Alice

DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Alice (6)

Alice

Alice is part of the Discovery Centre team and works across both centres at the Immigration and Melbourne Museums. She loves exploring behind the scenes and wishes that her house looked more like the Wild exhibition space.

Colourful calendar fiesta!

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by Alice
Publish date
4 July 2014
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Come on down to the Discovery Centre this school holidays to help us colour in our giant Aztec Sun Calendar! 

Aztecblank The newly installed Aztec Sun Calendar needs your colouring in skills!
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Aztecs, along with their Mesoamerican cousins the Incas and the Mayans, developed complex calendar systems to structure their lives. These calendars were used to plot their religious festivals and sacrifices, as well as marking the seasons and when to plant their crops. They formed the very backbone of the Aztec civilisation – just imagine if your birthday determined your destiny!

 To honour the mighty Aztec Calendar we have created an almost life-size replica of the famous “Eagle Bowl” Sun Calendar – uncovered in 1790 under the central plaza of Mexico City.

The calendar is full of hidden religious symbolism – in centre place the Aztec Sun God, Tonatiuh, sticks out his tongue while clutching sacrificial human hearts. Surrounding him are the symbols for each of the 20 days in the Aztec month and the faces of the previous Aztec suns: Jaguar, Wind, Rain and Water.

Come and help us bring this ancient relic to life by colouring in your own little segment of the calendar – and see if you can figure out some of the hidden shapes and symbols while doing so!

families Families contributing to the first calendar installation.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We have also put aside a colourful quiet corner in the Discovery Centre for those interested in learning a little bit more about this fascinating ancient civilisation. Copies of the exhibition catalogue along with dozens of other books on the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures are on offer for those eager to learn a little more. 

Readingroom Beanbags, bunting and books - learn about the Aztecs in our colourful reading room.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Our first installation was a huge success with families and visiting school groups - so make sure you get in quick to make your mark on this colourful collaborative calendar! 

finished Completed Aztec Sun Calendar from last school holidays.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Discovery Centre is free to visit and located on the Lower Ground floor of Melbourne Museum. Come visit us Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am-4:30pm.

Australia’s biggest wildlife biobank

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by Alice
Publish date
27 June 2014
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We should all be giving each other a big round of high fives, as Museum Victoria has just been awarded a $500,000 Ian Potter Foundation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grant for the development of Australia’s largest wildlife biobank! The new biobank—the animal equivalent of a seedbank—will enable us to store embryos, eggs and sperm from some of Australia’s most endangered animals. Based on super-cold liquid nitrogen, the biobank facility will store animal tissue samples at -150ºC, which is cold enough to preserve them for the long term.

Yellow-footed Antechinus Yellow-footed Antechinus captured for a blood sample then released.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

  Dr Kevin Rowe sorting tissue samples in the field Dr Kevin Rowe sorting tissue samples in the field.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The proposed storage facilities sound like something straight out of Mr. Freeze’s lab: a custom-built airtight room equipped to house three liquid nitrogen dewar cryostorage vats, rather like giant vacuum flasks. Inside, vials containing tissue samples will be stored in the vapour above the liquid nitrogen. Kept in this manner, the samples will remain viable for more than 50 years.

  Staff at work in Laboratory. Staff at work in our Ancient DNA Laboratory.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Currently, our collection of over 40,000 tissue samples is limited to organs, skin, fur and feathers stored at -80ºC. These samples have been collected over the last 160 years and are priceless tools for scientific research into evolution, genetic relationships, species discrimination, and especially conservation. By enabling the long term storage of reproductive tissues, the newer, cooler biobank will enable us to realise the full potential of this collection and built on our ability to increase reproductive biology programs and genetic research.  

  Helena Gum Moth The apparent decline of Emperor Gum Moths and the closely related Helena Gum Moth have been a hot topic for scientists in recent years. Initiatives such as the biobank could largely benefit their survival.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Considering that our early natural history collectors could not have dreamed of the uses we would have found for their specimens over a century later; the Ian Potter Australian Wildlife Biobank offers new hope to endangered species, many of which may face extinction in the coming decades. With ever-increasing pressure from human impacts such as climate change and habitat loss on our native fauna, we envisage that the biobank will be a game changer for wildlife research, conservation and recovery. 

  Smoky Mouse The critically endangered Smoky Mouse is another native species that may benefit largely from this new technology.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The biobank is expected to be operating by late 2015.

