Live Exhibits

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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.

Australia’s biggest wildlife biobank

Author
by Alice
Publish date
27 June 2014
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We should all be giving each other a big round of high fives, as Museum Victoria has just been awarded a $500,000 Ian Potter Foundation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grant for the development of Australia’s largest wildlife biobank! The new biobank—the animal equivalent of a seedbank—will enable us to store embryos, eggs and sperm from some of Australia’s most endangered animals. Based on super-cold liquid nitrogen, the biobank facility will store animal tissue samples at -150ºC, which is cold enough to preserve them for the long term.

Yellow-footed Antechinus Yellow-footed Antechinus captured for a blood sample then released.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

  Dr Kevin Rowe sorting tissue samples in the field Dr Kevin Rowe sorting tissue samples in the field.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The proposed storage facilities sound like something straight out of Mr. Freeze’s lab: a custom-built airtight room equipped to house three liquid nitrogen dewar cryostorage vats, rather like giant vacuum flasks. Inside, vials containing tissue samples will be stored in the vapour above the liquid nitrogen. Kept in this manner, the samples will remain viable for more than 50 years.

  Staff at work in Laboratory. Staff at work in our Ancient DNA Laboratory.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Currently, our collection of over 40,000 tissue samples is limited to organs, skin, fur and feathers stored at -80ºC. These samples have been collected over the last 160 years and are priceless tools for scientific research into evolution, genetic relationships, species discrimination, and especially conservation. By enabling the long term storage of reproductive tissues, the newer, cooler biobank will enable us to realise the full potential of this collection and built on our ability to increase reproductive biology programs and genetic research.  

  Helena Gum Moth The apparent decline of Emperor Gum Moths and the closely related Helena Gum Moth have been a hot topic for scientists in recent years. Initiatives such as the biobank could largely benefit their survival.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Considering that our early natural history collectors could not have dreamed of the uses we would have found for their specimens over a century later; the Ian Potter Australian Wildlife Biobank offers new hope to endangered species, many of which may face extinction in the coming decades. With ever-increasing pressure from human impacts such as climate change and habitat loss on our native fauna, we envisage that the biobank will be a game changer for wildlife research, conservation and recovery. 

  Smoky Mouse The critically endangered Smoky Mouse is another native species that may benefit largely from this new technology.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The biobank is expected to be operating by late 2015.

Bugs within bugs, part 2

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
7 May 2014
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Like any group of animals (or people), populations of bugs are susceptible to disease, pathogens and parasites. At Live Exhibits we keep our populations free from parasites, but sometimes new bugs from the wild turn out to be Trojan horses filled with unwanted guests.

Tachinid fly pupae Tachinid fly pupae, newly emerged from the abdomen of a Rainforest Mantid (Heirodula majuscula), collected from Cairns, North Queensland. These flies are always fatal to the mantid.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The parasites not only kill the bugs themselves, but could get into captive populations and cause havoc. Most of them are easily controlled once identified, and occasionally we can even operate to remove the parasite and allow the host to lead a long and fruitful life.

parasitic wasp larva A parasitic wasp larva being successfully removed from the abdomen of a living Olive-green Katydid (Austrosalomona falcata) collected from the wild.
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But often this is not so successful and the first sign of something wrong is the presence of two different species within an enclosure rather than just one. When you get to recognise the signs of parasitism, it’s often difficult to find individual insects in the wild that are not parasitised.

tachinid fly larva A tachinid fly larva emerges from a wild-caught Robust Fan-winged Katydid (Psacadonotus robustus). The only indication of infection was the abnormally large abdomen of the male katydid.
Image: Melvin Patinathan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One of the most insidious is the Gordian worm, named after the Gordian knot of mythology. These are long, hair-like worms up to half a metre long which begin their lives in freshwater streams attacking aquatic insects. When the aquatic host, such as a dragonfly or mayfly nymph emerges into adulthood, it leaves the stream and is caught and eaten by a spider, cricket or beetle. The worm grows within its new host, filling up the entire body cavity until the host is 95 per cent Gordian worm.

Gordian worm emerging A Gordian worm emerging from an Olive-green Katydid (Austrosalomona falcata).
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife
 

When fully fed, the worm causes its host to become thirsty to encourage it to seek out water where the worm emerges and continues its life cycle, laying more than 10 million eggs. Earlier this year Live Exhibits staff collected eight huntsmans near Cape Tribulation, North Queensland, five of which produced Gordian worms over the next few weeks.

