MV Blog

DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: burke and wills (2)

On rats

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
26 June 2011
Comments
Comments (1)

Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the day Alfred Howitt left Melbourne to search for Burke and Wills. By the time the explorers had returned to the Dig Tree in April 1861 there had been no news of them for six months. Public pressure had mounted and the exploration committee responsible sent out Howitt as leader of the Victorian Contingent Party. They would in fact discover the fate of Burke’s party in September that year.

Subsequently Howitt gathered a small but interesting collection of natural history specimens that were delivered to Museum Victoria. Only two mammal species were included: one of two known species of stick-nest rat Leporillus sp. [pictured in a cheeky pose here as a mount by an unknown nineteenth century preparator], and the White-footed Rabbit Rat Conilurus albipes. The Lesser Stick-nest Rat and the White-footed Rabit Rat were once widespread across parts of Australia but have long since been regarded as extinct.

stick-nest rat Leporillus sp Stick-nest rat Leporillus sp. collected by Alfred Howitt.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But there is some good news about rats! The species that the Burke and Wills Expedition knew best was the Long-haired or Plague Rat Rattus villosissimus. The ‘plague’ epithet came not from its carrying any disease, but its tendency to population irruptions reaching plague proportions, as we are currently witnessing with the introduced House Mouse Mus musculus. Burke and Wills travelled through the Channel Country after good rains, similar to the current environment. The rats swarmed over their first camp at Cooper Creek, attacking explorers and their supplies so relentlessly that they were forced to move to the site that subsequently became known for the Dig Tree.

The Long-haired Rat had hardly been sighted since the 1970s, especially during the long drought, and was feared to be heading for extinction. Now there are recent reports that the House Mouse is not the only rodent on the move. Zoologists are delighted that Long-haired Rats are now beeing seen in numbers again in Central Australia, including Alice Springs township. At least one of our native rodents is still out there.

Links:

Australian Dictionary of Biography: Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908)

Burke & Wills sesquicentenary

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
21 April 2011
Comments
Comments (0)

Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

150 years ago today, Burke and Wills returned from their trek to the Gulf of Carpentaria to Cooper Creek in south-west Queensland. Tragically, the party that had waited for them for 18 weeks had left just hours earlier on the same day, leaving a small cache of food buried under the a coolibah tree carved with the message 'DIG 3FT NW APR 21 1861'.

The Burke and Wills Dig Tree The Burke and Wills Dig Tree at Bullah Bullah Waterhole, on Coopers Creek, Queensland, Australia.
Image: Peterdownunder
Source: Used under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 from Peterdownunder
 

By the end of June both Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills were dead, leaving John King the only survivor. He was rescued by Alfred Howitt the following September during a search expedition, which also located the bodies of Burke and Wills.

Museum Victoria holds a number of important items associated with the story of Burke and Wills, particularly from Howitt’s two expeditions to Cooper Creek. Watch this space for more information in the coming months.

Medal - Burke & Wills Medal - Burke & Wills, Victoria, Australia, 1864. (NU 20096)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The famous, ill-fated Victorian Exploring Expedition was an enterprise of the Royal Society of Victoria, which is still located just across Carlton Gardens from Melbourne Museum. The expedition remained a dominant story in the Colony (and later State) of Victoria at least until World War I and the advent of the ANZACs. Pictured is a medallion from the Numismatics Collection, minted by Thomas Stokes about 1864 to commemorate Burke and Wills.

Links:

Royal Society of Victoria: Burke & Wills Commemoration program

Dig - The Burke & Wills Research Gateway at the State Library of Victoria

About this blog

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

Categories