Melbourne Museum


Melbourne Museum

Melbourne Museum explores life in Victoria, from our natural environment to our culture and history. Located in Carlton Gardens, the building houses a permanent collection in eight galleries, including one just for children.

Hawks vs. Eagles: who will win … according to SCIENCE?!

You’ve all heard of the big match taking place this weekend between the Hawthorn Hawks and the West Coast Eagles. The speculation is rampant – who is going to take home the Cup in 2015? 

Hawks vs. Eagles Hawks vs. Eagles...who will win?

At Museum Victoria we can’t tell the future but we do know our native animals. So we began to wonder – who would win if the match ascended from the grassy green of the MCG and took place between their mascots in the sky?

Firstly, because we’re scientists we need to establish the facts.

What species are we talking about?

There are three species of eagle in Australia – the Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and the Little Eagle (Aquila morphnoides). The first two are the largest raptors (birds of prey) in Australia. They all belong to the Accipitridae family, along with the other fifteen bird of prey species, except for owls, falcons and kestrels.

Within the same Accipitridae family Australia also has buzzards, kites, goshawks, sparrowhawks, osprey, bazas and harriers, but no species that actually goes by the common name ‘Hawk’. The colloquial term hawk can refer to many of these birds but is often also used to refer to birds outside this group.

We’re working with some loose definitions here (not ideal for scientists, as I’m sure you can imagine) but let’s presume that the goshawks and sparrowhawks are what qualifies as Australian hawks.

Thus our Grand Final showdown is set to take place between the largest eagle – the Wedge-tailed Eagle and the largest hawk – the Red Goshawk.

Big game strategy:
Eagles will spend hours circling at a distance before moving in for the kill. Hawks tend to hunt from concealed hiding places, attacking by stealth and finishing with a high speed chase.

Size and speed:
In this particularly case our Eagle is about five times the size of our Hawk. Eagles are also marathon flyers and can keep going for hours. Hawks are fast over short distances but will tire easily.

Hawks are very intelligent birds, second only to the Adelaide Crows. This has been established by Dr Louis Lefebvre of McGill University in Canada who developed the world’s only comprehensive avian IQ index. Eagles are also very intelligent…but not as intelligent as a Hawk.

Unlike umpires, Hawks also have excellent eyesight. They have five times as many photoreceptors as humans and ten times better eyesight, partly due to an indented fovea that magnifies their centre of vision. This superior intelligence and eyesight means that they are favoured over eagles by falconers. Eagles also have excellent eyesight, and are known to soar 2km above the ground searching for carrion or prey. But…their eyesight is not as good a Hawks.

Flexibility and adaptability:
Eagles are very large and their weight and power works against their flexibility in close quarters. But with a good run-up they are almost unstoppable. Hawks are more readily able to change strategy to reflect changing circumstances, to start and stop quickly, and to win against their opponents in tight struggles.

Game tactics:
Eagles consume a large part of their diet as carrion, which doesn’t require much intelligence. They also feed on large animals such as North Melbourne Kangaroos, which they overcome through brute force … and dubious umpiring decisions. Hawks feed mostly on birds, especially parrots, which are smart in their own right and require more intelligence to overcome.

So who’s going to win? We’ll have to wait and see, but rest assured that feathers will fly!

Two fathers from WW1

by Shane Salmon
Publish date
3 September 2015
Comments (0)

Shane works on touring exhibitions at Museum Victoria.

The impact of World War One took a particularly tragic toll on families, as great numbers of fathers and sons failed to return home from the front line. The worry and grief of fathers and mothers knew no boundaries, whether in Australia, England, Germany, or elsewhere. 

Melbourne Museum is currently hosting two exhibitions on the subject of the First World War. Both contain powerful stories about those who served in the war, and the impact their loss had on families. With Fathers’ Day approaching this weekend, we reflect on two fathers who fought in the war, and tip our hat to all absent fathers this Sunday.

'My three kids'

Robert Stewart Smylie, a 42-year old father of three, died on the Somme with a photograph of his wife and three children in his shrapnel-damaged wallet.

Roberts Stewart Smylie's wallet. Family photos in Roberts Smylie's wallet.
Source: Imperial War Museums

Smylie was a school headmaster who had taught English, Latin and Mathematics for 20 years. Despite his age and responsibilities, on the outbreak of war he joined the army and eventually travelled with the 1st Battalion in Flanders.

While stationed in Flanders, he wrote a long poem about his experiences to his three children, ending with the hope that they would all soon be together again. A full transcript of the poem appears at the end of this post.

