MV Blog


NASA's success on Mars

by Tanya
Publish date
13 August 2012
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NASA sure has got it right this time. Not only did they achieve a perfect controlled landing on Mars, but they also re-ignited the public’s fascination with space exploration.

Watching landing in Times Square, New York In New York, around 1,000 people watched the landing on the big screen in Times Square.
Image: Leslie Mullen
Source: NASA

It must be said, I’ve always been an advocate for human space exploration. I want to live vicariously through the adventures of astronauts. I want to imagine what it would be like to be the first person to walk on Mars. But this week, I found myself just as excited about a mechanical machine taking that first bold step – and I wasn’t alone!

The landing on Mars was brilliant, but just as successful was the range of interesting communication strategies that NASA used to get us all talking about Curiosity.

Have you tried your hand at the Mars Rover Landing game? It’s free for the Xbox Kinect. My boys had some fun over the weekend trying to land the rover for themselves – for what it is, it’s a great little game, and best of all, they now have a clear idea of exactly what the landing involved and why it was such an amazing thing to get right.

Mars Rover Landing on Xbox Do you have the right stuff to land Curiosity? Test your skills with the Mars Rover Landing game.
Source: NASA

Then there was the “seven minutes of terror” animation. At the Melbourne Planetarium, we’re now showing a special version that was specifically made for planetariums, using the planetarium's fulldome cinema format. Rather than watching a square screen, the action fills the planetarium dome and is a great treat for our visitors.

And wasn't it great to see all the action live? It was so easy to get online and be right there in the control room! Who can’t but get excited when you see the elation and hear the whoops of joy from those NASA guys as their “seven minutes of terror” came to the perfect conclusion.

NASA Control Room The exhilaration of a nail-biting achievement.
Source: NASA

Lastly the tweets – nothing makes a spacecraft more lovable than hearing its own excited reaction (so what if it’s make-believe!).

It once was one small step... now it's six big wheels. Here's a look at one of them on the soil of Mars #MSL

Curiosity landing site Happy snaps from Curiosity on the surface of Mars.
Source: NASA

Congrats to Curiosity and NASA. Wish you all the best for the next Martian year and let’s hope the excitement continues as you discover more about the red planet.

First fossil of Pygmy Right Whale

by Kate C
Publish date
10 August 2012
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The Pygmy Right Whale (Caperea marginata) is the oddball of the whale world. The bizarre anatomy of this species has confounded researchers for years – even its common name demonstrates our historical lack of understanding. Its arched upper jaw and skim-feeding behaviour is similar to the right whales however DNA analysis shows that Pygmy Right Whales are more closely related to the rorquals (family Balaenopteridae) than the true right whales (family Balaenidae).

The puzzle of the evolutionary history of this species was not helped by the fact that it appeared completely absent from the fossil record. Palaeontologist and whale expert Erich Fitzgerald was therefore extremely pleased to identify a lone fossil specimen in the Museum Victoria as a partial periotic (the bone that surrounds the inner ear) of an ancient relative of the Pygmy Right Whale.

One theory about this group, explains Erich, is that "the bizarre features of the Pygmy Right Whale evolved rapidly within the last three to four million years. But this fossil suggests that they're much older than that." The specimen, which Erich describes as "looking like a coconut," is larger than the periotic of the living Pygmy Right Whale and dates to the late Miocene. This makes it six million years old, which will help calibrate the whale phylogenies (evolutionary trees) that are based on DNA sequences.

four views from different angles of whale earbones. Comparison of the incomplete fossil specimen (left) with a complete earbone of a juvenile Pygmy Right Whale.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria / Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

It is the peculiar skeleton of the Pygmy Right Whale, particularly of its ear bones, that allowed Erich to identify such an odd and incomplete fossil. "Baleen whales in general have strange skulls but in Pygmy Right Whales the ear bones are particularly strange because the back end, of the periotic, is enormous and bulbous. This fossil has no features that would ally it with any other family."

The strangeness of this whale doesn't end with its skull. First up, there is its size; at just 6.5 metres long, it's the smallest living baleen whale. Compare this with its colossal distant relatives, such as the 33 metre Blue Whale. But there's more, says Erich. "If we look beyond the head, there are some really strange things. In particular, the Pygmy Right Whale has ribs that are flattened and expanded. It almost looks like the ribs have formed a shield over the organs." This may relate to their unusual way of swimming which requires a stiffer trunk. "A young animal filmed underwater in South Africa shows that they flex their entire body not just the tail. It's thought that the ribs may be expanded to help keep the body rigid during this movement."

Until this footage, almost all knowledge of the species came from stranded individuals. Recent aerial photographs of a pod of Pygmy Right Whales off the coast near Portland showed some kind of social behaviour but exactly what it is – feeding, reproducing or something else – is still unknown.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa made this video with a dissection of a stranded whale which clearly shows the unusual ribs.



