Blair

DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Blair (19)

Blair

Blair is one of the museum’s mariney types, currently gathering snippets of sub-surface information for the museum’s apps and website. A good day in Blair's office involves Frosty Fruits and animals with five arms.

Blog about a blob

Author
by Blair
Publish date
24 September 2012
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Under the marine lab microscope today was a curious specimen. It was so curious that everyone passing through the lab stopped to offer their 'expert' opinion to help identify it.

marine organism What is this? The mystery specimen has been cut in half; the left piece was originally on top of the right piece bit.
Image: Blair Patullo
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Here are some of the comments made by various non-expert 'expert' staff.

"Got no room for guts so it's not a sea cucumber." Followed by: "No longitudinal muscles either."

"Oh, it's not one of those things that squirts out water is it?" I think in reference to a sea squirt or cunjevoi.

"It's got no legs so I can't identify this."

"It's from Antarctica so could be anything. Who knows what stuff we haven't found there yet!"

"I've seen more radial symmetry in a horse than in that thing." Okay, so without radial symmetry it is not an echinoderm.

"Is that a small pink tongue poking out from the base of the tree stump?" Then pointing to the crack in the middle of the tree stump shaped half, "nah, it would need cirri in there." 

Dissected marine organism Half of the animal looked like a little tree stump when it was dissected.
Image: Blair Patullo
Source: Museum Victoria
 

And then with some promise and authority: "I reckon that's the anus and those are anal tentacles." Now we're getting somewhere.

"But where's the siphon?"

"Looks like a peduncle on the bottom of a goose barnacle." A what on the bottom of a what?

"It's not a mammal." I can also add with some conviction that it is not a whale or a penguin.

"It's marine." Yep, it says so on the label in the specimen bag.

"Pretty sure it's that rare species Toohard basketii."

"It must be a remnant of Cthulu."

"Maybe it's not even an animal, but it doesn't look planty either." So that only leaves mineral. If only one of the museum geologists were around to confirm it... my guess is they would say it is a mini volcano.

"Marine fungus. But I doubt that, it's too soft."

"You'd think it would have a big empty cavity inside."

"That might be its mouth, not its butt." And boom, there we go back to the start again. It's looking like these 'experts' may never resolve a name for this animal!

top of marine organism The top of the mystery organism: mouth, anus or volcano?
Image: Blair Patullo
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Later I summarised for the work experience student in the lab who overheard the comments. "That's what we do here, get excited about stuff that looks like a blob with tentacles."

"Aha," he said.

These non-expert comments are always fun to hear, but they rarely produce a conclusive identification of a specimen. That process is a meticulously careful one that will extend beyond this afternoon. The animal may be further dissected, examined at different magnifications and possibly sent to associates outside the museum. Keys, descriptions and pictures from various publications may also be consulted.

And now that all the 'experts' have returned to their desks, the real expert Michela can begin her investigation. The end point will be a name written on a label that is placed in the jar alongside this specimen. We'll let you know what it is as soon as she's worked it out!

Port Phillip Taxonomic Toolkit

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by Blair
Publish date
15 March 2012
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Comments (5)

Hey check out www.portphillipmarinelife.net.au – the new Port Phillip Taxonomic Toolkit website we launched this week! It's a joint initiative between the Department of Sustainability and Environment, and us at the museum.

Juvenile Scalyfin, jellyfish and biscuit stars in Port Phillip Bay. Left to right: Juvenile Scalyfin, jellyfish and biscuit stars in Port Phillip Bay.
Image: Julian Finn | Mark Norman
Source: Museum Victoria
 

There is a spectacular gallery of over 2,000 photographs that make it the site to surf if you don't want to get wet this dive season. And if you do get wet, then it's the one place to learn about the cool stuff you've seen underwater.

Have a click around and find your favourite pretty fin or an awesome octopus!

albatross, isopod and Moray Eel from Port Phillip Bay. Left to right: albatross, isopod and moray eel from Port Phillip Bay.
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The site has 1,001 species from Port Phillip Bay with more to come in 2012. There are frowning faces of stargazers to picture-perfect blue devils, fish that walk instead of swim, cannibalistic sea cucumbers, and seahorses that eat lunch like sucking a hotdog out of a roll. They're all part of our truly amazing local marine life.