Poem in notebook Smylie's poem for his children.
Source: Imperial War Museums

Smylie's sketchbook appears in The WW1 Centenary Exhibition

A scrapbook of grief

Frank Roberts was recently married when he arrived at the Belgian battlefields in 1917. His first daughter Nancy was born soon after. He kept in close correspondence with his family, including his father Garry, until his death in a fierce battle at Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918.

The loss of his son Frank cast a shadow over the rest of Garry Roberts’s life. He spent countless hours contacting soldiers who served with Frank, meeting them, trying to piece together what had happened.

From his massive collection of articles, photographs, letters and other memorabilia, Garry compiled 27 huge scrapbooks documenting Frank’s life and the world in which he had lived. The scrapbooks are among the most poignant expressions of grief ever made.

big scrapbook of photos One of three Roberts’ Scrapbooks on display at in the WWI: Love & Sorrow exhibition at Melbourne Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria


You can see the scrapbook and other traces of Frank Roberts in WWI: Love and Sorrow.


Transcript of poem written by Robert Smylie, 19 November 1915

I am writing this tonight, My three kids
By a little candle-light, My three kids
And the candlestick’s a tin
With some dry tobacco in
And so that’s how I begin, To my kids

Now I wonder what you’re at, My three kids
Moll and Bids and little Pat, My three kids
Why of course there’s two asleep
But perhaps Moll’s thinking deep
Watching little stars that peep, At my kids

Since I left you long ago, My three kids
There’s a lot you’d like to know, My three kids
That has happened to your dad
In the varied luck he’s had
In adventures good and bad, My three kids

I have soldiered in a trench, My three kids
Serving under Marshall French, My three kids
Once a shell dropped with a thud
Quite close, covered me with mud
And it’s lucky ‘twas a dud, For my kids

And I’ve crossed the ground outside, My three kids
It’s at night that’s chiefly tried, My three kids
And the bullets sang all round
Overhead, or struck the ground
But your daddy none has found, No my kids

I have mapped our trenches new, My three kids
And some German trenches too, My three kids
I have sprinted past a wood
Counting steps, for so I could
Judge the distance as I should, My three kids

I have placed our snipers where, My three kids
On the Germans they could stare, My three kids
And they killed their share of men
Quite a lot for snipers ten
From their little hidden den, My three kids

And I’ve slept in bed quite warm, My three kids
But I haven’t taken harm, My three kids
When upon the ground I lay
Without even straw or hay
In the same clothes night and day, My three kids

When they sent us back to rest, My three kids
Then they seemed to think it best, My three kids
To send your dad ahead
To discover where a bed
Could be found, or some old shed, My three kids

And new officers were trained, My three kids
And the men we’ve lately gained, My three kids
And while that work was in hand
I was second in command
Of B Coy and that was grand, My three kids

But it didn’t last all through, My three kids
There was other work to do, My three kids
When they made me adjutant
I was busy as an ant
And it’s not much catch I grant, To my kids

I have ridden on a horse, My three kids
Captured from a German force, My three kids
And I’ve marched and crawled and run
Night and day in rain and sun
And shall do it till we’ve won, For my kids

And I’d rather be with you, My three kids
Let you know I’m lucky too, My three kids
Lots of men I used to know
Now are killed or wounded, though
I remain, and back I’ll go, To my kids

And I hope you’ll all keep well, My three kids
Just as sound as any bell, My three kids
And when this long war is done
We shall have some glorious fun
Moll and Bids and little son, My three kids.

Welcome to the family, Pluto

by Tanya Hill
Publish date
16 July 2015
Comments (3)
image of planets Welcome to the family. Ben Gross/twitter, CC BY-SA

What an amazing time for space exploration. The picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and distributed via twitter.

I love this image because it shows each world in close-up, using some of the latest pictures from space exploration. As we celebrate seeing Pluto for the first time, it’s remarkable to think that this completes a 50 year task.

It has been NASA that has provided the first close-up views of all these worlds. Here’s the rundown:

  • Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
  • Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
  • Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
  • Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
  • Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989) and
  • Pluto: New Horizons (2015)

But science never stays still. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, Pluto was a planet. Later that year an important reassessment was made of the Solar System and Pluto became the first of the dwarf planets.