Why we can't give a stuff

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by Alice
Publish date
29 April 2014
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The Discovery Centre receives heaps of enquiries from budding enthusiasts eager to learn the art of taxidermy – it’s no surprise because Museum Victoria holds the largest collection of taxidermy mounts in the state.

behind the scenes Rows of taxidermy mounts hidden behind the scenes of the Melbourne Museum.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Taxidermy is but one of many tasks performed by the multi-talented members of our preparation department. The preparators work purely on museum projects, combining skills in taxidermy, moulding, casting and model-making to enhance the state’s collections and research.

reptile moulds Reptile moulds and casts hand made by the preparation department.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria

 

Seal model Sculpting and modelling a seal for permanent display.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Only a fraction of the work that the preparation department performs makes its way to the public displays, with the majority of their work residing behind the scenes. Most animals coming into the museum join the research collections and don’t need to be prepared as life-like mounts; 90 per cent of the specimens prepared at the museum have data and tissue samples collected and are preserved as study skins and skeletons. These specimens become priceless tools in assisting scientists identify and compare new species, better understand the evolution of species over time, and research how we can conserve our fauna into the future.

Study skins Study skins used in the research collection.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Skeletal remains Skeletons prepared for the research collection with the assistance of dermestid beetles.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Due to the busy workload of our preparators, we are unable to provide personal advice to individuals about taxidermy. We are, however, bringing out our experts for the next Smart Bar to focus on the history, methods and tools of the craft. This Thursday 1 May, from 6-9pm our experts will explore the inside story of taxidermy with pop up talks and demonstrations.

Koala moulding Tools and measurements used in making a koala cast.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

exhibition maitenance Ongoing maintenance of exhibition material such as this interactive component from Think Ahead is a large part of the preparation departments workload.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

For those unable to attend, there is plenty of information available online through supply websites, online tutorials and forums. Commercial taxidermists can also be found in the Yellow Pages, and you may be lucky enough to find one who is willing to discuss their tricks of the trade. Formal tutelage in taxidermy is almost non-existent in Australia but getting involved in online forums and clubs is a great starting point to meet likeminded people and gain expert advice. Most of our preparators started out reading taxidermy books for beginners, many of which can still be found in local libraries.

Keep in mind that in Australia there are strict licencing protocols surrounding practicing taxidermy on native animals. For more information visit the Department of Environment and Primary Industries website.

Links:

Smart Bar: Stuffed

So many specimens

Death by coitus

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by Alice
Publish date
14 April 2014
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The other week I attended Isabella Rossellini’s comic and educational monologue Green Porno, a fascinating lecture on the sexual escapades of the natural world. It really got me thinking about the various and bizarre methods of animal reproduction that I've encountered since commencing my role at the Discovery Centre. We see an intriguing array of specimens brought in to be identified and in some cases even added to the collection. Many of these animals would be well-deserving of a feature episode on Isabella’s show, but none have captivated my attention more than our recent acquisition of a male phascogale. 

Phascolgales belong to the same group of marsupials as the Tasmanian Devil and the quolls. But unlike their relatives they have managed to keep a very low profile. Considering that male phascogales live fast, die young, and have such a frantic sex life that it kills them, I was really surprised that the first time I became aware of this genus was through the arrival of a neatly wrapped frozen specimen.

  Mount of Phascogale tapoatafa, Brush-tailed Phascogale  Mount of Brush-tailed Phascogale
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Copyright Museum Victoria 2003
 

Phascogales are among a rare breed of mammals that practice suicidal reproduction, or semelparity, where one or both sexes die after a single episode of mating. This strategy is seen in some invertebrate and plant species, but is extremely rare in mammals, only occurring in a few marsupials native to Australia, South America and Papua New Guinea. In Australia the male Phascogale, Antechinus, Dasykaluta and Parantechinus are the only mammals where the males literally mate themselves to death.

Mating season for these dasyurid marsupials lasts only a few short weeks, during which promiscuous females and anxious males copulate for hours at a time (Antechinus have been known to go at it for up to 14 hours!). During this concentrated period of breeding the males’ levels of testosterone and stress hormones become so extreme that even their muscles start to break down to help fuel the act. The intensity of prolonged mating causes the males' bodily functions such as their immune system to shut down, exposing their exhausted bodies to infection, internal bleeding and disease shortly after. The males will not even get to see the fruits of their labour, as they all die before their young are born.

Phascogale tapoatafa: Brush-tailed Phascogale Brush-tailed Phascogale from J. Gould's Mammals of Australia, 1863, vol 1, pl 31
Image: Artist: John Gould; Lithographer: H.C. Richter
Source: Out of Copyright
 

So why do you think male phascogales have been programmed to pursue such a life ending labour of love?

The answer lies in their sperm. For phascogales sexual selection occurs after copulating, where the sperm compete inside the female for fertilisation. Rather than fighting to gain access to mate with a female, males need to put all of their energy into fertilising as many females with as much sperm as possible. This also explains the lengthy duration of the mating spree – the more time one male spends mating with a female, the less opportunity other males have at gaining access to her. Combine this with the promiscuous frenzy of their breeding period and many females may nurture offspring from multiple fathers. 

