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Live Exhibits

The Live Exhibits team look after all the living things on display at Melbourne Museum, from the trees and birds in the Forest Gallery to the thousands of invertebrates in Bugs Alive.

Snake season fallacies

Author
by Patrick Honan
Publish date
23 December 2015
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It’s snake season in Victoria and at this time of year Melbourne Museum receives many enquiries about dealing with pesky snakes. In amongst these general enquiries are snake-related questions or statements that drift into the realm of myths, of which there are many. So here are a few snake facts and fallacies.

Close-up of a Tiger Snake Close-up of a Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Close-up of a Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus), photographed within 5km of Melbourne’s CBD. This species has adapted very well to living in agricultural, suburban and even urban environments.

A bowl of milk will attract snakes:
This is one of the more widespread beliefs, possibly originating with the Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) of North and South America. Locals saw snakes disappearing into barns in search of rodents and believed that the snakes were drinking the milk from cows’ udders. In fact, reptiles can’t digest dairy products and even if they could, it’s unlikely cows would stand idly by whilst being milked. If dehydrated enough, snakes will drink milk, but if thirsty enough they will drink just about anything.

Blue-tongue Lizards and Shinglebacks in your garden will discourage snakes:
Snakes eat frogs, lizards and even other snakes. Some, such as the Orange-naped Snake below, specialise in feeding on skinks. Newly-hatched snakes of various species may fall prey to Blue-tongue Lizards, but as the snakes grow the reverse is usually true.

The Orange-naped Snake The Orange-naped Snake (Furina ornata)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Orange-naped Snake (Furina ornata) of central and northern Australia. This venomous species preys mostly on skinks.

If a snake’s head is cut off it will stay alive until sundown:
This myth seems to be particularly popular in rural Australia. It may be based on the fact that a snake’s body will continue to writhe for some time after decapitation, but this story not even remotely true.

A mother snake will swallow her young when threatened:
Although the now-extinct Gastric-brooding Frog (Rheobatrachus species) and mouthbrooding fish do appear to swallow their young, any snake ingested by another snake will immediately succumb to digestive juices.

Amethystine or Scrub Python The non-venomous Amethystine or Scrub Python (Morelia amethistina)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The non-venomous Amethystine or Scrub Python (Morelia amethistina). Australia’s largest and longest snake, growing up to 8m long. There are 15 species and many subspecies of python in Australia, all non-venomous.

Snakes always travel in pairs:
In general, the only time two snakes are in the same place is during courtship and mating. Otherwise the larger snake will usually kill and eat the smaller one.

If you kill a snake, its partner will come after you no matter where you hide:
Snakes do not have any sort of social bond, nor the intellect nor memory to recognise and remember an assailant. Apparently Bollywood may be partially responsible for this myth.

Lowland Copperhead in grass The Lowland Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Lowland Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus), a common inhabitant of the most disturbed habitats across southern Victoria.

The Hoop Snake bites onto its own tail, forms a circle and rolls down hills:
Another myth common to Australia’s rural regions, but unfortunately no such snake exists. The story is also widespread in USA and Canada where records appear from as early as the 1700s. It may be based on the ancient Greek symbol ouroboros which depicts a serpent eating its own tail, representing constant re-creation.

Snakes are deaf:
Although they lack eardrums, snakes possess inner ears which are able to pick up not only ground-borne vibrations but low frequency airborne sounds. They do have difficulty with sounds at a higher pitch.

A Tiger Snake A Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) from Lake Condah, Victoria. Tiger Snakes are neither deaf, cold, slimy nor poisonous – they are however venomous. The untreated mortality rate in humans is about 50%.

And now a few common misconceptions.

Snakes are cold and slimy:
In fact, snake skin is dry and, depending on the surrounding temperature, can be quite warm and soft.

Snakes are poisonous:
Technically snakes are venomous, not poisonous. But not all of them are venomous by any means. Australia has the highest proportion of venomous native snakes of any country in the world (100 out of the 140 species of land snakes), although only a handful can give a fatal bite to humans. Poisons must be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, whilst venom must be injected into the bloodstream.

