Colin

DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Colin (4)

Colin

Colin, apart from working in Live Exhibits, is studying mygalomorph spiders and scorpions in the desert of central Australia. He loves keeping them alive, but is also fascinated with how they work on the inside, too.

Get down and get fungi

Author
by Colin
Publish date
10 May 2013
Comments
Comments (3)

After an extended summer, cool and wet weather starts to set in, resulting in a bloom of beauty for those who know where to look. I'm talking about fungi; those things that taste so good with butter on toast, form mould on your bread, and make your feet itch!

Wood Rotter toadstool Wood Rotter (Gymnopilus junonius)
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In the past, fungi were classified as plants. But fungi differ from plants in that they do not possess the ability to generate their own food from the sun (photosynthesis), and must obtain their energy from other sources.

Colin Silvey Left: Mycena sp. (probably M.viscidocruenta). Right: Unidentified species.
Image: Two toadstool species in Forest Gallery
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So what do fungi "eat"? Some fungi are parasitic, and feed off other living things. Some fungi parasitise plants, while some other specialized types parasitise insects, spiders and other arthropods.

Caterpillars with parasitic fungi Caterpillars (Hepialidae) infected with different types of parasitic fungi. The caterpillar on the left has been consumed by Cordyceps gunnii.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Other types of fungi are saprophytic, meaning they obtain their energy and nutrients by breaking down dead plant and animal material. This is the reason you see many growing on old and rotten logs in the forest, amongst leaf litter and on animal dung.

Two fungus species in the Forest Gallery Left: Undescribed species. Right: Gymnopilus sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The fungi in these photos are referred to as macro-fungi, and belong to the phylum Basidiomycota. This group contains the well known mushrooms, toadstools and puffballs. Just last week I took these photos in our very own Forest Gallery and Milarri Garden. Many fungi spores find their way into the galleries by being transported by the wind and with soils and mulch brought in by horticultural staff. Some may even hitch a ride in on your shoes! Sometimes destructive fungus that we don't want in the galleries gets in by accident. Honey fungus (Armillaria spp.) is a parasitic fungus that attacks and kills living trees. The largest living organism in the world is a species of honey fungus called Armillaria solidipes and covers an area nearly eight and a half square kilometres! Honey fungus could ruin the Forest Gallery if left unchecked, so we constantly have to monitor the plants and soils to make sure it doesn't gain a foothold.

small red toadstool A slightly dried specimen of a Marasmius sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fungi start life as tiny spores, and colonize their chosen substrate with small threads called hyphae.

Mycelium growing in leaf litter Mycelium of leaf litter fungus.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Hyphae form large masses of mycelium, which decompose dead materials using special enzymes and chemicals.

Two fungus species in the Forest Gallery Left: Stropharia sp. Right: Amanita sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

When the fungus is ready to reproduce, if forms a fruit (mushroom!).

Two fungus species in the Forest Gallery Gymnopilus junonius at the rear, with a slightly eaten Rhodocollybia sp. in front. Right: Probably Agaricus sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Many animals like to eat fungi, including slugs and snails, insects, small mammals, and humans! Uneaten fungi decompose to a thick slime rapidly.

small white toadstool Lepiota sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Some fungi can be very toxic, and very hard to identify. You should never eat fungi that you can't correctly identify. There are many groups of fungi enthusiasts that conduct fungi collecting trips and provide help in the correct identification of edible species. The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne run a database of fungi sightings called Fungimap, which is a great resource for people who enjoy the fungus among us. So, get out there and have some fun, guys! (Sorry.) 

Many thanks for identifications to Dr Teresa Lebel, National Herbarium of Victoria, Royal Botanical Gardens

Links and further reading:

Fuhrer, B. (2005). A field guide to Australian fungi. Bloomings Books, Melbourne.

Fungi at the Australian National Botanic Garden

Plants, algae and fungi of Victoria via Royal Botanic Garden

Field Naturalists Club of Victoria Fungi Group

Fun with funnel-webs

Author
by Colin
Publish date
21 November 2011
Comments
Comments (2)

Bugs Alive! highlights not only the highly venomous Sydney funnel-web spider (Atrax robustus), but also the diversity of Australian funnel-web spiders. There are currently 35 known species in Australia, and it is likely that more await description. Many southeastern Australians may not be aware that they too may have funnel-web spiders living in their backyard. Don't panic, aside from the Sydney Funnel-web, the majority of Australian funnel-web spiders do not pose a threat to us. In fact, most spiders are harmless. Of the estimated 10,000 species (only about 3000 have been named) that are native to Australia, only two pose a serious threat to human life.