 

Video: A newly emerged Gordian worm and its host, Beregama cordata, from the #liveexhibits takeover of the Museum Victoria Instagram account.
Source: Patrick Honan/Museum Victoria

The relationship between parasites and their hosts is an evolutionary arms race – as hosts come up with more effective defences, the parasites evolve techniques such as behavioural modification to overcome them. This fascinatingly gruesome relationship can be the stuff of nightmares; inspiration for everything from zombies to the film Alien, proving that science is stranger than science fiction.

This is the second in pair of posts about parasites. Don't miss Bugs within bugs, part 1

References:

Askew, R.R., 1971, Parasitic Insects, American Elsevier, USA, 316pp

CSIRO, 1990, Insects of Australia, Volume 1 & 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1137pp

Gauld, I.D., 1984, An Introduction to the Ichneumonidae of Australia, British Museum (Natural History), UK, 413pp

Matthews, E.G. & Kitching, R.L., 1984, Insect Ecology (second edition), University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 211pp

Bugs within bugs, part 1

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
28 April 2014
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Comments (1)

To support our collection of almost 100 invertebrate species on display at Melbourne Museum, Live Exhibits staff must occasionally collect bugs from the wild, and some of these can hold unwanted surprises inside.

Chalcid w A Chalcid wasp, newly emerged from the cocoon of its host caterpillar.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victorai
 

At least one in every ten insect species is a parasite on other insects. In Australia this adds up to several tens of thousands of parasitic insect species, all living their lives on the outside or, more commonly the inside, of other insects. Most of these parasites are wasps and flies, and most of their hosts are butterflies, moths and beetles.

Tachinid fly eggs on beetle Tachinid fly eggs on the outside of a doomed Leaf Beetle larva (Paropsis species).
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Parasitic insects usually lay their eggs directly onto or into the body of their host, but may lay eggs on a food plant in the hope that they will later be ingested by a potential host. Once inside, the parasitic larva consumes the host’s internal tissues while the host continues to go about its business. The parasite usually avoids the vital organs until the last minute – then polishes these off and finally kills its host.

Aphid ‘mummies’ Aphid ‘mummies’ – aphids that have been parasitised and glued to the leaf by Braconid wasps. When fully developed, the wasps will cut a perfectly circular hole in the back and emerge as adults.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Parasitic wasps are able to find their hosts no matter where they might hide. In order to lay eggs on its host – Sirex Wood Wasp (Sirex noctilio) – Megarhyssa (Megarhyssa nortoni) can drill through 9cm of solid wood with its ovipositor (egg-laying organ). Megarhyssa females find their hosts using infrared detectors on their antennae; the outer bark of a tree is 0.5oC warmer where a larva lies underneath.

female Megarhyssa A female Megarhyssa (Megarhyssa nortoni) drills through a pine tree to deposit an egg on the Sirex Wood Wasp within.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A parasitic wasp will sometimes inject venom that paralyses the host but keeps it alive, allowing the wasp to hide it away for its offspring as a sort of living larder. A large wasp dragging a larger, paralysed, huntsman across open ground is a familiar sight during summer.

Pompilid wasp drags a huntsman A Pompilid wasp drags a huntsman (Isopeda species) from its hiding place under bark, before paralysing it and inserting an egg.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A caterpillar can sometimes dislodge a parasite’s eggs with its mandibles, but wasps usually lay their eggs just behind the caterpillar’s head where they can’t be reached. Many hosts are able to ‘encapsulate’ a parasite already inside their bodies, localising its damage and starving it of oxygen. When more than one parasite is laid inside a host, the larvae fight to the death within the host’s body for the rights to its organs.

wasp cocoons inside the empty shell of a Cabbage White Butterfly caterpillar Thousands of parasitic wasp cocoons inside the empty shell of a Cabbage White Butterfly caterpillar (Pieris rapae). Each cocoon will soon produce a tiny wasp that flies off to find other caterpillars to parasitise.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Parasites are themselves subject to attack from hyperparasites, insects that lay eggs inside an already-occupied host. The emerging larva seeks out the parasite in residence and burrows into its body. These in turn may be parasitised by superhyperparasites, and so on.