I can only imagine the field day that Isabella would have illuminating the fascinating science behind the phascogale's reproductive biology. A glimpse at any of her online videos will give you an idea.

Links:

Diana O. Fisher, Christopher R. Dickman, Menna E. Jones, and Simon P. Blomberg (2013) Sperm competition drives the evolution of suicidal reproduction in mammals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published ahead of print 7 October 2013: doi:10.1073/pnas.1310691110

Preparing to Think Ahead

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by Alice
Publish date
5 December 2013
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The whole preparation department have been hard at work over the past few months getting their creations ready for the opening of Scienceworks' new permanent exhibition, Think Ahead.

I went to visit the team during their last week of preparation to see some of their projects in the final stages of development.

Building model houses Building model houses
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

What has always impressed me about all the clever individuals in the preparation department is that their job combines highly refined artistic skills with science and design....and a whole lot of patience and lateral thinking!   

The team’s recent body of work for Think Ahead is certainly a testament to their craft. Using a creative mix of materials ranging from state-of-the-art plastic technology to readymade dollhouse furniture, the team have created a wide range of objects and interactives for permanent display including plastic foods, futuristic human figurines, replica ice cores, miniature dioramas and life-sized human mannequins. They even utilised the museum’s 3D printer to produce miniature model tyres for their futuristic farm machinery.

3D printed tyres 3D printed tyres
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Future food Future food
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

With the exhibition targeted at 8 to 12 year olds, the team have included many clever little twists to catch the eye of their audience. In one display, a model dolls house that shows the evolution of a child’s bedroom from the turn of the century to today, and references to contemporary pop culture are included in the form of mini Diablo and Angry Birds posters pasted on the walls of the modern bedroom. 

Bedroom diorama Bedroom diorama
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Other creations such as Michael Pennell’s future human figurines and Steven Sparrey’s silicone life sized mannequin (modelled from Michael's face) look like props right from the set of a new sci-fi blockbuster.

Future human figurines Future human figurines
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Think Ahead opens this week at Scienceworks.

Nature's nappies

Author
by Alice
Publish date
14 November 2013
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Here at the Melbourne Museum Discovery Centre we are inundated with a wide variety of interesting enquiries. We recently received this stunning photograph from a keen bird enthusiast in Camberwell, wondering what was being fed to the young chicks.

Wattlebird with faecal sac. Wattlebird with faecal sac.
Image: Jim Love
Source: Jim Love
 

Interestingly, the parent wattlebird pictured is not actually feeding this infant but cleaning up after it. 

The black and white material in the parent’s beak is what is called a faecal sac, a mucous membrane that contains the excrement and uric acid (the bird equivalent of urine) of the young nestling. The thick membranous exterior of the sac is strong enough for the parent to pick up with their sharp beak to carry away and dispose of without puncturing it. They are just like a disposable nappy for birds!

Faecal sacs are usually excreted by the chicks shortly after feeding takes place, but this varies from species to species. In the case of the wattlebird the production of a faecal sac is almost instantaneous after feeding. This immediate reaction ensures that whichever parent feeds the chicks, will also be there to carry away the waste at the same time. You can see this occurring in the image below, where the parent is extracting the sac from the nestling’s cloaca as it is being produced.

Wattlebird with faecal sac. Wattlebird with faecal sac.
Image: Jim Love
Source: Jim Love
 

Parents remove faecal sacs from the nest for a number of very important reasons.  Not only do they allow the nest to remain clean and hygienic for the young nestlings, but their removal also deflects the attention of predators by eliminating the scent and sight of the faecal matter. Different species dispose of their faecal sacs in different ways, some preferring to drop them into bodies of water to completely erase their scent while others simply drop them nearby.

Some species of birds will even eat the contents of their baby’s faecal sacs for the first couple of days after hatching. In very young nestlings the bacteria required to digest their food are still under development, hence their excrement is rich in partially digested food. This allows the parents to feed more worms and insects to their young as they can substitute their own meals for the nutrients in their baby’s droppings. 

Wattlebird with faecal sac. Wattlebird with faecal sac.
Image: Jim Love
Source: Jim Love
 

Not all species of birds produce faecal sacs. Young water birds such as ducklings and goslings leave their nests as soon as they hatch, often never returning, and therefore do not have to worry about continual housekeeping. While other birds including eagles, herons and some sea bird species that nest high in trees and on cliffs, will simply back up to the verge of their nests and excrete off the edge.

I will leave it to you to decide whether you think faecal sacs are disgusting, strange or just plain fascinating. Personally, I wish that all human babies were this easy to clean up after!

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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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