Wayne

DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Wayne (9)

Wayne

Wayne works at the Melbourne Museum Discovery Centre, formerly a Science & Life Gallery curator. He's studied the evolution of kangaroos and hangs on to his childhood obsession with dinosaurs. He is also a non-gifted guitarist and music snob.

Cryptozoology – imagination, science or folklore?

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 September 2014
Comments
Comments (3)

Where I grew up as a child, in Victoria's Wimmera-Mallee, there were persistent tales of strange animal sightings that fell outside the realm of science. Stories of Pumas, Cougars (which are actually the same thing) or other "Big Cats" living in the Grampians, for example, often seeped into school ground conversations. As a proto-scientist at this stage of my life (reared on Attenborough, How-and-Why books and old issues of National Geographic) I had developed a degree of scepticism to such stories – I knew to keep my 'bulldust detector' switched on but also kept my mouth shut - after all, everybody loves a good campfire story.

Jaguar A Jaguar Panthera onca. Just one of the numerous species of big cats probably not found in the Grampians.
Image: Benamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 
My teenaged mind would sometimes wander - so what if, just supposing for a moment, there really were large felines prowling the forests near Wartook in the Grampians, just an hours drive away? On nearly every occasion, the story-teller swore that their tale was true – to cast doubt on the validity was regarded as an insult to the story-teller's family, as inevitably they were retelling something a family member had seen. Hence, keeping the mouth shut was a wise option– it was a small town, after all.

In later years, I had need to move a little over a hundred kilometres to the west and found that a similar local story existed near Mt Arapiles – the stalking ground of the infamous "Ozenkadnook Tiger". By this stage of my life, my bulldust detector was more finely calibrated, and it pinged incessantly in my head when I heard stories on this animal – but was it really a myth? Everyone who spoke of it swore it was true....but empirical scientific evidence – in the form of clear photographs, verified footprints, samples of fur or other remains - were uniformly thin on the ground, so to speak (although a photograph of an indistinct animal did make its way to the front of the local newspaper in the 1960s, and is analysed in some detail here)

Thylacine A Thylacine Thylacinus cyanocephalus. Might this be a relative of the Ozenkadnook Tiger? Probably not.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria

As it transpires, almost every region of rural Australia has their own tales of strange animals, complete with oral accounts, familial anecdotes and rich folkloric traditions, from bunyips to big cats to presumed late-surviving megafauna. Whilst great fun, these stories are the realm of cryptozoology – a mix of folklore, imagination and pseudoscience – defined as the study of animals whose existence has not been proven. As I'm now a fully-realised scientist, my attitude to cryptozoology is uniform – whether it's Nessie, Bigfoot or the Ozenkadnook Tiger, hard evidence is the cornerstone of the scientific process – without empirical evidence, this is sadly pseudoscience.

So, whilst my bulldust detector remains active and fully charged, nobody would be happier than I to be presented with definitive, empirical evidence of these animals. Sightings, family stories and other anecdotal evidence are simply not enough. In the spirit of true science, we remain unmoved until provided with empirical evidence.

In the meantime, sightings and the like can be lodged via the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association. But not us!

Small(er) is beautiful

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 May 2014
Comments
Comments (0)

When we think of Ice Age land animals, we often add the word ‘giants’; certainly many of the mammals of the Pleistocene were very large  – including many here in Australia. In a previous post, we’ve defined megafauna, and looked at a few Australian examples from the Quaternary. There is a different way of looking at this, though – rather than thinking of the Ice Age megafauna as ‘ancient giants’, it is equally valid to study modern-day animals from the perspective of them being dwarf or pygmy forms of their Ice Age relatives.

The phenomenon of dwarfism in post- Ice Age mammals changes the question from “why were they so big back then?” to “why are they so small now?”

Before we go any further, we should keep in mind that not everything was giant-sized in the Pleistocene; there were many ‘normal’ sized animals (by today’s standards) living happily alongside the big guys – it was just that the big ones were really big. It’s also important to remember that many of the ‘pygmy’ forms lived alongside their ‘giant’ relatives, rather than replaced them – there’s no such thing as a succession plan in evolution.

Having said this, here are a few examples of ‘dwarf megafauna’ alive today that had gigantic skeletons in their closets.

