the small orange-brown rat, Maxomys musschenbroekii, the long-haired rat, Rattus xanthurus, the soft-furred rat, Bunomys penitus, and the small arboreal mouse, Haeromys minahassae. We documented two squirrels, the small arboreal, Prosciurillus murinus, and the long-nosed, terrestrial, Hyosciurus ileile. We also documented five species of shrews, including the dark-furred, Crocidura rhoditis.

Three Sulawesi mammals Three of the mammals recorded in Mt Dako's lower montane forests. Top: Giant rat, Paruromys dominator. Middle: The soft-furred rat, Bunomys penitus. Bottom: The long-nosed squirrel, Hyosciurus ileile.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Many endemic and beautiful bird species were documented as well, including the Green-backed Kingfisher, Lesser Sulawesi Honeyeater, Sulawesi and Hair-crested Drongos, Malia, Philippine Scrubfowl, Yellow-flanked Whistler, Fiery-browed Starling, Golden-mantled Racquet-tail, and two species of small hawks, the Spot-tailed Goshawk and Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk.  Many species of fruit-doves were also noted, including the Sulawesi Ground-dove, Purple-crowned Fruit-dove and Black-naped Fruit-dove. Population densities of several species were high, including the Yellow-sided Flowerpecker. This species is in the same family as Australia’s Mistletoebird, which is often only found singly or in pairs. An exciting find was the large Ashy Woodpecker. Sulawesi represents a limit to the distribution of woodpeckers, which are found world-wide with the exception of the Australo-Pacific region.

Two birds of Sulawesi Left: The Green-backed Kingfisher found in lower montane forest on Mount Dako. Right: The endemic Malia found at 1600 m on Mount Dako.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Our return to Melbourne is only the beginning of our studies as now we begin the cleaning and detailed examination of specimens, including genetic sequencing and comparison to described specimens to confirm identifications and examine geographic variation within species. Our collections from Mount Dako are a rare collection from the western portion of the northern peninsula of Sulawesi. They will help us understand the diversity, distribution, and origin of species on the island of Sulawesi and its significance in the biogeography of the Indo-Australian region. That understanding will emerge through our research at Museum Victoria and our collaboration with the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense and our international partners in Canada and the USA. 

Discoveries in the jungle

by Priscilla
Publish date
13 March 2013
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Priscilla is a Program Coordinator for Life Sciences and works on education programs at Melbourne Museum.

"There’s still plenty to discover in the jungles of Sulawesi," said Dr Kevin Rowe yesterday, via satellite phone from the jungles of Indonesia. He was phoning in to HQ – Museum Victoria, that is; he and his field crew are deep in the jungle, with email access a day’s hike away.

Dr Kevin reported that he and MV Ornithology Fellow, Dr Karen Rowe, have been enjoying great success on their current field trip. “To date, we’ve caught eight species of rats, two species of squirrels, five species of shrews and 13 species of birds”. He further explained that these mammals are all endemic, meaning that they are not to be found anywhere else in the world.

The crew has two camps set up at different altitudes. Kevin and Karen are camped at an altitude of 1600 metres, while Wayne Longmore, Museum Victoria’s Collection Manager of Terrestrial Vertebrates, is working with others at 400 metres above sea level.

While we here in Melbourne have been melting, during the hottest March since records began, Kevin and the crew have been experiencing endless rain. "Rain, rain and more rain, with days reaching a maximum of 16 degrees Celsius" said Kevin. "It’s a big cloud forest here, which leads to a lot of moss on the trees." And where there’s endless rain, there’s plenty of mud, making the work of our scientists tougher as they set out their 240 traps each night, ahead of collecting and checking them all the very next day and processing the data in daylight.

Birdsong metre demonstration The birdsong metre being demonstrated by museum volunteer, Bentleigh, during a trip to the Grampians.
Source: Museum Victoria

Dr Karen Rowe said that they had found many birds on this trip too, including honeyeaters, fantails and goshawks. Simply trying to sight these birds can be very difficult in thick jungle, however, so, to better understand the bird life of Sulawesi, she has been using a song meter to automatically record birdsong, which she can analyse later to determine which birds are living in the area.

The crew are in the jungle until this Saturday, when they will hike out at night. Through the rain, Kevin says "the views of the jungle from the lookouts are beautiful." However, they have only a few more days to enjoy the sights; they'll be back in Melbourne a week from Saturday. Meanwhile, there just may be some more discoveries yet to be made...

View Sulawesi Field Team in a larger map

John Abbot’s Lepidoptera

by Hayley
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments (1)

The MV Library holds an important collection of 18th and 19th century scientific literature. Many of these books began as working tools for early museum curators studying the local fauna. Now, they form part of our rare book collection and are prized for their beauty and rarity.

The library's collection has an interesting history, forming from the amalgamation of two specialist collections from the National Museum of Victoria and Science Museum. Books have been purchased since the earliest days of the National Museum of Victoria, when the first director, Frederick McCoy, acquired important titles such as the entomological works of Maria Sybilla Merian.

While the library collection at MV is relatively small, it is also surprisingly unique. Library staff are currently working to identify titles unique to Australian libraries, a project which has exposed some real gems in the collection, such as John Abbot’s The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (1797).

Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Abbot left his native England in 1773 for the colony of Virginia in North America, in order to procure specimens and make drawings of the local insects. Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, Abbot moved to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life recording the local insects and birds.

Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Although he was a prolific natural history artist and well regarded in his lifetime, Abbot is not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, who included famous naturalists such as John James Audubon. While he is thought to have created four to five thousand watercolours, most of them were unpublished or uncredited during his lifetime.

The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia includes 104 hand-coloured plates by John Harris, after original artwork by John Abbot. It's an important early work to depict North American butterflies and moths, and has been appreciated by scientists and collectors alike for its accuracy as well as its beauty. The introduction was written by James Edward Smith, a founder of The Linnean Society of London.

While it is exciting to encounter rare material in our collection, it is also nice to be able to share it. Luckily, the work has been digitised and is now freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so have a browse online or download your own copy of this rare work!


Gilbert, P. & Hamilton, C., Entomology: A Guide to Information Sources, London & New York: Mansell, 1990.

Gilbert, P., John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, London: Merrell Holberton and Natural History Museum, 1998.

Job, Frank, “The Library of Museum Victoria” in Rasmussen, C. (ed.), A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and its Predecessors, 1854-2000, Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2001.

Rogers-Price, Vivian & Griffin, William W., "John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia," Magazine Antiques (October 1983): 768-75.

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