Snakes are out to get you:
Humans are larger, generally faster and stronger than Australian snakes. Snakes have a number of predators, of which humans well and truly qualify. When you encounter a snake it is usually caught off guard (as you are), but the vast majority of encounters are avoided by a snake vanishing as soon as it hears you coming. A surprised snake will pick the nearest escape route and aim to disappear as quickly as possible, particularly when faced with a potential predator 50 times its own size. However, snakes in general have poor eyesight and don’t always pick the best route out of trouble. If a snake feels cornered, it will often stand and defend itself as a last resort. Snake behaviour can also become more erratic in spring during the breeding season, and females become more defensive if eggs or young are nearby. However, the vast majority of bites to humans in Australia occur because someone decided not to leave a snake alone.

The White-lipped Snake The White-lipped Snake (Drysdalia coronoides)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The White-lipped Snake (Drysdalia coronoides), common in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Although venomous, they have small fangs and small venom glands, and are not usually dangerous to humans.

And a couple of misconceptions you may not be aware of.

Snakes dislocate their jaws whilst feeding:
Snake jawbones aren’t fused as ours are. A highly flexible ligament joins the bones of the lower jaw, which stretch to allow enormous expansion of the mouth. So the mechanism is not dislocation, just great flexibility.

Pythons asphyxiate their prey by squeezing them:
Recent research has shown that technically pythons kill their prey by preventing blood circulation, not breathing. A constricting snake quickly stops the heart of its prey, and breathing fails soon afterwards.

A juvenile Green Python A juvenile Green Python (Morelia viridis)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A juvenile Green Python (Morelia viridis). The rows of pits on the jaw are used to detect infrared thermal radiation, helping them detect prey and predators in the dark.
Photo: Patrick Honan

And finally, for the record, here’s what you can do to keep snakes out of your yard:
• Remove potential food sources, in this case usually rodents. Keep your property rodent-free and snakes will have less to eat.
• Remove open water sources. Snakes do find water attractive, and need to drink water regularly to survive.
• Remove shelters, such as sheets of tin on the ground and piles of rocks or firewood.
• Keep a clear area around your house. Make sure grass is cut low, remove fallen branches, and prune overgrown bushes. Most snakes prefer not to move across long stretches of open ground.
• Patch up holes in buildings. Snakes will live under houses or outbuildings where the conditions are warm and dry, and can get through any gap larger than your thumb. Place wire mesh with holes no larger than 1cm square over all potential entry points.

How cute is that?

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
19 October 2015
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Melbourne Museum recently participated in the global #Cuteoff on Twitter, where researchers from around the world posted photos of their supposedly ‘cute’ study animals. Given that many of these posts featured snails, turtles, spiders, squid and sea sponges, it begs the question whether cuteness is in the eye of the beholder.

Whipbird chick This baby Whipbird (Psophodes olivaceus) from the Forest Gallery is small, fluffy and vulnerable – in other words quite cute.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, first dissected cuteness in the 1940s with the concept of Kindchenschema (‘baby schema’), identifying that juvenile, or paedomorphic, traits are the key. From an evolutionary point of view, paedomorphic traits are a significant advantage to very young individuals, as they push the buttons of adult humans, encouraging their nurturing side. Cuteness in humans can be further broken down as the sum of certain traits (tiny chin and nose, chubby cheeks, large eyes and rosy complexion), where each element is a cumulative index of cuteness. When these features are enhanced in photos of adult subjects in scientific experiments, observers see the subjects as progressively cuter and report increasingly pleasurable and caring emotions.

Tawny Frogmouth Blinky, one of the Forest Gallery’s Tawny Frogmouths (Podargus strigoides). Blinky has large, wide-set eyes and a disproportionately large head, making him definitively cute.
Image: Chloe Miller
Source: Museum Victoria

The propensity to nurture cuteness is also applied by humans to other animal species with the same traits. Animals that have a flat face, short nose, large ears and large, expressive, wide-set forward-facing eyes are too irresistible to refuse. And the more exaggerated these features, the more appealing they are, as demonstrated by the Hello Kitty phenomenon and kawaii culture in Japan. A number of theories suggest many breeds of cats and dogs have been selectively bred to emphasise these characters, and this appears to be easier than you might think.

Silver Fox The Silver Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Image: Zefram
Source: Creative Commons: CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 50 years of experiments in the Soviet Union, scientist Dimitri Belyaev domesticated the Silver or Siberian Fox, a silver morph of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). By choosing the tamest offspring from each litter, i.e. individuals that were less likely to flee or more likely to whimper and sniff and lick the handler, Belyaev also inadvertently selected the retention of paedomorphic traits. After 40 generations the foxes had larger, floppy ears, shorter or curly tails, and shorter snouts.