The Australian funnel-web spider family Hexathelidae belongs to the primitive infraorder Mygalomorphae, which includes the trapdoor spiders, mouse spiders, and the large theraphosids (better known as tarantulas). Mygalomorphs can be distinguished from other spiders by having paraxial or parallel fangs (chelicerae), and an extra pair of book lungs.

funnel-web burrow A typical funnel-shaped entrance to a funnel-web spider burrow.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

To keep our spiders healthy and stress-free, we rotate them off display so that each individual is on show only one month per year. To do this we must collect spiders from the wild to ensure that we have enough to keep the rotation flowing smoothly. Chloe wrote in April about a previous spider-hunting trip. Last week we went to the Nariel Valley in northwest Victoria, Violet Town in central Victoria and the Central Highlands (Narbethong-Acheron Gap, Victoria) to collect three different species of funnel-web spiders.

Alpine Wolf Spider Not all burrows contain funnel-web spiders. This one we dug up was occupied by this beautiful Alpine Wolf Spider (Lycosidae).
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Our first stop was the Nariel Valley where we searched for the mighty Alpine Funnel-web (Hadronyche alpina). This is a newly-described species that is found, you guessed it, in the alpine environments of Victoria and N.S.W. They are impressive spiders with big black hairy bodies, and a mean temper to boot!

After collecting our quota of H. alpina, we drove west towards Violet Town, near Benalla, in search of the Central Victorian Funnel-web, H. meridiana. We had heard reports that a resident in Violet Town had found some in her backyard, and upon contacting her, she agreed to us collecting them. After lifting some old carpet lying on the ground, we found burrows galore! It didn't take us very long to collect all the spiders we needed before setting off to track down our third target species H. modesta.

man digging up spider burrow Exciting stuff! Live Exhibits keeper Adam Elliott excavating a burrow belonging to H. meridiana.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Funnel-web spider in burrow Funnel-web spider (H. meridiana) about to be removed from her burrow.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

funnel-web spider threat display Hadronyche meridiana showing off her threat display. If you look closely you might be able to see the paraxial chelicerae that define the mygalomorph spiders.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

H. modesta, or the Southern Victorian Funnel-web can be found around Victorian cool temperate sclerophyll forests ranging from just north of Melbourne, to the eastern end of the Strzelecki Ranges in South Gippsland. Unfortunately, after much searching, we failed to find any H. modesta. We are always on the lookout for any reports of glossy black spiders that burrow, so, if you live in the eastern or northeastern suburbs and see this spider around, let us know and we might come pay you a visit!

Further reading:

Walker, K.L., Yen, A.L. & Milledge, G.A. 2003. Spiders and Scorpions Commonly Found in Victoria. The Royal Society of Victoria. (Beginner)

Grey, M. R. 2010. A Revision of the Australian Funnel Web Spiders (Hexathelidae: Atracinae). Records of the Australian Museum. Vol. 62: 285–392. (Advanced)

A whale of a time

Author
by Colin
Publish date
3 November 2011
Comments
Comments (3)

(Warning: this blog contains graphic images and bad puns.)

On 19 October I heard exciting news leaking down the underground corridors of Melbourne Museum and into the Live Exhibits Lab. Word that a Humpback Whale had beached itself on the western end of the Ninety Mile Beach in eastern Victoria, set my plan in motion to become involved in its subsequent recovery. I bailed up (approached) the Preparations Department manager Peter Swinkels in one of the corridors and offered my assistance. Fortunately he said yes and that if I could handle a tight squeeze in the car, I was welcome to come along and help out.