The Port Phillip Taxonomic Toolkit is primarily an identification and information resource for scientists and marine enthusiasts, but the images provide some fun and education for all audiences. There are also interactive menus to identify selected species as well as descriptions of characters that make the animals unique.

The project is funded by the Department of Sustainability and Environment's Seagrass and Reefs Program for Port Phillip Bay and will be completed later this year.

New sea cucumber species discovered

Author
by Blair
Publish date
6 December 2011
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I just found out what you get when you combine a talented underwater photographer, the keen interest of a year 10 student volunteer, and a museum expert: five species new to science!

Cartoon of student, diver, scientist My schematic of this discovery, which also explains why I'm a scientist not a cartoonist.
Image: Blair Patullo
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In the latest Museum Victoria Memoirs there is a report that describes five new marine species, two of them from Victoria. Perhaps not that amazing considering that's partly what museums do – we discover and describe new species – but this report needed the help from two members of the community.

Firstly, a student volunteer spent over 30 hours looking down a microscope studying the species. And by chance, we also received an image from a recreational diver, participating in Reefwatch Victoria, that showed one of the species spawning in the wild. The result is a perfect combination of scientific detail and real life underwater action.

sea cucumber spawning The sea cucumber Paracaudina bacillis spawning at Rye Pier in Port Phillip Bay.
Image: D. McKenzie
Source: D. McKenzie
 

The new species are all sea cucumbers from the genus group Paracaudina. They were previously thought to be the same as the tropical species Paracaudina australis, which this report now confirms is unlikely to live in Victorian waters. These Paracaudina are some of the largest sea cucumber species in Australia.

Links:

P. Mark O'Loughlin, Shari Barmos and Didier VandenSpiegel. The paracaudinid sea cucumbers of Australia and New Zealand (Echinodermata: Holothuroidea: Molpadida: Caudinidae). Memoirs of Museum Victoria 68 :37-65 (2011) (PDF, 2.86MB)

Reefwatch Victoria

MV Blog: Skeletons of sea cucumbers

MV Blog: Trepang today

Crayfish climbing trees

Author
by Blair
Publish date
22 November 2011
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Comments (5)

Roll over Drop Bears, there's a new, real threat in the trees of Wilsons Promontory - freshwater crayfish!

I reckon the best story from the recent Prom Bioscan for Parks Victoria is the discovery of freshwater crayfish climbing trees. Forget that a huge whale washed ashore nearby, forget the species found that had never been recorded from the area, and ignore all the hype around helicopters, it should be all about these partly arboreal crustaceans that are only known from the Prom.

Engaeus australis at Wilsons Prom. Freshwater crayfish Engaeus australis at Wilsons Prom.
Image: Adnan Moussalli
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Our freshwater ecologist Dr Richard Marchant was among the researchers to see the Engaeus crayfish on tree trunks and branches. He's worked around streams and rivers throughout Victoria for over 25 years and this is the first time he's seen this.

"It's a mystery why this mainly burrow-dwelling species would be in the trees when their food is on the ground. Clearly there's something new here that we didn't know about this Prom population. Unfortunately on this trip there wasn't time to find out more." said Richard.

"It has been only recently appreciated that from an evolutionary point of view insects are just 'flying crustaceans'. While tree-climbing crayfish suggest a hankering for an aerial existence among crustaceans there is no evidence that this is how they took to the skies and evolved wings!" said Dr. Gary Poore, another of the museum's crayfish experts, when he heard of the finding.

When I heard the story, my thoughts went immediately to the mythical Drop Bear - a furry clawed beast the size of a dog that, legend has it, lives in trees in Australia and drops down on people as they walk below. At only a finger-length long, perhaps 8cm or so, these little crustaceans wouldn't do much damage if they did drop on someone, but you still might be at risk of a nip from their tiny claws on your shoulder if they did.

