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.

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
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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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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.

Venom and phobias at SmartBar

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
23 July 2012
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Comments (0)

SmartBar is returning to Melbourne Museum by popular demand! On 26 July from 6pm, the second adults-only SmartBar will focus on Mind and The Human Body. The Science and Life exhibitions will be open after dark with talks, displays, activities and music to boot.

The Live Exhibits crew were very popular at the first SmartBar and they are back again with a look at creatures that bite and sting, how venom interacts with the body, and how our minds can turn healthy wariness of venomous animals into debilitating phobias.

Australia is notorious for its venomous wildlife. Even our cute furry Platypus carries a poisoned spur that causes excruciating pain for any unfortunate human on its receiving end. But did you know that venom can have positive effects on humans too? The field of bioprospecting is uncovering new compounds from the venom of snakes, scorpions, centipedes and spiders that may help to treat cancer and many other diseases.

glowing scorpion Scorpions glow when viewed under ultraviolet light due to fluorescent chemicals in the cuticle. The bulb at the end of the tail can inflict a nasty sting.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Arachnophobia – the fear of spiders – is the most common phobia in western society. You might think it's simple evolutionary common sense to fear something that can harm you. However, the lives of the truly arachnophobic are governed entirely by their relationship with spiders, leading some to risk their lives by jumping from moving cars and out of upper storey windows. For others, every daily decision, from the car they drive to where they live, is based on avoiding eight-legged critters.

Huntsman spider on screen door Huntsman spider on your screen door - a welcome friend or nightmarish visitor?
Image: PG Palmer
Source: Image courtesy of PG Palmer, as licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic.
 

MV's manager of Live Exhibits, Patrick Honan, likes spiders – especially the big black hairy ones. He has helped people face their arachnophobia through cognitive behaviour therapy, followed by a controlled process of desensitisation called exposure therapy. He'll be speaking at SmartBar about the root cause of our fear of spiders, and whether it's justified. Whether you're fond or fearful of spiders, Patrick's stories are not to be missed.

SmartBar's Brain, Mind, Eyes, Drinks and DJ event is on for one night only on 26 July 2012. For more information or to buy tickets online, head over to the SmartBar What's On listing.

Links:

MV Blog: First SmartBar round-up

Bug of the month - Steel Blue Sawfly

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
1 July 2012
Comments
Comments (12)

If you're out in the bush or a local park during winter, you're likely to happen across a group of 'spitfires' clinging to the branch of a gum tree in the cold. These insects are technically called sawflies, a group of insects closely related to wasps. There are more than 200 species of sawfly in Australia, but the local species is the Steel Blue Sawfly (Perga dorsalis).

sawfly larvae A small clutch of sawfly larvae clinging to a branch.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The name 'sawfly' derives from a 'sawbench' under the abdomen of the female with which she lays eggs. Female wasps, in contrast, use a pointed ovipositor to lay eggs and in some species this doubles as a sting – adult sawflies do not sting and both adults and larvae are completely harmless.

Patrick Honan Female Steel Blue Sawfly.
Image: Female Steel Blue Sawfly
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Female sawflies use the sawbench to cut the upper surface of a leaf and deposit 60-70 eggs into the leaf tissue. The larvae hatch and feed on gum leaves, grouping together for protection in a rosette pattern, similar to the head-outwards stance adopted by Bison when under attack. This is known as a 'ring defence', or cycloalexy. As the larvae grow, they collect in larger groups around branches during the day and spread out to feed at night.

sawfly eggs A raft of eggs cut into a gum leaf by a female Steel Blue Sawfly.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Like their cousins, the ants, bees and wasps, sawflies show some social behaviour but only in a primitive way. When feeding at night, larvae tap the branch to keep in constant communication with each other. If an individual becomes lost, it will tap more rapidly until it receives an answer from the rest of the group – if an individual becomes completely separated it will not survive long on its own.

Detail of sawfly larva abdomen. Sawflies grouped together on a branch. The pale tips of the abdomen are tapped on the branch to keep in touch.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The activities of a group of sawfly larvae are governed by a few select individuals that become in effect the leaders of the group. They lead the rest out to feed at night and, if they run out of food, lead the group across the ground to other trees. When large numbers of sawfly larvae are present they are able to defoliate small gum trees, but in general are not a major pest.

mass of sawfly larvae A mass of sawflies resting during the day, the result of the merging of several smaller groups.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

When ready to pupate, the larvae leave the host tree and burrow down to make mass cocoons in the soil. Here they sit through spring and summer to emerge in early autumn. Adults have no mouthparts and do not feed, living only for a week or so.

pupating sawfly larvae Sawfly larvae in their pupal cells underground, preparing to pupate.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Not all emerge, however, as many succumb to parasitic flies. These flies, about the size of a blowfly, will lay eggs in the sawfly larvae and the fly maggot literally eats its host from the inside out, eventually emerging from the sawfly's cocoon.

parasitised sawfly larva An opened pupal cell showing the consumed sawfly larva on the left, and the engorged parasitic fly larva on the right.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Sawfly larvae have an unusual defensive mechanism that has given them the name 'spitfires'. They store eucalyptus oil in a small sac in their gut, and regurgitate this oil when under threat. Despite their nickname, they are unable to actually spit this fluid and the oil itself is harmless unless eaten (like all eucalyptus oil). In fact it has a very pleasant eucalytpusy smell.

sawfly larva mouthparts A large blob of frothy regurgitate in the mouthparts of a sawfly larva.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Australia is one of the main strongholds of Symphyta, the suborder of insects to which sawflies belong. The Steel Blue Sawfly is one of the few insect species active in Victoria during winter, so next time you're in the bush take the time to stop and smell the sawflies.

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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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