Pobblebonk The large, toad-like Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerilii) upping its cuteness index by adopting a tap dancer’s stance.
Image: Melvin Nathan
Source: Museum Victoria

Animals that are not otherwise cute can, in certain situations, enhance their cuteness factor by adopting human attitudes or being associated with familiar human objects.

Alpine Blue-tongue Lizard The comportment of Beth, an otherwise cranky Alpine Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua nigrolutea), can be significantly softened and her cuteness improved when wrapped in a towel.
Image: Chloe Miller
Source: Museum Victoria

Healthy juvenile traits also play a role in cuteness – clear eyes, smooth skin, a pink glow (i.e. sufficient blood circulation) and bilateral symmetry. However, a helpless baby animal obviously in recovery from an illness or injury does sometimes press additional buttons.

Mountain Dragon The Mountain Dragon Falcor (Rankinia diemensis). Although not particularly cute on his own, the bandage raises Falcor’s cuteness factor several fold.
Image: Melvin Nathan
Source: Museum Victoria

Animals that can clearly look after themselves fail to evoke the cute response. Venomous animals, such as spiders and snakes, for example, or spiky or heavily armoured animals, require no nurturing from us. Animals with fewer than four legs, such as worms, or animals with more than four legs, such as centipedes, also elicit no empathy.

Prickly Katydid The antithesis of cuteness. The Prickly Katydid (Phricta spinosa) is laden with spikes and other armour, and well able to look after itself.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

Charities and wildlife groups latched on to the cute factor many years ago. For an endangered species, being cute is definitely an evolutionary advantage these days. A baby panda or harp seal will always get more attention and funding than an endangered snail or spider. According to Canadian ecologist Ernie Small, this is skewing the world’s conservation efforts (and biodiversity in general in the long run) towards the cute and fluffy. It’s reflected in the dollars spent on saving endangered species – highest for the charismatic megafauna and lowest for reptiles, invertebrates and plants, with the number of paedomorphic traits directly proportional to the dollars spent. Ernie Small goes as far as listing the features that will boost a conservation project.

Mitchell's Hopping Mice The cute-as-hell Mitchell’s Hopping Mice (Notomys mitchelli) behaving cutely. This species is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ in Victoria.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

So it’s no wonder all researchers want their study animals to be the cutest. Perhaps social scientist Paris Hilton said it best: “The only rule is don’t be boring and be cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in”.

The mighty mite, part II

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
15 June 2015
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Mites form relationships with a great variety of other animals, ranging from neutral partnerships (commensalisms) to obligate co-dependencies (mutualisms). In the second category, female carrion beetles (such as Nicrophorus species) carry mites under their wings. They release the mites onto carrion before laying their eggs; the mites move out and feed on flies’ eggs, the maggots of which would compete with the carrion beetle larvae for food.

 
spider with mites Hundreds of small grey laelapid mites (looking like grey dots) living in the cracks and crevices of a Sydney Funnelweb (Atrax robustus). Because of the (usually illegal) trade in tarantulas for the pet industry, Australian mites have been discovered on African tarantulas in Britain.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Many mites hitchhike to new feeding grounds in a type of commensalism known as phoresy. Depending on the habitat and lifestyle of the host, some groups of animals are common vessels for phoretic mites, particularly burrowing animals such as certain passalid beetles, funnelwebs and trapdoor spiders.
 
Mites on a beetle Mites on the underside of a passalid beetle. The mites are clustered in locations where the beetle cannot reach and dislodge them, such as between the front legs. Each passalid beetle may have 500 or more mites and other animals living on it.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Lots of mites are parasitic, a very one-sided relationship which involves sucking the blood of their prey. It is often difficult to find an insect or spider in the bush that is mite-free. Heavy infestations of mites are usually a host’s secondary problem—the primary problem (whether it’s infection, lack of food or extreme environments) makes them more vulnerable to mite attack. This relationship is an ancient: last year scientists discovered a mite in 50-million-year-old Baltic amber, still attached to its ant host.
 
mites on a grasshopper Heavy infestation of parasitic mites on the thorax of a Prickly Katydid (Phricta spinosa)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Live Exhibits staff at Melbourne Museum regularly venture into the bush to collect invertebrates for breeding and display. We try to avoid mite-infected insects, partly because it’s an indication of an unhealthy specimen, and partly because mites brought into a captive environment can quickly breed out of control and overwhelm their hosts. Mites also regularly stow away in bedding, food or enclosure substrate.
 