Normally sticklers for poking around in rivers and digging burrows with mini mountains of mud as entrances, the aquatic Engaeus crayfish were seen in a remote area of the Prom off limits to the public, so rest assured – hikers and campers this summer will be safe.

Engaeus australis at Wilsons Prom. Freshwater crayfish Engaeus australis at Wilsons Prom.
Image: Adnan Moussalli
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The species in the trees was Engaeus australis and is only known to occur at Wilsons Prom. A few other Engaeus species also live at the Prom, but they also occur elsewhere in Victoria. Engaeus crayfish are related to yabbies (genus Cherax) and the larger Murray River and Spiny crayfishes (genus Euastacus). There are 22 Engaeus species that occur in several parts of Victoria, and about 10 other species of crayfish, together making Victoria one of the world's most diverse areas for freshwater crayfish.

Links:

Infosheet: Land crayfish

Engaeus australis on the IUCN Redlist

Australian Museum: Drop Bear

Trepang today

Author
by Blair
Publish date
12 October 2011
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Comments (6)

When you see sausages at a butcher, or purchase a barbecued fundraising snag, spare a thought for the sausage-shaped marine animals that formed one of Australia's first export industries. The trade in trepang between Chinese, Macassan and northern Australian Aboriginal people is the focus of the Trepang exhibition at Melbourne Museum which closes on 16 October.

The trade of trepang or sea cucumbers dates back before 1700. The product is known by several names: trepang (Indonesian), bêche-de-mer (French), hai-sum (Chinese) and namako (Japanese). While the live animals are shaped like a sausage, the product that is eaten is usually the dried skin (body wall) or pickled intestines. In Japan they are generally eaten fresh.

sea cucumber packaged for sale Namako (sea cucumber) for sale in a Japanese supermarket.
Image: Hector Garcia
Source: Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) from kirainet
 

Today, trepang fisheries exist throughout the Indo-Pacific area, including Madagascar, Ecuador, Canada, New Zealand and northern parts of Australia. The products are most often consumed in China, Korea, Japan, and some smaller Indo-Pacific islands such as Samoa and Indonesia.

The Australian trade began with 600 tonnes in the early years – about six million live animals – to 11,000 tonnes in the 1990s. This high demand resulted in over-exploitation in some areas because the animals were easy to collect, slow growing and had low reproductive rates. As a result, today's fisheries target deeper water species and are carefully managed, but some species are still over-fished.

sea cucumber A sea cucumber (Stichopus mollis) in its natural habitat.
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So they look like sausages but do they taste like sausages? I asked around. The closest response was from Mel, one of the museum's marine collection managers who has lived in Japan.

"I've only eaten sea urchin [a related echinoderm group] which tasted like mushed-up prawns, but I've heard sea cucumbers taste rubbery."

Nonetheless they are a delicacy for some. Sea cucumbers are rumoured to have anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac properties, although the latter may be based more on the shape and behaviour of the live animal rather than any scientific proof.

Tiny star on film

Author
by Blair
Publish date
3 July 2011
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Comments (6)

In 2007, Museum Victoria research scientists described the world's tiniest starfish, the Paddle-spined Seastar. Here are three of them under the microscope last week, filmed by Ben Healley.

 

Like all starfish, these animals are powered by many legs called tube feet. Each has a sucker on the tip which is how they crawl around and hang upside down under rocks. On the video they appear transparent so are difficult to see moving out from underneath each arm. They stick to the glass and drag the animal across the surface.

They don’t have eyes but they do have eyespots. You can also see these on the video. They are the dark patches at the tip of each arm, on top of the animal. Detecting light and dark, they help the animal tell if it is under a ledge or on top of it, or whether something large, like a possible predator, is passing overhead.

Interestingly, the individual pictured in reports when this species was discovered has five legs, not six. According to MV curator Dr Tim O'Hara, "it’s typical for this species to have six arms but every now and then, you’ll get an uneven split during reproduction and end up with a five-armed individual.”

Links:

MV News: Tiny star

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