“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,

And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum…”

Augustus de Morgan (after Jonathan Swift)

The Age of Exploration continues

Author
by Chenae Neilson
Publish date
6 November 2013
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Chenae Neilson is a Master of Science in Human Geography student at the University of Melbourne. This is the first post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago today.

Over the last 250 years, the taxonomic classification of life on Earth has described approximately 1.2 million species that share the planet with us, Homo sapiens. However, every year, we discover thousands of new species. Often these are organisms that have been concealed from scientific observation within impassable forests or the dark of the ocean abyss. A 2011 estimate suggests there are over eight million species on Earth, which means we have described fewer than 15 per cent of them. This stems, in part, because we have explored only five per cent of the world’s oceans, and scientists have yet to survey many terrestrial environments.

This celebration of exploration marks the centenary of the death of explorer, naturalist, and evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who died on 7 November 1913. To commemorate Wallace we return to the region of his most famous exploration.

Alfred Russel Wallace, circa 1895. Alfred Russel Wallace, circa 1895.
Image: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
Source: Wikimedia Commons

"Nature has taken every precaution that these, her choicest treasures, may not lose value by being too easily obtained."
Alfred Russel Wallace

 

From 1854 to 1862, Wallace traveled across the Indonesian archipelago from the Sunda shelf in the west through the island of Sulawesi and to the Bird's Head of New Guinea in the east. On this journey he noted a distinct transition from more Asian fauna to more Australian fauna – the line demarking this dramatic transition became known as the 'Wallace's Line'. The broader region between Asia and Australia, including the island of Sulawesi, is termed Wallacea, which hosts an endemic combination of Asian and Australian lineages. Wallace’s exploration of Sulawesi made a significant contribution to the species catalogue in this region and also became the backbone of evidence for his own theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace’s adventures in Wallacea were later chronicled in his book, The Malay Archipelago, written in 1869.

Map of Sunda and Sahul Map of Wallacea, featuring the island of Sulawesi and the biogeographic lines defining breaks between Asian fauna within Sunda and Australasia.
Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker
Source: Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons.
 

Despite the countless scientific findings made during the Age of Exploration in the 1800s, exploration still remains important today, particularly in a world where natural environments are under threat.

Wallace's trail of exploration has been retraced many times by contemporary scientists, amateur naturalists, and television personalities. Exploration may mean something different to each. For the scientist, these areas are revealing new species and answering questions about the evolutionary history of the region. To the naturalist, the 'discovery' of animals found nowhere else on earth and the chance to walk in the footsteps of an influential figure may be the very definition of exploration. Regardless of our definition of exploration, areas like Wallacea hold many new possibilities.

Over 100 years later, two research scientists at Museum Victoria, Dr Kevin Rowe and Dr Karen Rowe, have been following in the footsteps of Wallace. Some of their recent findings will be the subject of the next blog in our mini-series.

Woman in rainforest in Indonesia Karen Rowe hiking into a remote field camp on Mount Dako, Sulawesi where scientists from MV, Indonesia and the United States inventoried mammals and birds for the first time in 2013.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Fossilised Champignons

Author
by Siobhan
Publish date
15 September 2013
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Comments (1)

Remember The X-Files? If you were a fan, you fell into one of two camps – you either liked the mythology arcs, or the Monster-of-the-Week episodes. I fell firmly into the latter camp. I liked one-off weirdness, lacking the attention span for conspiracy narratives. It is in this spirit that I present to you a short episode of "What on earth is THAT?!" from the Discovery Centre.

At the beginning of winter this year, a woman came into the Melbourne centre with some "mysterious objects". We get a lot of mystery items here, and they are normally fairly easy to identify – pieces of manufacturing slag, cicada cases, random pieces of urban archaeology that work their way up from old rubbish pits.

As she removed them from her bag, she said, "they look like fossilised champignons." An odd description, but entirely accurate. The items she unwrapped did indeed look like small mushrooms. They weren't fossils, as they were obviously made of a chalky substance; soft enough to flake and leave a slight powdery residue on one's fingertips. Our visitor said she had discovered them in the mud on the shores of a freshwater pond on Kangaroo Island, and mentioned, in an offhand manner, that they were amongst some crayfish carcasses, and perhaps they had something to do with local platypus? I was stumped. My colleague Wayne, a chap with a palaeontological background, was equally stumped.

