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.

Fresh Science 2011

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by Blair
Publish date
10 June 2011
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I was fortunate enough to attend a session of Fresh Science this week. The intensive program takes 16 early-career researchers from around Australia and develops their skill in science communication.

The participants are at the start of their scientific careers: some are part way through a PhD, some have completed PhDs, others are doing post docs or beginning work in leading science organisations. These people are creative and inspiring – the best, freshest minds that will lead Australian science into the future.

2011 Fresh Science participants at Melbourne Museum. 2011 Fresh Science participants at Melbourne Museum.
Image: AJ Epstein
Source: Science in Public
 

You may have heard on Monday about a smart bandage that changes colour when the wound is infected, or seen a saw shark on the news last night. These are just two of their discoveries with more to appear in the press in coming weeks.

The greatest part of the day was the opportunity to meet people from television, radio and newspaper. They told us how they hear about and choose the stories that make the news. Remarkable considering they have to make decisions before most of us even get out of bed!

Mount Stromlo Observatory Mount Stromlo Observatory, where one of the Fresh Science researchers is working.
Image: Lauri Väin
Source: Used under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 from Lauri Väin
 

The 'bootcamp in science communication', as the organisers phrase it, is supported by the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, and New Scientist Magazine, with Melbourne Museum hosting a number of events for the program

Links:

Fresh Science

The Age: Chameleon bandage helps wounds to heal

Scientists with suction

Author
by Blair
Publish date
1 May 2011
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I recently accompanied Richard Marchant to the Shoalhaven River where he studies the animals that platypus eat. Thanks to the suction sampling tool we used, I'll never look at a common household vacuum cleaner the same way again.

The underwater vacuum we used is a quite different to that used to clean carpets: suction, in this case, created by bubbles are injected near the base of a pipe. The bubbles rise to the top, sucking water upward as they go.

Diving for platypus prey Richard Marchant diving with the air-lift sampler, which works like an aquatic vacuum cleaner.
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

When placed over a river bed or sea floor, small animals and sand are also sucked up with the water. A mesh bag covering the top of the pipe acts like a sieve; the sand passes out but the animals remain trapped.

This method of suction sampling typically nets catches of crustaceans, insects, and insect nymphs – important food chain species that can be identified and counted for research.

Richard emptying air-lift sampler Emptying the mesh bag of the air-lift sampler.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The machine sounds weird too: a dull rumble through a dive hood, perhaps a cross between a V8 car engine and thunder.

The air-sucking principle of the vacuum means people refer to it as an 'air-lift'. It’s a nifty invention and a system used by many aquatic biologists at one time or another in their career.

Links:

MV News: Linking the food chain

Video: Studying the diet of platypus

Skeletons of sea cucumbers

Author
by Blair
Publish date
28 April 2011
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I learned this week that sea cucumbers slink along the sea floor with a hidden skeleton. Known to most of us as those sloppy, sausage-like things that sometimes wash-up on our beaches, sea cucumbers are pretty much a tube of muscle with a mouth at one end and an anus at the other. Underwater, they bury in sand or camouflage themselves against rocky reefs.

sea cucumber A colourful sea cucumber (or holothuroid).
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Rather than running through the middle of the body, the skeleton effectively surrounds the body to reinforce the muscular body tube. It is made up of tiny structures called ossicles, which can be fifty times smaller than a millimetre. They are like miniature fish scales, but more intricate in design and not usually visible. Some of the structures make some animals sticky to touch.

Here’s an example of the ossicles of an Antarctic species:

Sea cucumber ossicles Ossicles from Sigmodota contorta, a species misidentified under about ten different names. Wheel and hook forms on the left from the body wall, and branched rods on the right from the tentacles.
Source: O’Loughlin and VandenSpiegel (2010) Memoirs of Museum Victoria 67: 61–95.
 

These weird and spectacular structures vary in form. Not only do they prevent the body from turning into a mush of intestine and muscle, but they are also a microscopic key to identify many species – so don’t be too disappointed if you can’t identify a sea cucumber when diving or looking in a rock pool!

Oh and if you're interested...

Sea cucumbers belong to a group of animals called holothuroids, part of the wider group of echinoderms – more commonly known for its sea stars and sea urchins. MV Honorary Associate Mark O’Loughlin is a world expert in identifying sea cucumbers. He has shown me a few tricks of the trade on his way to describing over 20 new species in recent years from Victoria and its neighbouring oceans. He is currently sorting out whether the common local species, Paracaudina australis, is actually multiple undescribed species. His work was recently published in the Memoirs of Museum Victoria.

Links:

O’Loughlin, P. Mark and Didier VandenSpiegel. A revision of Antarctic and some Indo-Pacific apodid sea cucumbers (Echinodermata: Holothuroidea: Apodida) Memoirs of Museum Victoria 67: 61-95 (2010)

Question of the Week: Aboriginal-Indonesian trade in sea cucumber

Reef Education Network: Sea cucumbers

A crab called Tutankhamen

Author
by Blair
Publish date
31 March 2011
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I just heard of a crab species with the scientific name Tutankhamen. Crab Tut! Kind of cool considering we are about to open the world-famous Tutankhamun exhibition.

Tutankhamen cristatipes has a spiny triangular body, pointed nose (the rostrum) and elongated claws that look like a plumber’s wrench. It is quite small, with a body 15 mm wide and legs about 30 mm long.