beetle with mites Acarid mites living on a captive-bred female Rhinoceros Beetle (Xylotrupes ulysses). Several thousand mites were living on the underside of this beetle, originating from dry dog food fed to the beetle larvae.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Varroa Mite (Varroa destructor), is the biggest threat to the Australian honeybee industry, the last Varroa-free bastion in the world. Conversely, other mites help control introduced weeds in Australia, such as the Broom Gall Mite (Aceria genistae) that feeds on English Broom (Cystisus scoparius).
 
mites on wasp larva Hundreds of female parasitic mites feeding on a European Wasp larva (Vespula germanica) in a laboratory culture. Each mite holds hundreds of eggs.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Try as you may, there’s no escaping mites. To paraphrase the nursery rhyme:

Big mites have little mites
Upon their backs to bite em
And little mites have lesser mites
And so, ad infinitum.

Links

The mighty mite part I

The mighty mite part I

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
10 June 2015
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You may not realise it, but tiny mites are ubiquitous—about 50,000 species of mites have been described around the world, with an estimated half a million species yet to be described. They range in size from eriophyid mites at 125 micrometres in length, to velvet mites, the giants of the mite world, at 20mm long.

Red furry mite A Red Velvet Mite (Trombidiidae) from Victoria’s Alpine National Park.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

They live in every terrestrial and aquatic habitat in the world, in your house and even on your body. About three quarters of humans have Eyelash Mites (Demodex species) living in their hair follicles and sebaceous pores around the eyelids, eyebrows and nose. Mites also live in the ears of our pets and all over our farm animals. We eat mites regularly, either raw or cooked with our vegetables, in quantities deemed acceptable by food regulators.

Red mite on leaf An erythraeid mite from Rowville, Victoria. These mites are commonly found wandering on eucalypts in bushland around Melbourne.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

About 250 species of mites can affect human health, the most pervasive being the House Dust Mite (Dermatophagoides species) which feeds on dander (dead skin flakes). Its poo is the dust we ultimately breathe in. About 10% of people are allergic to this dust, and the average bed may be home to up to 10 million mites. Other mite species are also responsible for scabies and a great range of itches (grain itch, grocer’s itch, copra itch, straw itch, and so on).

But mites aren’t all bad by any means; in fact if it weren’t for them most ecosystems would collapse. They create and maintain soil, and many plant species support ‘mite houses’ (called domatia) on their leaves, providing homes for resident mites that in return keep the leaves clean. While good mites help the plants, the Two-spotted Mite (Tetranychus urticae) attacks and can destroy hundreds of different crops cultivated by humans, and is controlled in glasshouses around the world by the Predatory Mite (Phytoseiulus persimilis).

webbing on plant Two-spotted Mites (Tetranychus urticae) on an indoor plant. The webbing is produced by this species when their populations are high, to protect themselves and their eggs.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Californian Mite (Paratarsotomus macropalpis) has recently overtaken the Australian Tiger Beetle (Megacephala australis) as the fastest animal on earth, at least in proportion to body size. Humans can run up to 10 bodylengths per second (BLS), the Cheetah up to 20 BLS and the previous record holder, the Tiger Beetle, can move at 171 BLS across the salt flats in north west Victoria. The Californian Mite moves at 322 BLS, the equivalent of a human being running at more than 2,000km per hour.

Mite under a log A trombidiid mite living under a log in wet rainforest at Wilsons Promontory, Victoria.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Mites are also the strongest animals on earth, again in proportion to size. The Tropical Moss Mite (Archegozetes longisetosus), which occurs in Australia and elsewhere, has holding forces in its claws equivalent to 1180 times its own weight, compared to the usual example of ants (50-100 times their own weight) and Rhinoceros Beetles (850 times). That’s the equivalent of an adult human male with a holding force of 90 tonnes.

The life cycles of mites are often quite bizarre. In one group of mites (Adactylidium species), the males die before or just after they are born, and the females are born pregnant and eat their own mothers alive from the inside out. Others live on or in a number of hosts, their body shape and number of legs varying throughout their lives.

Harvestman with red mite A red mite (Leptus species) piggybacking on a Harvestman (Opiliones) in the rainforests of Far North Queensland.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The word ‘mite’ originates from Old English, meaning ‘very small animal’. Mites are remarkably diverse in habitat and life cycle, easily the largest group of arachnids on earth. Although sometimes troublesome, we are dependent upon them in so many different ways, and if they weren’t so small they might take their rightful place in our psyche as some of the world’s most amazing animals. 