An example of ‘miniature giant’ is the modern day Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus; certainly large for an Australian land mammal, but 40-something thousand years ago it was overshadowed by its immense relative Macropus titan by 30%.

  skull of Macropus titan Skull of the Giant Grey Kangaroo Macropus titan. The ‘giant’ part is correct, but the ‘grey’ part is speculative; the colour of the Giant ‘roo is unknown…
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Similarly, the largest living Goanna, the Perentie Varanus giganteus, impresses with its size….but is smallfry against the immense extinct evolutionary ‘cousin’ Varanus “Megalania” priscus, – estimated at over twice (some have said thrice) the size.  

­­This also holds true on the Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus laniarus, which had an over-sized, mainland-resident relative at least 15% larger than its living subspecies. All of these animals are at least in the same genus as their megafaunal relatives, in some cases they are subspecies of their modern-day pygmy forms.

Tasmanian devil skull Skull of the Giant Mainland (rather than Tasmanian) Devil Sarcophilus laniarus
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So, whilst it is true to say that in broad terms, there was an extinction event about 45, 000 years ago that led to the ‘end of the Megafauna’, this event was complex - there were other patterns at play that saw downsizing as a successful survival strategy.

Obviously many Australian megafauna taxa became entirely extinct as well, inconveniently leaving no close descendants or relatives, but their story is for yet another blog…

Dino Might

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
24 September 2013
Comments
Comments (3)

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, I was absolutely mad for dinosaurs. Many hours were spent poring over my small stash of dinosaur books - I used to lie on our worn lounge room carpet, gawping at fantastical images of a vengeful Triceratops skewering a clearly outraged Tyrannosaurus in the thigh. To my young eyes, the image was evocative and powerful, albeit a little coy in the lack of blood.

By today’s standards, the picture is quite out-dated in the postures of the protagonists, but it was enough to get me hooked on these intriguing (and like me, clearly ill-tempered) animals. My chief interests wavered over the following teenage years – at times Dinosaur Jr. were more interesting than dinosaurs - but dinos were always there in one way or another, bubbling away as a topic of interest in the back of my mind.

Qantassaurus Melbourne Museum's animatronic reconstructions of the Victorian dinosaur Qantassaurus
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fast forward to today, and much has changed – my son sees CGI footage of dinosaurs that are so plausible that there’s genuine confusion over what is actually real. To his generation, it will likely seem ludicrous that our generation thought of Velociraptor as anything other than fully feathered, but to those of us of the “Jurassic Park” generation, the leathery-skinned versions will be long remembered. Disappointingly, it seems that despite scientific consensus on their feathers, the upcoming Jurassic Park film will feature the old-school, oversized, nude ‘raptors. But I digress...

Velociraptor skull A model of the skull of Velociraptor - feathers not shown....just like in Jurassic Park (I might need to get over this)
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unlike Hollywood, the scientific world’s understanding of dinosaur behaviour, posture and lifestyles has changed over the years. There are numerous examples of dinosaur displays in Museums that required modification to keep them up-to-date with current research. One of the quirks of palaeontology - the active study of long-since-inactive animals - is that we can never really ‘get it right...finally’; the most we can hope for is to ‘get it right...for now’. New discoveries drive new interpretations, leading to new theories; forever edging us closer to the truth, but the goalposts are constantly moving.  With dinosaurs, you can never ‘know’ everything - and I find that quite reassuring.

Of wreckage, ships and dinosaur bits

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
26 July 2013
Comments
Comments (3)

I stare out to sea, a heaving blur of grey with white-capped breakers. Two thoughts occur to me – why didn’t I bring better wet weather gear, and how did this place get this odd name?

view of the ocean A lovely, clear Autumn day onsite at Eric the Red
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria
 

I am perched on a rock in a sheltered pocket of the beach and near some dune vegetation, the wind and rain intermittently reminding me of my inadequate clothing. Between myself and the sea is a small pile of grey rock which I have been progressively breaking open with my hammer and chisel, searching for fossils. A few metres beyond some of my fellow crew are swinging sledgehammers at a large section of this rock, working on extracting more material to be broken down in a search for more fossils.

Digging at Eric the Red site A group of volunteer diggers brave the elements onsite at the 'Eric the Red' fossil dig.
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We are sitting on a beach near the Cape Otway Lighthouse in late March, close to a location called “Eric the Red”. The grey rock we are processing were once sediments laid down in a streambed in a rift valley over 100 million years ago. Amongst the grey sediments are seams of fossilised plant material, and very occasionally, fossil bones of animals that lived and died nearby.

