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.

Wanderer or Monarch butterfly

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
8 March 2013
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The Wanderer Butterfly is known overseas as the Monarch Butterfly, so named for being the King, or Queen, of butterflies. In North America they are also known as King Billies, after William of Orange. The Australian name of Wanderer comes from its remarkable habit of long distance migration. The scientific name Danaus plexippus was bestowed by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy and inventor of the scientific naming system.

Adult female Wanderer Butterfly Adult female Wanderer Butterfly
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Although not a native to Australia, the Wanderer may not exactly be introduced in the usual sense. Wanderer Butterflies most likely arrived in Australia across the Coral Sea from Vanuatu or New Caledonia, carried by three cyclones in early 1870. This was part of a major expansion in distribution across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from North America in the late 1800s, probably due to a combination of environmental factors, human movement and natural expansion.

Wanderer butterfly feeding An adult Wanderer Butterfly feeding on Cat's Whiskers (Orthopsiphon aristatus).
Source: Patrick Honan
 

The first recorded observations from Australia were made in February 1871 in Queensland, followed by the first record from Melbourne in April 1872. It is possible that Wanderers had been making the journey to Australia since time immemorial, but only after Europeans established their food plants here could Wanderers establish.

Wanderer caterpillar The distinctive fleshy 'filaments' behind the head of the caterpillar are used as sensory organs.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Wanderers have been seen at sea up to 500km from land and occasionally settle on passing ships. This is not unusual – with favourable winds, Australian butterflies such as Common Eggflies often end up in New Zealand. Wanderers have a cruising speed of about 30km per hour with bursts of up to 50km per hour when alarmed.

Wanderer Butterfly pupa. The wings of the adult can be seen through the walls of a Wanderer Butterfly pupa.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

In North America, Wanderers undertake a famous annual migration from Canada and northern USA down to Mexico and California, and then back again. The populations overwintering in the Oyamel Fir Forests of Mexico roost at densities of 10 million butterflies per hectare. Because the length of time required for the migration exceeds that of an adult Wanderer's life span, those arriving back in Canada are the descendents of those that left the year before.

Map of butterfly migration Map of the North American migration of the Monarch or Wanderer butterfly that occurs each year in autumn.
Source: Via the Frost Lab, Queen's University Department of Psychology
 

The secrets of the Wanderer migration in North America weren't fully revealed until the 1970s. Canadian Dr Fred Urquhart was fascinated as a child by the question of where all the Wanderers disappeared to during winter, and he and his team of volunteers took nearly 40 years to discover the answer. Professor Urquhart died in 2002 but his life-long search is the subject of the new film Flight of the Butterflies 3D. In Australia, Dr Courtenay Smithers from the Australian Museum began tagging Wanderer Butterflies in the 1970s using many volunteers from the broader community. His studies revealed that overwintering populations around Sydney and Adelaide move into Melbourne and surrounds during summer. This research continues, with many questions still to be answered. In certain years, for example, populations appear to overwinter in some parts of Victoria, such as Phillip Island and the Western Districts, without needing to move interstate, but more data is needed to confirm these observations.

Flight of the Butterflies 3D opens at IMAX Melbourne Museum on 21 March. 

Patrick's next post on these butterflies: More on the Monarch

References:

Clake, A.R. & Zalucki, M.P., 2004. Monarchs in Australia: On the Winds of A Storm? Biological Invasions, 6:123-127

McCubbin, C., 1970, Australian Butterflies, Thomas Nelson Ltd, Melbourne, 206pp.

Bug of the Month - the mosquito

Author
by Tim Blackburn
Publish date
4 February 2013
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Comments (2)

Mosquitoes are midge-like flies comprising the family Cucilidae. There are over 3,500 species of mosquito described worldwide and most of these require vertebrate blood as the principal portion of the female diet. The blood provides protein for egg development and maturation, and the lipids it contains are an energy source. Females possess elongated piercing and sucking mouthparts for obtaining their blood meals. Males obtain all their energy from sweet fluids such as nectar and honeydew. Since they don't lay eggs, male mosquitoes do not require a protein source and do not bite.