Tutankhamen cristatipes Tutankhamen cristatipes
Source: Rathbun, M.J. (1925) The spider crabs of America. United States National Museum Bulletin, 129, 1-613
 

Tutankhamen cristatipes was named in 1925 by Mary J. Rathbun (1860-1943). In total, she described 1147 new species and subspecies, 63 new genera, one subfamily, three families and a superfamily.

“A few years earlier, King Tut’s tomb was uncovered and I think she could have named it in the Pharaoh-fever that swept the world at that time,” crustacean expert and PhD colleague Anna McCallum tells me.

Mary Jane Rathbun Mary Jane Rathbun at work. She began as an unpaid assistant to her brother, Richard Rathbun, and was later employed as a curator at the Smithsonian Institution.
Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives via Wikimedia Commons.
 

Crab Tut is almost as rare as King Tut too - it is known from only two specimens. Both Tuts had exclusive habitats: the king in the Egyptian deserts and the crab in deep waters on the outer continental slope off Florida. And they both reside in hard outer skeletons: King Tut in his sarcophagus, Crab Tut in its carapace.

I couldn’t find what colour Crab Tut is, but I’d like to dream it’s as colourful as the gold and blue sarcophagus of King Tut. This is definitely one cool character of the crustacean world.

Links:

Mary J. Rathbun on Wikipedia

Field guide app out now

Author
by Blair
Publish date
10 March 2011
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There are no angry birds in Field Guide to Victorian Fauna, the museum’s new free app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Instead, crazy-coloured snakes, critically endangered species, state faunal emblems, stinging jellies and a Baggy Pants Frog are among the animals included in the first release.

Museum Victoria’s Field Guide to Victorian Fauna A screenshot from MV's Field Guide to Victorian Fauna.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The app lets you explore useful and interesting information about each species including: identification, biology, distribution, diet, habitat, scientific classification and endangered status. Wherever you are – a forest, a desert, a rocky shore, at Ararat or Apollo Bay – you’ll be able to find information on more than 700 animals at the swipe of your finger.

And, in a first for the museum, the code for the app is being released as open source. This means that museums and organisations worldwide can take their own data and build their own local field guide, too.

Developer Simon Sherrin and designer Simon O’Shea have built the app based on the Biodiversity Snapshots field guide, which was created for schools by museum sciences staff. In doing so, they’ve made this excellent resource available to anyone with an iDevice, not just school students. And this is just the beginning. We’re preparing more animals every day so that the app will span more of Victoria’s rich biodiversity.

Simon & Simon with the Field Guide app Simon and Simon. These guys are developers, so we can't show their faces on the web.
Image: Nicole Alley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Field Guide to Victorian Fauna can be downloaded free from the iTunes App Store. Simon Sherrin will also present the app at several conferences and meetings in the USA in coming weeks. It’s the second in the museum’s developing portfolio of apps which began in 2010 with Please touch the exhibit.

Is your favorite Victorian animal included in the app? If not, let us know what it is in the comments, and why it should be included in a future update of the field guide.

UPDATE: The Android version is now available from Google Play. Hooray!

Links:

Field Guide to Victorian Fauna support page

Please touch the exhibit

Seafood for dinner?

Author
by Blair
Publish date
7 March 2011
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This post is another in our special series during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

Sometimes I wonder how we eat the seafood we do.

Take scallops, for example. With their plump and juicy meat, they are coveted for our dinner plates and in top restaurants around the world. But what are we really eating?

Well, there’s the shell, more for presentation than eating, characteristically circular with ridges radiating from a rectangular hinge that holds the animal protected inside.

Shells of edible scallops Shells of edible scallops, Pecten fumatus from 1970s Fisheries material.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

And there’s the body. Unlike oysters, they don’t sit tight and daintily nurture pearls. Instead, they focus on moving small distances by squirting jets of water from between their shell halves, building muscle mass inside equivalent to a bodybuilder’s bicep, all for our eating pleasure (and also to flap away from predators like octopuses and sea stars I guess).

Scallops for sale at Victoria Market Scallops for sale at the Queen Victoria Market. The white part is mostly muscle, while the orange part is known as 'roe'.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

And what is that orange-brown blobby bit that tastes so gelatinously good? Gonads. A factory that pumps out hundreds of eggs and sperm into the water with the hope that some don’t get eaten or swept away into unsuitable habitat.

But sitting on the bottom in sand or silty mud can attract parasitic friends like trematodes and nematodes. (I won’t go into how many fish parasites a scientist sees under a microscope or you may never eat sushi again.)

Is it revolting to eat the disgusting? I suspect not, so long as some chef goes about his or her masterful ways to clean and transform the disgusting into the delicious.

Oh and if you’re interested...

Scallops probably have the most eyes in the animal kingdom – they can have hundreds of eyes along the edge of their mantle. Exactly what sort of pictures they see we cannot be sure. Their shells reach about 14 cm in length and they live on shallow sandflats to waters over 100 metres deep. Their diet of floating food, such as plankton, is filtered from the water. Some species move short distances, others make more permanent homes on the reef, often becoming so encrusted with coral and sponge growth that they are barely recognisable. They were commercially harvested in Port Phillip Bay until 1996, nowadays they are taken from Bass Strait. Several species were thought to occur within the range of the common variety we eat, Pecten fumatus, but recent genetic work suggests they are all the same species.

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