A rock onsite at Eric the Red A rock ready for breaking onsite at Eric the Red - who knows what fossils it might yeild? As it turns out - none.
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria
 

I am here as part of a Museum Victoria field trip to collect these fossils; amongst me is a wonderfully diverse group of people; Palaeontology students and academics, Museum staff, amateur enthusiasts and assorted interested folk. Together, our aim is to process this Cretaceous rock, search for fossil bone, record our finds and package them carefully for their voyage to the Museum Victoria Palaeontology collections, housed in the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens.

But...’Eric the Red’? What’s that name all about?

Weeks later, in the decidedly more dry and comfortable setting of the Museum, I decide to research why the site is called “Eric the Red”. It turns out that ‘Eric the Red’ was a vessel that was shipwrecked close to the shoreline of where we were digging; it ran aground in 1880 on a reef composed of the very same unit of rock we were excavating. The vessel was wrecked on the final leg of its otherwise uneventful voyage from New York to Melbourne, carrying a cargo of exhibits for the USA pavilion at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition – silverware, toys and pianos were among its diverse manifest. An interesting coincidence was that the ultimate destination for the Cargo of the Eric the Red was the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens in Melbourne – this is also the destination for the fossils we were extracting from the site, as Museum Victoria’s Palaeontology Collections and laboratory are in the basement of the Exhibition Building.

Royal Exhibition Building The Royal Exhibition Building - the intended destination of the cargo of Eric the Red, and in part, home to Museum Victoria's Geoscience collections
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
  

Thankfully the fate of our diggers and our precious cargo was less tragic than that of the crew and cargo of the ‘Eric the Red’; the wreck resulted in the loss of life of some crew. You can read a full account of the wreck of “Eric the Red” on Heritage Victoria’s website, and also a the reportage of the tragedy in “The Argus” via Trove.

Junior entomologists get the bug

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
18 March 2013
Comments
Comments (1)

Chauliognathus lugubris. The Plague Soldier Beetle. This wee beast accounts for hundreds of insect identification requests we receive at the Discovery Centre during the summer. At this time of year these little pollinators descend from the crowns of flowering trees to indulge in seething masses of mating activity triggered by hot weather.

This frenzied 'coupling' activity rarely goes unnoticed, especially because of the numbers in which the beetles congregate– we often get calls from people describing masses of these little cigar-shaped critters with their distinctive orange collars in their gardens; regular readers will have read our earlier post about Plague Soldier Beetles.

Last week, however, it seems this beast and its plaguing behaviour caught the attention of the Rainbow Lorikeet class at Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten in Richmond. The Lorikeets' teacher Adam contacted us with an identification request, accompanied by some photographs and observations of the insects in question from the students, some of which I’ll share below:

  Grace from Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten holds the 'mystery beetle' for a photo Grace from Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten holds the 'mystery beetle' for a photo
Image: Adam Shrivell
Source: Adam Shrivell
 

It has 3 legs and 3 legs (from Sylvie). They have two antennae (coming) out of their head (from Andrew and Hugo) 

A great start for young eyes – these are key characteristics of insects that separate them from other arthropods

I think it's a stink bug (from Ralph) and I think it's a beetle (From Taj) 

These are also good observations. Like the animals we call 'stink bugs', they can emit an unpleasant liquid as a defence mechanism.

I think it's a grass hopper (from Harry) 

Harry isn’t quite right here, but the plague behaviour is similar to locusts, so still a good observation.

It's a beetle and he flies away and he has the mummy and the daddy and the baby and the dog (from Jed) 

Apart from the bit about the dog, Jed is also on the money.

I think they only come out once a year in summer (from Grace) 

Grace has also hit the nail on the head – clearly we have some budding entomologists here!

They carry each other (from Lucas) 

In a manner of speaking, yes they do – but we may leave this to Lucas's guardians to explain further if required.

Alexander, Lucas and Grace gathering a specimen Alexander, Lucas and Grace gathering a specimen
Image: Adam Shrivell
Source: Adam Shrivell
 

As seasoned respondents to enquiries of all types from the public, we thought the Rainbow Lorikeets were particularly clever in separating their observations into 'what we think' and 'what we know' – in doing so, they were more than half-way there with their identification by the time it reached us. This, along with the photos, made our entomologist’s job quite easy in providing the identification as Plague Soldier Beetles.

Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten's Rainbow Lorikeets, with teacher Adam Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten's Rainbow Lorikeets, with teacher Adam
Image: Adam Shrivell
Source: Adam Shrivell
 

Well done Rainbow Lorikeets, we in the Discovery Centre are impressed with your entomology skills!

...but is it real?

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
6 August 2012
Comments
Comments (0)

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!

Links:

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.

Categories