Close-up of female mosquito The elongated proboscis of this female mosquito enables it to obtain the protein it requires for egg development and maturation.
Image: sondebueu
Source: sondebueu via cc
 

Adult females lay eggs in or near water, commonly on vegetation, a few days after a blood meal. The life cycle includes four larval stages, or instars. Between each instar the larva moults in order to grow. The larvae, or 'wrigglers' (so-called due to their characteristic movement), typically inhabit stagnant water bodies, and must come to the surface periodically to breathe through spiracles or a siphon. The larvae of some species use their mouth bristles to filter water for microorganisms, while others scrape food particles off the surfaces of submerged objects. The pupa does not feed but must come to the surface to breathe through respiratory trumpets.

mosquito larva The mouth bristles, used in filter feeding, are clearly visible on this wriggler. Note also the three body segments and the segmented abdomen.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Female mosquitoes inject saliva that contains an anticoagulant into their host to prevent blood-clotting. The saliva also contains components that cause vasodilation (to increase blood blow) and suppress the immune response of the host (to protect the mosquito). Once the feeding episode ends, the host produces antibodies which trigger a release of histamine. This in turn increases the permeability of adjacent blood vessels, thereby enabling a stronger immune response. The blood vessels swell and this causes the familiar, itchy lump—the 'mozzie bite'.

Female mosquito A female mosquito just after landing on my toe as it commences a blood meal. Note the thin abdomen at the start of the meal.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Female mosquito feeding The same mosquito one minute later. Note the swollen abdomen which is red because it is full of my blood.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Viruses and pathogens are easily transferred between mosquito and host via the saliva. Mosquitoes are serious agents in the transmission of diseases such as dengue and yellow fever, malaria and lymphatic filariasis. In 1996, the World Health Organisation estimated that several million people die each year from mosquito-borne diseases around the world. Each disease is spread by a specific type of mosquito; malaria is spread by Anopheles spp. and dengue fever is primarily spread by Aedes aegypti.

However, mosquito-borne diseases are rare in Victoria, and mosquitoes here are more likely to annoy rather than cause disease. You can prevent bites by wearing insect repellent and protective clothing, and removing breeding sites. Window mesh and mosquito nets also help exclude potentially harmful species, particularly in tropical and subtropical areas. Various plant species such as Citronella Grass, Rosemary, Catnip and Marigolds repel mosquitoes and may be especially useful if planted near doorways and windows. 

Links:

CDC: Mosquito-borne diseases

Vector-borne diseases in Victoria

Bug of the Month - Emperor Gum Moth

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
4 January 2013
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Comments (9)

The apparent decline of the Emperor Gum Moth (EGM), Opodiphthera eucalypti, around Victoria has been a hot topic of debate amongst entomologists and other EGM fans in the last few years.

Emperor Gum Moth A newly-emerged male Emperor Gum Moth.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

The decline is anecdotal and as yet there is no hard evidence, but theories abound. Many people contact us noting that they don’t see EGM caterpillars anymore, as they did when climbing trees as a kid. Which prompts a question in return: "When did you last climb a tree?"

Emperor Gum Moth Male Emperor Gum Moths have enormous feathery antennae used to detect the presence of females.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Another possibility is the demise of the introduced Peppercorn Tree (Schinus molle) in Victoria. Originally from the Peruvian Andes, Peppercorns were planted in every Victorian primary school and many parks from the 1880s to the early 1900s. EGM caterpillars, although feeding naturally on eucalypts, will also consume Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and Liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), as well as Peppercorns. Victorians who went to primary school up until the 1970s would be very familiar with EGM caterpillars feeding on Peppercorns, but the trees have gradually died out or been removed until now there are very few left. Peppercorns are now considered an environmental weed.