So we left the Museum the following Monday and headed for McGaurens Beach, a small stretch of coast located between Yarram and Sale. The car ride down was a bit of a squeeze with Peter Swinkels, Steven Sparrey (Preparation), Brendon Taylor (Preparation), Michael Pennell (Image Management & Copyright) and I (Live Exhibits) all stuffed into the Hilux for the three hour trip down to McGaurens Beach. We arrived around lunchtime, and started to inspect the dead whale and the surrounding conditions (such as the tide) to plan our course of action.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) belong to the suborder Mysticeti, the group known as the baleen whales. Baleen is the keratin (the same material your fingernails) plates that the whales use to filter their food (krill, other zooplankton and small fish) with. Adult humpback whales can measure between 12-16 metres, and can weigh over 30 tonnes!

When we arrived at McGaurens Beach the whale sat just above the low tide mark. It would make it very hard to work on the whale when the tide came in, so we decided to move it higher up the beach and out of reach of the tide. This way we could work on it all day.

Humpback Whale on beach The Humpback Whale 6 days after it had died.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

To avoid damage to the flippers we removed them before the excavator dragged the whale up past the high tide mark. Although the excavator weighed 25 tonnes, it still struggled to pull the whale 50m up the beach.

Cutting off whale flippers Cutting off the flippers to enable easy movement up the beach.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

To cut off the flippers and through the flesh we used very large sharp knives and a special knife shaped like a hockey stick, called a flensing tool. Flensing tools were what whalers used to use to cut the blubber off whales before commercial whaling was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Some legal whaling still continues today in indigenous communities as traditional hunting, and through exploiting legal loopholes under the guise of scientific research.

Peter Swinkels with a traditional flensing tool Manager of Preparation, Peter Swinkels, with a traditional flensing tool.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

After dragging the body past the high tide mark we took measurements of different parts of the whale. These measurements will be added to a big database full of information that helps us understand these wonderful creatures of the sea.

Measuring a whale Measuring the width of the tail flukes.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

After all the measurements had been recorded it was time to remove the skeleton. Firstly, we needed to find some small vestigial bones that are the remnants of the whale's hip and hind legs. Millions of years ago the ancestors of the modern whales we see today had front and rear limbs, and while the forelimbs slowly evolved into flippers, the hind limbs slowly disappeared and all that is left is a few tiny bones.

Vestigial hind limbs of Humback Whale Peter Swinkels holding the vestigial hind limbs.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

After cutting away most of the flesh and blubber we removed the vertebrae (the backbone). Slowly and carefully, we removed the ribs, the skull, and the mandible (the jawbone). All the fleshy waste was returned to sea, where it would be eaten and broken down by scavenging animals and bacteria.

Whale remains on beach The pile of blubber we made after removing it from the carcass.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Once we had all the bones, we dug a big hole and put the bones into it. We bury the bones so that bacteria and other flesh eating organisms can clean the bones for us. In about six months, we will return to where the bones are buried and bring them back to the museum for a few touch ups and further measurement. Perhaps one day they will be put on display at Melbourne Museum for you to see.

Whale bones in sand All the bones about to be buried in order to let the flesh decompose before taking them to Melbourne Museum.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Links:

ABC Gippsland: radio interview with Erich Fitzgerald

ABC Gippsland: photos and story about whale recovery

Infosheet: Blue Whale

MV News: Rare whale retrieved (2008)

MV Blog: What's that smell?

Cleaning the creek

Author
by Colin
Publish date
14 January 2011
Comments
Comments (3)

If you have wandered into the Forest Gallery in the new year, you may have noticed that the creek looks much clearer. Just before Christmas 2010, Live Exhibits staff got together to clean ten years' worth of silt and sludge that had built up since the opening of the gallery. It was a tough and dirty job, but the end result was well worth it when the clean water was turned back on.

First we had to drain the creek.......

Forest Gallery creek being drained. The Forest Gallery creek drained of its water.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

...so we could remove all the rocks.....

Removing the creek rocks Removing the creek rocks.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

...and scoop out all the stinky mud!

Scooping out mud Scooping out ten years' worth of mud from the creek's base.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

With all of the rocks washed and returned...

Clean rocks in creek bed Squeaky-clean rocks back in position
Source: Museum Victoria
 

...we could fire up the pump...

Forest Gallery pump The pump that circulates water through the Forest Gallery
Source: Museum Victoria
 

...and let the water flow. C'est fini!

Clean Forest Gallery creek. Sparkling, crystal-clear Forest Gallery creek.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Links:

Forest Secrets

About this blog

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

Categories