Discovery Centre

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Discovery Centre

MV's Discovery Centre responds to public enquiries across the full spectrum of the organisation's expertise - from mammals to migration, from asteroids to ants. Discovery Centre staff work at on-site centres at Melbourne and Immigration Museums.

Small(er) is beautiful

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 May 2014
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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…

Why we can't give a stuff

Author
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. On Thursday 20 August 2015, 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

Full moon funnies

Author
by Meg
Publish date
16 April 2014
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Last month I was asked if the museum experienced a spike in the number of “unusual” (read “weird”) enquiries during a full moon. My initial reaction was to dismiss this theory as light-hearted superstition – then I stopped to think on it for a bit… and my subsequent reaction was to dismiss this theory as light-hearted superstition. However I also resolved to undertake a simple survey of the enquiries database to see what the cold hard stats had to say about it.

 

Close-up of Planet Earth with Moon in background. Close-up of Planet Earth with Moon in background.
Source: NASA
 

The “lunar effect” phenomenon – the belief that the lunar cycle influences human behaviour – remains a significant feature of some human cultures, present as far back as the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and even earlier, through to modern adherents to the Wiccan tradition, or Neo-Paganism more broadly.

It has long been suspected that the moon and its phases have an effect on mental health – indeed the term “lunatic” is derived from the Latin lunaticus, “of the moon.” Lunar effect mythologies include, for example, lycanthropy (werewolves), increased fertility and birth rate, and weather events and natural disasters, among others.

So what of the lunar effect on museum enquiries?

On each of the four full moons so far this year Discovery Centres took an average of 22 new enquiries for the day, of which one, or two at the very most, might be broadly categorized as unusual. On the full moon of January 16, we received a comment about one passenger’s recollection of a man-overboard incident that occurred during his migration to Australia on board the Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, and a question about the significance of the role of thongs (what???) in nineteenth-century Victorian construction. Meanwhile, during the full moon of March 17 we were contacted for advice by the concerned owner of a French bulldog who had been the unfortunate victim of a scorpion attack in the bad ‘burbs of Adelaide. Outside of these, the rest of the enquiries were pretty standard fare: image requests, spider identifications, tractor donations, etc…

On the full moon of February 15, however, we did receive three [spam] emails in a row offering heavily discounted supplies of Viagra – suggests there may be some truth to the fertility claims?  

Death by coitus

Author
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

Town Skull, Country Skull

Author
by Max
Publish date
1 April 2014
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Skulls in the DC showcase. Skulls in the DC showcase.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One of the advantages of working in the Discovery Centre is that you’re in the box seat, so to speak, when you need something identified. I recently found a Teeny Weeny Skull behind the skirting board whilst doing renovations at the family holiday house on the South Gippsland coast. I immediately thought it could be a Microbat (Microchiroptera) as we had a colony in the laundry wall years ago.  I put the Teeny Weeny Skull in a matchbox and took it home with me. 

Antechinus skull in the DC showcase. Antechinus skull in the DC showcase.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The next time I was in the Discovery Centre I went to our showcase that contains skulls, skeletons, insects and assorted animals in order for people to do their own identifications. I scanned the case and noticed one that initially looked very much like the Teeny Weeny Skull. It was an Antechinus. If my specimen was an Antechinus, this was exciting; a friend who also had a property near mine had found an Antechinus (a Swamp Antechinus Antechinus minimus). They had given it to me to have it identified by our experts. It was duly examined, identity confirmed and a sample of its DNA was taken. It was also placed on the Atlas of Living Australia as one had not been registered from that location before.

Black Rat, Water Rat and House mouse skulls in the DC showcase. Black Rat, Water Rat and House mouse skulls in the DC showcase.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But my excitement was short-lived - alas, there were differences between my specimen and the Antechinus skull – the bones of the eye orbit weren’t the same, the teeth were quite different and the snout of the Teeny Weeny Skull was shorter. A further scan of the case revealed a match – Mus musculus – a House mouse! That’s right: an ordinary, garden variety mouse, not its more exciting native Australian (sort-of) counterpart. Mind you, if I had just consulted Bioinformatics Skull Views I might have worked it out sooner…

House Mouse skull The Teeny Weeny Skull: a House Mouse
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Address to a haggis?

Author
by Meg
Publish date
25 January 2014
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As we rise on the morning of January 26th to celebrate our national day, Australia Day, on the opposite side of the globe another proud national celebration will also be getting underway – the Burns Night Supper in bonnie Scotland.

Robbie, or Rabbie, Burns (1759 – 1796) was a Scottish bard (poet) and one of the nation’s most celebrated figures, and each year Scots both at home and abroad commemorate his life and work on the evening of his birthday on January 25th.

Robert Burns Robert Burns
Image: Alexander Nasmyth (artist)
Source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery
 

Burns Night Suppers are usually organised and hosted by Burns Clubs, and in their most formal incarnations they have taken on a prescribed form – the evening begins with the piping in of the guests, who when seated then share in a reading of the Selkirk Grace, a prayer of thanks for the forthcoming meal. The prayer reads, in Scots:

"Some hae meat and cannae eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit."

Haggis at a Burns Supper Haggis at a Burns Supper
Image: Kim Traynor
Source: Kim Traynor
 

The piping then resumes to welcome the haggis which arrives in a procession accompanied by the chef, the piper and the reader nominated to address the haggis. Once settled on the table, the reader delivers the Address to the haggis, a poem composed by Burns in 1786 in honour of the dish. The address is followed by a toast to the haggis, and finally the “great chieftain o’ the pudding-race” is served alongside its traditional companions “neeps” and “tatties” (turnips and potatoes) with a dash of whisky sauce (often just neat whisky), and the feast begins.

Haggis, neeps and tatties Haggis, neeps and tatties
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Meg Lomax
 

Other examples of Burns’ works are read throughout the evening, and the celebration traditionally draws to a close with a rousing rendition of Burns’ famous song Auld Lang Syne.

Appreciation for Burns’ words remains a strong feature of Scottish ex-patriot communities across the world and the Scottish community in Victoria is no exception – in January 2014, the Robert Burns Club of Melbourne will continue the tradition by hosting its 64th annual Burns Supper. And for those luck folk who identify as Scottish Australians, the haggis feast of the night before might be followed up with the (not too dissimilar) national dish of Australia the next day – the good old Aussie meat pie.

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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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