Look who's back

Author
by Jessie
Publish date
7 April 2015
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Near the end of March, we made few staff members and visitors smile—we returned Murray, the museum’s resident Murray-Darling Carpet Python (Morelia spilota metcalfei) to the Discovery Centre at Melbourne Museum. He had lived next to the Discovery Centre desk for several years but was removed from display in 2012 due to lack of resources. Since then he was kept in our back of house lab and only taken out for short public programs when we had time.

Detail of python Murray, the museum's Murray-Darling Carpet Python (Morelia spilota metcalfei)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Murray is an important animal to showcase at the museum as these carpet pythons are now listed as endangered in Victoria. They were once common in the northern regions of the state, but are now restricted to small localised populations. In Victoria, they are mainly found in rocky country, riverine forests, redgum forests and Black Box forests of the Murray Darling Basin to the north.

The major threat to their survival is habitat destruction, particularly the collection of wood from their habitat for firewood. They are also killed by cats, foxes and humans. Sadly, many people still believe that if you see a snake, you should kill it. This has a devastating effect on an already endangered species where every individual is precious to the survival of the species. It is important to be aware as firewood consumers that we may be burning up important resources for these members of the Victorian ecosystem.

In the wild, Murray Darling Carpet Pythons eat birds and small mammals. In captivity they are generally fed on mice and rats. Murray receives frozen thawed mice once a month, given to him by one of the Live Exhibits staff. Live Exhibits looks after Murray as well as a whole array of other animals across the Museum including other reptiles, birds, frogs and invertebrates. 

Predator vs predator

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
9 February 2015
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Museum Victoria Bioscans and other biodiversity surveys tend to focus on the bigger and more spectacular Victorian animals, such as Gippsland Water Dragons and Wedge-tailed Eagles, but some of the most interesting stories come from the little creatures. 

Spider wasp nest A partially opened nest of a spider wasp (Fabriogenia sp.). The spider prey in two of the cells have been replaced with wasp pupae.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One such highlight of the recent Gippsland Lakes Bioscan was a mud nest of a spider wasp (Fabriogenia sp.). The nest comprised six cells, each built to house a Mountain Huntsman (Isopeda montana). The cells are made from dried mud, probably mixed with eucalyptus resin to harden them. The female wasp takes about one day to construct each cell, then heads off to find a live huntsman and undertakes a life-or-death battle. Upon seeing an approaching spider wasp, a huntsman’s behaviour—excuse the anthropomorphism—is best described as a ‘mad panic’.

black wasp Adult female spider wasp, Fabriogenia sp.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The wasp is swift and deadly accurate, stinging the huntsman to immobilise it, then removing each of its legs at the first joint. She carries the spider back to her nest, lays an egg on its defenceless body, then seals it in. The egg hatches into a fat wasp grub, feeding on the internal juices of the spider until nothing but a shrivelled husk remains. The grub then forms a pupa and eventually emerges from its cell as an adult wasp, ready to continue the cycle.

Huntsman spider with no legs A dismembered huntsman removed from the mud nest. The pedipalps remain intact and the fangs are in working order.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 
 
Most members of this wasp family, the Pompilidae, leave the spider intact and paralyse it permanently. In this case, not only does the wasp cut off its prey’s legs, but the venom seems to immobilise the huntsman only temporarily and the spider wakes up after the cell is sealed. 

 

On a personal note, having handled spiders for more than 30 years and never being bitten, one of the spiders latched on to my finger while I was examining the nest. Like most huntsman bites there were no symptoms other than a sharp nip, and given its situation I couldn’t really blame it.

Spider wasp, spider, and spider-wasp mimicking beetle Left: Another member of the Pompilidae, the Zebra Spider Wasp (Turneromyia sp.) battles a huntsman on a gum tree in Royal Park, Melbourne. | Right: Wasp-mimicking Beetle (Trogodendron fasciculatum), also photographed in Royal Park, Melbourne.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

And as a side note, spider wasps are ferocious enough to have their own mimics. The Wasp-mimicking Beetle (Trogodendron fasciculatum) looks roughly like a spider wasp, with its black and white body and orange antennae, but its behaviour is almost identical. Moving rapidly over tree trunks with twitching antennae it would, at least, be safe from roaming huntsmans.

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