The ‘Not-Planets’

The Planetary Society’s Senior Editor, Emily Lakdawalla, has teamed together the ‘Not-Planets’. These are the close-up views, shown to scale, that have been captured of the largest moons, asteroids and dwarf planets.

image of non-planets in the solar system Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

It clearly shows that there are many diverse and interesting worlds to explore beyond the eight planets of our solar system.

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to start exploring the Kuiper Belt, an icy realm of objects orbiting 5 billion kilometres or more beyond the sun. It’s the chance to observe a dwarf planet, something distinct from the terrestrial planets and the gas giants.

It was in 1992 that astronomers discovered Pluto was not alone. The first Kuiper Belt Object, designated 1992 QB1, is a 100-kilometre sized object that orbits well beyond Pluto.

Now more than 1,000 objects have been detected in this realm, and the belt likely contains many more. Most are small compared to Pluto, but there are some stand-outs such as Quaoar, and the dwarf planets Eris, Makemake and Haumea.

Don’t forget to phone home

The suspense of the mission has certainly been high. To maximise the amount of data that New Horizons could collect, the spacecraft did not communicate with Earth for the duration of the flyby. As described by Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, it was the moment when you let your child free.

The team had prepared New Horizons, told it what work needed to be done and in that radio silence they had to trust that all would go to plan.

Just before 11am today (AEST), New Horizons checked in – showing it to be the perfect child to the relief of its many anxious “parents”. It was only a brief phone home, but in that short time the scientists confirmed that all telemetry was spot-on, the spacecraft followed the path that had been set for it and there were no error messages recorded on any of the systems.

No data was transferred in that brief connection, but it was established that the main computer system, which records all the data collected by the spacecraft, showed the expected number of segments had been used. In other words, data had been collected.

We will soon see Pluto and Charon in even higher resolution. Their geology will be mapped, the surface compositions and temperatures will be measured, atmospheres will be probed and new discoveries will be made.

A love note from Pluto

It’s also been wonderful to see the public become so enthralled with the latest image from Pluto. Humans are incredibly good at spotting patterns and it seems that Pluto wears his heart on his sleeve for us.


I’m also equally intrigued to discover that the smooth part of Pluto’s heart is made of carbon monoxide ice. This was already known from ground-based observations, except never before seen in such detail. It’s reassuring to have a good match between the old and new data.

But look again … is it a heart or something entirely different stealing the show?



Tanya Hill is Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy) at Museum Victoria.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The mighty mite, part II

by Patrick
Publish date
15 June 2015
Comments (2)

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.


The mighty mite part I

The mighty mite part I

by Patrick
Publish date
10 June 2015
Comments (4)

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. 

The Honourable Joan Kirner

Dr Greene is the CEO of Museum Victoria.

Museum Victoria mourns Joan Kirner, the former Premier of Victoria, who served as a member of the museum's governing body from 2003 to 2012.

Joan Kirner speaking at the Joan Kirner speaking at the celebration of the 21st birthday of Scienceworks.
Source: Museum Victoria

Joan's first involvement with the museum occurred during her time as Premier of Victoria when she opened Scienceworks, an investment in the scientific life of the State that proved very forward-thinking.

Joan was an enthusiastic supporter of Museum Victoria. Just last week she was talking about ways in which she might help with one of the museum's current projects that is providing visibility to the role of women on farms in Australia. Her enthusiasm for efforts to recognise and encourage women in all aspects of public and personal life extended to many other aspects of social justice, including the rights of Aboriginal Australians. She was a member of the museum's Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee, and the development of the First Peoples exhibition in Bunjilaka was dear to her heart.

Joan's passions extended to wildlife, and particularly birds. She and Ron, her husband, went on camping trips that would bring them to places rich in birdlife until ill-health curtailed that activity. She was a great advocate for opportunities for the museum to display its rich collections of natural science specimens, culminating in the opening of the award-winning Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world at Melbourne Museum. As someone who placed the education of young people high on any agenda, the museum's ability to reach and inspire hundreds of thousands of children was a source of considerable pleasure. Joan was also on the Immigration Museum Advisory Committee and was a strong advocate for youth engagement which resulted in the Talking Difference project.

I enjoyed working with Joan Kirner enormously during her nine years (the maximum term) as a Board member. Her enthusiasm was matched by her keen intellect: she was a constant source of wisdom. When she stepped down from the Board, Joan was appointed an Honorary Life Fellow of Museum Victoria and she continued to take a close interest in its progress. Her insights into the politics and personalities of Victoria were always valuable and frequently amusing. She was held in high regard by everyone associated with Museum Victoria and we will miss her greatly.

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.