Children planting trees State school children planting peppercorn trees in Carlton Gardens, just outside the now Melbourne Museum, on Arbor day, 1905.
Source: Reproduced from Carlton in DPCD report by Lovell Chen
 

Emperor Gum Moth The colour of adult Emperor Gum Moths varies considerably throughout their range.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Another strong possibility is the intrinsic variation in insect populations. Many species undergo booms and busts, appearing in vast numbers one year then apparently disappearing for several years afterwards, sometimes for a decade or more. These fluctuations are usually climate related, with each species requiring an exact combination of factors (such as a mild winter and a wet summer) in a particular order to afford them a boom year. Perhaps the last couple of decades have not produced the right combination for EGMs, and they’re just waiting for their number to come up.

European Wasp The dreaded European Wasp. Workers tear EGM caterpillars off trees and cut them into small pieces before transporting them back to the nest.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

One of the most popular theories is attack by European Wasps (Vespula germanica) on EGM caterpillars. Caterpillars are a favoured prey of European Wasps, and they can do enormous damage when present in large numbers. However, somewhat ironically, after reaching plague proportions in the 1980s and 90s, wasp populations have dropped dramatically in the last 15 years or so, again for no discernible reason other than a possible combination of environmental factors.

Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar feeding An Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar feeding on Eucalyptus species.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

In the end, any decline of EGMs probably comes down to habitat loss. The number of host gum trees has steadily reduced in urban areas in particular, but also in suburban areas and even rural towns. If fewer trees are available, there will naturally be fewer caterpillars. So if you’re missing these iconic caterpillars, the best strategy is to plant a gum tree.

Young caterpillars Young EGM caterpillars look very different to older caterpillars, but their presence is a possible sign of a healthy local environment.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

But these theories are, at this stage, pure speculation. EGMs are still around, if you know where to look. A Museum Victoria Bioscan at Wilson’s Promontory in 2011 attracted hundreds of EGM adults (as well as the closely related Helena Gum Moth, Opodiphthera helena) to light traps at night. And just last month, a dozen EGM caterpillars were on display in the Forest Gallery at Melbourne Museum. Plans are underway to assess the extent of the EGM decline in Victoria, so stay tuned for further developments.

Further reading:

Coupar, P. & Coupar, M., 1992, Flying Colours – Common Caterpillars, Butterflies and Moths of South-Eastern Australia, NSW University Press, 119pp.

Common, I.F.B., 1990, Moths of Australia, Melbourne University Press, 535pp.

Zborowski, P. & Edwards, T., 2007, A Guide to Australian Moths, CSIRO Publishing, 214pp.

Bug of the Month - Giant Grasshopper

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
3 December 2012
Comments
Comments (2)

The Giant Grasshopper is so named for being the largest grasshopper in Australia. The adult's body length, however, varies from an enormous 90mm to less than half that size. This gives it the scientific name Valanga irregularis, referring not only to the irregular colouration but also the irregular length. People who know the species well simply call it Valanga.

grey grasshopper The mottled grey form of the Giant Grasshopper, common around Townsville, North Queensland.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unlike many of the better-known grasshoppers, this species feeds not on grass but on the leaves of shrubs and trees. They have a very variable diet, ranging from native plants to citrus, cotton, coconut and even coffee plants. This makes them a minor pest in some areas, due to their occasional habit of consuming every leaf on a food plant when present in large numbers.

brown grasshpper The spectacular brown version of the Giant Grasshopper common around Iron Range, North Queensland.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Giant Grasshopper nymphs change colour with each moult, varying from light green to a spectacular red with blue stripes. The eggs are laid in batches of up to 150 within 'pods', made of a frothy substance that hardens upon drying. The eggs are sometimes attacked by a tiny parasitic wasp (Scelio flavicornis), which lays its own eggs inside the grasshopper's eggs, the wasp grubs feeding on the embryo within.