Crayfish gastroliths Crayfish gastroliths, brought in to the Discovery Centre for identification.
Image: Siobhan Motherway
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Found in platypus territory, and made of chalky material? We did some preliminary research: were they dehydrated platypus eggs? Some weird botanical thing? A fungus? Yes, I did google "fossilised champignons". Getting nowhere, we turned to our various departmental experts in Mammalogy, Marine Invertebrates and Geosciences; even our pet Entomologist. No luck.

On the off-chance that our Live Exhibits manager had seen something similar on fieldwork, I emailed through the photographs to him, and he shared them round the office. Victory! Gentleman-and-scholar Adam Elliot knew immediately what they were. It turned out that our enquirer's by-the-by remark about the crayfish was the salient information – these "fossilised champignons" are freshwater crayfish gastroliths. When preparing to shed, the crayfish forms these stones to store the calcium they will need to help form their new exoskeleton. After they've shed (a process called ecdysis – remember that one for word games), they reabsorb this calcium to help create their new shell. These particular examples are very, very large.

Crayfish gastroliths Crayfish gastroliths, brought into the Discovery Centre for identification.
Image: Wayne Gerdtz
Source: Museum Victoria
 

This blog post from the WA Museum gives a great rundown on how the process works, and includes a photo of some smaller gastroliths from a similar identification request.

So there you have it, mystery solved. We'll keep an eye out for more oddities – I've always liked them best.

Making of the First Peoples ad

Author
by Jareen
Publish date
11 September 2013
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One cold August morning at 5am, a team of us were outside along Birrarung Marr ‘on set’ shooting a commercial for the new First Peoples exhibition. Here are just a few behind the scenes photos of the shoot.

Aunty Fay Carter and Dharna on set. "... Hear our stories, know the joy in our hearts..." Aunty Fay Carter and Dharna on set.
Image: Matthew McCarthy
Source: Clear Design
 

Everyone on set. Final touch up before we begin shooting. Aunty Fay Carter (slightly hidden), Uncle Jack Charles, Dharna Nicholson-Bux and Marbee Williams with the make up artist.
Image: Matthew McCarthy
Source: Clear Design

Marbee and Uncle Jack Charles on set Marbee Williams and Uncle Jack Charles on set with the Melbourne skyline in the background.
Image: Matthew McCarthy
Source: Clear Design
 

The advertising for the First Peoples exhibition is centred around the word Wominjeka. The word means welcome in the local Koorie languages for Melbourne, Boonwurrung and Woi wurrung. You can find out about Victorian Aboriginal languages in the exhibition or our online map.

In the campaign, we feature four Victorian Aboriginal people: Aunty Fay Carter (Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung), Uncle Jack Charles (Boonwurrung and Wiradjeri), Marbee Williams (Boonwurrung and Wiradjuri) and Dharna Nicholson-Bux (Wurundjeri and Yorta Yorta).

Dharna with Aunty Fay Dharna with Aunty Fay onset during the First Peoples commercial shoot at Birrarung Marr. August 2013.
Image: Scottie Cameron
Source: Museum Victoria

Uncle Jack Charles Uncle Jack Charles onset during the First Peoples commercial shoot.
Image: Scottie Cameron
Source: Museum Victoria

Marbee Williams. Marbee Williams onset for the First Peoples commercial shoot.
Image: Scottie Cameron
Source: Museum Victoria.
 

If you live in Melbourne, hopefully you will have started seeing the word Wominjeka around town. If you see our posters, ads, brochures, flags or video, snap a photo and use #wominjeka if you're sharing it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. We'd love to see it!

Example of advertising for First Peoples. Examples of the advertising featuring Marbee Williams and Dharna Nicholson-Bux.
Image: Clear Design
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The campaign development was highly collaborative, taking inspiration from the First Peoples Yulendj (knowledge) Group of Elders and representatives of Aboriginal communities from across Victoria, the First Peoples exhibition and Bunjilaka teams, and taking into consideration the feedback from recent focus group sessions with non-Aboriginal museum visitors.

Huge thanks to everyone who has helped with the development of the campaign!

 

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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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