Erich M. G. Fitzgerald. 2012. Possible neobalaenid from the Miocene of Australia implies a long evolutionary history for the pygmy right whale Caperea marginata (Cetacea, Mysticeti). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(4): 976-980. DOI:10.1080/02724634.2012.669803

The Tetrapod Zoology blog has a series of three terrific posts about Pygmy Right Whales:
Caperea is really weird
More on little Caperea
Caperea alive

Fishes of Australia website

by Di Bray
Publish date
8 August 2012
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Di is Senior Collections Manager in our Sciences Department and is absolutely passionate about all things sciency. She loves telling people about the amazing and unique fishes found in our waters.

After a prolonged gestation, we recently launched the beautiful Fishes of Australia website in Adelaide at the Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Fish Biology

Fishes of Australia website banner showing title and fish Fishes of Australia website banner.
Source: Museum Victoria

The website, funded by the Australian Biological Resources Study, is hosted by Museum Victoria on behalf of OzFishNet, a group of fish experts who work at, or are associated with, museums in Australia and the CSIRO. Senior curator Martin Gomon and I worked with the museum's in-house design and development team to build the site, which will appeal to everyone with an interest in Australian fishes, whether they be divers, anglers, aquarists, students, teachers, or researchers. 

Leafy Seadragon fish Leafy Seadragon, Phycodurus eques
Image: Graham Short
Source: Fishes of Australia

Australia's amazingly rich and diverse fish fauna comprises about 5000 species. With so many fishes, the website is a work in progress, but photographs of over 800 species are already in the website's gallery. Eventually, we'll include detailed images and information on all Australian fishes – including tiny desert gobies from hot artesian springs in central Australia, weird and wonderful deep-sea critters found offshore, and all species on the Great Barrier Reef.

Green Moray Eel Green Moray Eel
Image: Steve Dreezer
Source: Steve Dreezer

We're also including fishes found in our territorial waters – those from our Antarctic and Subantarctic waters, plus the fishes of Ashmore, Cartier, Lord Howe, Norfolk, Christmas and Cocos Keeling islands.

Alison's Blue Devil fish Alison's Blue Devil, Paraplesiops alisonae
Image: Rudie Kuiter
Source: Aquatic Photographics

We've included a couple of user-friendly interactive keys – one to fish families, and the other to freshwater fishes (including the nasty introduced ones). Try them out on that weird fish you caught last summer, or put a name on your favourite aquarium species. We thank the many fantastic photographers who have allowed us to use their gorgeous images that illustrate the site.

Kiwi Hatchetfish Kiwi Hatchetfish, Polyipnus kiwiensis
Image: Robin McPhee & Mark McGrouther
Source: NORFANZ Founding parties

Threadfin Dragonfish Threadfin Dragonfish
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria

And finally, please 'Like' us on Facebook and tell us what you think.


...but is it real?

by Wayne
Publish date
6 August 2012
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Your Question: ...but is it real?

"I love the Discovery Centre at Melbourne Museum and wanted to know more about the animals and fossils on display. Are they all real? "

Not all of the displayed material is 100% ‘real’, but a surprisingly large percentage of the displays are certainly real...although it depends on how you would define reality! Let me explain with a few examples:

Dinosaur Skulls

The two dinosaur skulls in the Discovery Centre (of Tarbosaurus and Centrosaurus) are both casts from real specimens, but aren’t themselves ‘real’. For many reasons, casts of dinosaur remains outnumber the real dinosaur fossils on display here at Melbourne  Museum, but you can see real dinosaur fossils in the Dinosaur Walk and 600 Million Years exhibitions in the Science and Life Gallery.

Centrosaurus skull The cast skull from the Cretaceous dinosaur Centrosaurus
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria

Cephalopod slab

Yes, this is also real, but it has had some enhancement – the fossils themselves have been cut and polished in contrast to the rough, unpolished rock in which they are embedded. It looks quite different to what the slab looked like originally, but it is certainly real – just a bit more polished, literally!

Cephalopod slab A slab of ancient sea bed sediemnts with cephalopod shells embedded.
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria

Mammal and Bird Mounts

We have a variety of these in the Discovery Centre, ranging from small local Honeyeater species to the impressive Jaguar mount. These are all real in the sense that the skins/hides are preserved from the original animals, but the remaining soft tissue such as eyes and muscles, are not real – just as you would expect for taxidermy animals.

DC Jaguar The Discovery Centre's mounted Jaguar specimen
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria

Got a question? Ask us!


600 Million Years – Victoria Evolves

Dinosaur Walk

Live Exhibits blog posts

About this blog

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