Brown and green forms of immature Giant Grasshopper Left: A young nymph. Right: An older bright green nymph.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Adult grasshoppers are very sensitive to movement and will leap away at the slightest disturbance. They can fly upwards as high as two metres, then horizontally in a straight line until they hit the ground. However, Giant Grasshoppers tire easily and the length decreases rapidly with each consecutive leap.

face of Giant Grasshopper A close encounter with a Giant Grasshopper from the Northern Territory.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Giant Grasshoppers occur across the top of Australia and there are a number of closely related species, at least four of which are undescribed. They are all very difficult to distinguish from each other, due to variations in most of the important characteristics, including size.

Giant Grasshopper eating A captive adult Giant Grasshopper satisfies its ravenous appetite with Orthopteran mix.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

This species survives very well in captivity, feeding on a combination of fish flakes, grass seed, muesli, and pollen (known as Orthopteran mix). Unlike other insect species, they show no signs of inbreeding – a single mated female may be sole progenitor to tens of thousands of descendants over many generations without a single sign of genetic deformities.

exhibition display cases The Habitats exhibit, home of the Giant Grasshopper and many other spectacular creatures in Bugs Alive!
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Giant Grasshoppers can be seen in the Habitats exhibit in Bugs Alive! at Melbourne Museum.

Gallery of the Grampians survey

Author
by Blair
Publish date
26 November 2012
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Comments (10)

The Museum Victoria and Parks Victoria crew at the Grampians National Park in western Victoria have discovered some cool critters after the first six days of the intensive Grampians Bioscan survey. Why elaborate when I can just show you what I mean.

people hiking in mountains Museum Victoria and Parks Victoria crew walking through the stunning scenery of Grampians National Park.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We've come face-to-face with the cute and furry, like the Yellow-footed Antechinus, Antechinus flavipes. These small mammals look a little like mice but they are not closely related. They are carnivorous, eating insects and small lizards. Females rear young in pouches until the young outgrow the pouch and they climb onto her back for a while. Males fight during breeding season, neglect to eat, and die within twelve days after mating.

hand holding small mammal Yellow-footed Antechinus, Antechinus flavipes.
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

There have been five frog encounters so far, including the endangered Growling Grass Frog, Litoria raniformis. The conservation genetics of this species is currently being studied by museum PhD student Claire Keely.

two green frogs Growling Grass Frog, Litoria raniformis. The female is the larger frog on the left, the male is on the right.
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Warm weather has given our researchers an opportunity to sample DNA from the local reptile populations. Here, a watchful Colin catches a Tiger Snake, Notechis scutatus, for a genetics project.

Man holding snake Colin with a captured Tiger Snake, Notechis scutatus.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A friendly Stumpy-tail, Tiliqua rugosa, faced off with museum herpetologist Jo Sumner. These lizards give birth to live young, which is uncommon in reptiles since most lay eggs. Mating pairs usually follow one another around and maintain a life-long bond.

Woman holding lizard Jo holding a Stumpy-tail, Tiliqua rugosa.
Image: Steve Wright
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We saw Australia's smallest freshwater crayfish (Western Swamp Crayfish, Gramastacus insolitus, about 3 cm long) and one of the largest (Glenelg River Spiny Crayfish, Euastacus bispinosus, about 15cm long). Both species are listed as endangered on DSE's Advisory List of Threatened Invertebrate Fauna in Victoria.

two species of crayfish Left: Western Swamp Crayfish, Gramastacus insolitus. Right: Glenelg River Spiny Crayfish, Euastacus bispinosus.
Image: David Paul / Mark Norman
Source: Museum Victoria
 

And species that dramatically transform from larval stages into adults, for example the Dobsonfly, Archichauliodes guttiferus. The aquatic larval stage lives in the rocks on river beds while the adult flies around the plants along the river bank.

Larva and adult of insect Dobsonfly, Archichauliodes guttiferus. Left: aquatic larva Right: adult
Image: Blair Patullo / David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

And saving my favourite until last – the "Jabba-the-hut" spider, more officially known as a Badge Huntsman, Neosparassus diana.

crouching spider Badge Huntsman, Neosparassus diana.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We've also recorded Wedge-tailed Eagles and Powerful Owls. Stand by for a report on week two! 

The survey is being conducted with help from Parks Victoria's rangers and aims to document wildlife in the Grampians area. It involves over 60 museum staff and associates, including the Melbourne Herbarium and Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, and concludes at the end of November 2012.

Links:

MV Field Guide to Victorian Fauna app

MV Blog: posts from the Wilsons Prom Bioscan, October 2011

Secret diary of a field trip

Author
by Blair
Publish date
21 November 2012
Comments
Comments (3)

Today I’m broadcasting from a sweet spot in the Grampians National Park, western Victoria. The museum is conducting a fauna survey with Parks Victoria here over the next two weeks. It’s spectacular countryside and this blog is the start of the stories from the trip that will involve over 60 museum staff and associates, including the Melbourne Herbarium and Field Naturalists Club of Victoria.

Here’s how the trip started and the first few days of excitement, diary style. Stay in touch for more updates, photos of critters, or leave us comments if you have questions. We will be in touch when the internet reception comes good again.

9 days to go – 10.30am. Meet and greet with Parks Victoria rangers to discuss schedules.

6 days to go – 3.30pm. Final planning meeting at Museum Victoria.

1 day to go – 10.27am. Purchase 1 FME-Sierra cable, 1 FME-SMA adaptor, 1 male SMA-female SMA plug (for remote internet access). To think that ten years ago the nearest communication on a trip like this would have been a telephone booth on a highway in the nearest town 50 kilometres away.

1 day to go – 11.23pm. Throw some survival stuff on the floor for packing in the morning.

collection of clothing, books,a camera and other camping equipment on the floor Last minute packing for the field trip.
Image: Blair Patullo
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Day 1 – 12.23pm. On route, traditional field trip greasy burger for lunch. Delish.

Day 1 – 4.14pm. Arrive at camping site, first wildlife sighted. A skink. I’m not a herpetologist so cannot tell the species.

Day 1 – 10.03pm. Mayhem in the mess hall. First collection has brought back scorpions. Look at the photo below to see how many scientists it takes to be amazed by a scorpion as it fluoresces under UV light! Similar scorpions live in backyards around Melbourne, occassionally entering houses. Usually the smaller scorpion species have more powerful stings because the larger species can overpower prey with their larger claws. The museum’s Live Exhibits catcher, Colin, said: “I haven’t been stung by this species, but a smaller one did get me once and that was a bit painful.”

Group of people gathered around a man holding a scorpion How many scientists does it take to watch a glowing scorpion?
Image: Blair Patullo
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Glowing scorpion being held in a hand This species glows under UV light from a torch. Why this happens is still a mystery.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Day 2 – 8.30am. Another safety briefing closely followed by research teams departing and dispersing to areas across the park. Mammal specialists are checking trap lines, bird observers are out with sound recording equipment, and a group is surveying snails.

Day 2 – 2.52pm. The divers get wet in a remote part of the MacKenzie River in the north-west of the park. Our Parks Victoria guide Ryan Duffy stops our vehicles by the roadside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere with no water in sight. We walk for about 100 metres into the forest, dodging the understory of bracken, wattle, and eucalypts still with trunks partly singed black from the 2006 fire. We arrive at a narrow section of the river and Ryan tells us that three platypus have been reported from here. There were no platypus today but the diving was amazing – freshwater sponges, crayfish, native fish and several species of nymphs and larvae were recorded.

Fish lying in the sand One of the locals: a freshwater gudgeon.
Image: Mark Norman
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Brown nymph on sand This little alien is a nymph that will grow into a dragonfly.
Image: Mark Norman
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Day 2 – 10.07pm. It's well dark now, but the second day isn't over. We're preparing for 30 degree temperatures tomorrow and the frog team just left to see who's calling-out tonight.

Closing thoughts for the day: this is definitely a place to check shoes for creepy crawlies in the morning before putting them on, and forget checking for redbacks under the toilet seat because the massive bull ants will bite before them.

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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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