Research

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Research

Museum staff, researchers, students and community members use the state collections to conduct research - from life at the bottom of the ocean to the history of our state and its people.

Eastern Pygmy Possum

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
15 August 2014
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Phoebe is a University of Melbourne Masters student supervised by Dr. Kevin Rowe at MV. She is passionate about the unique mammal fauna of Australia.

Early one morning, while up in the Grampians searching for Smoky Mice (Pseudomys fumeus), I peeked inside an Elliot trap and was greeted by a delicate little face, huge ears, big bright eyes and fat, gently curled tail. Expecting to see the pointy face and straight, slender tail of an Agile Antechinus (Antechinus agilis), I hastily shut the trap, took a second to process the surprise and then beamed at my bemused volunteer. Another tentative peek in the trap confirmed it; I had trapped my first Eastern Pygmy Possum (EPP; Cercartetus nanus).

Eastern Pygmy Possum Eastern Pygmy Possum
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The EPP weighs in at a miniscule 15-38g1, yet still looks truly possum-like. It is one of seven possum species you could fit in your pocket, but is far from the smallest. The Little Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus lepidus) weighs only 6-10g and a full-grown Honey Possum (Tarsipes rostratus) can weigh as little as 5g1.

Like several other possum species, EPPs can obtain all required nutrients, including protein, from nectar and pollen alone.2 However they also eat insects, seeds and fruit, providing flexibility when few plants are flowering. Like the Fat-tailed Dunnart, the EPP stores fat at the base of its tail as a reserve for when food is scarce, and can go into torpor when keeping active is energetically too expensive.

Eastern Pygmy Possum Eastern Pygmy Possum
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As another of Australia’s amazing marsupial species, the female EPP gives birth to tiny eyeless, earless babies that suckle in her pouch for 30 days. Once the juveniles are too big for the pouch, they nest with their mother for another 30-35 days then head off alone.3 EPPs don’t build their own nests; they use whatever is available and change nest sites frequently. Researchers have found EPPs nesting in tree hollows, abandoned birds nests, burrows and natural collections of leaves and twigs in tree forks.3

Phoebe Burns with an adult female eastern pygmy possum Phoebe Burns with an adult female eastern pygmy possum (Cercartetus nanus) in the Grampians National Park.
Image: Kara Joshi
Source: Museum Victoria
 

 

Eastern Pygmy Possums are patchily distributed from the southeast corner of Queensland to the southeast tip of South Australia, Flinders and King Islands and throughout Tasmania. They are listed as near threatened in Victoria; at risk from predation by foxes and cats, competition with feral honeybees and increasing fire frequency.4 I consider myself so lucky to have encountered such a charming species and hope there are many more (pleasant) surprises in my traps for years to come.

References

1.         Menkhorst, P. & Knight, F. Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. (Oxford University Press, 2011).

2.         Van Tets, I. G. & Hulbert, A. J. A Comparison of the Nitrogen Requirements of the Eastern Pygmy Possum, Cercartetus nanus, on a Pollen and on a Mealworm Diet. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 72, 127–137 (1999).

3.         Ward, S. Life-History of the Eastern Pygmy-Possum, Cercartetus nanus (Burramyidae, Marsupialia), in South-Eastern Australia. Australian Journal of Zoology 38, 287 (1990).

4.         Harris, J. M. & Goldingay, R. L. Distribution, habitat and conservation status of the eastern pygmy-possum Cercartetus nanus in Victoria. Australian Mammalogy 27, 185–210 (2005).

Working at the museum is dead interesting

Author
by Meg
Publish date
21 July 2014
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We just took receipt of a beautiful Crested Pigeon, in excellent physical condition except for the fact that it was dead. But it will make a useful contribution to the museum’s body of research material. With the locality data carefully recorded, said pigeon was duly deposited in its new (temporary) home – our freezer – to await its final afterlife journey to the collection store.

Crested pigeon specimen. Crested pigeon specimen.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Temporary resting place - the Discovery Centre freezer. Temporary resting place - the Discovery Centre freezer.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As I closed the freezer door on our latest acquisition, I found myself feeling grateful, as an inhabitant of the twenty-first century, for the electricity we have to power our freezer in which we deposit our dead things, which we collect for exhibition and research purposes. In contemplating this luxury, I was reminded of a fun fact I learned during a meal at an old country pub while on holiday in Tasmania a couple of years ago – in colonial Australia, not only was there no electricity, but there was also no such thing as a town morgue, and so the remains of the recently departed were best stored in the coolest place in town, the local “house of public accommodation” – the pub. Yep, the bodies were in with the beer; the stiffs with the stout; the late with the lager; the passed with the pilsner, if you will. Encouraged by my interest, the enthusiastic new owner led me to the front room of the nineteenth century pub to be shown the very place where the bodies would have been laid out. I asked the new landlady if she was bothered at all by the history of her new business venture – she laughed and replied “not at all.” I asked her what she did before becoming a publican – she answered “I was a funeral director.” True story.  

Meanwhile, over the course of my internet wanderings on the topic of hotels-as-morgues, I came across a great little newspaper article about the dual function of Melbourne pubs, but then found myself back in Tassie when I unexpectedly tripped over this little nugget:

“The morgue motel: Plans to turn a ‘home’ of the dead into accommodation for the living”

Apparently, a local Tasmanian motel owner is currently in the process of converting the mortuary of the decommissioned Willow Court psychiatric hospital in the town of New Norfolk into somewhere for folk to sleep, although, unlike the original occupants, it is hoped that these guests wake up again.

Which brings me back to the Museum Victorian collections, for just yesterday I was photographing some mortician’s tools that were acquired from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum in Victoria. While the outbuildings of early Victorian asylums routinely included a morgue for the storage of the bodies of patients who had died within the asylum walls, it wasn’t until the proclamation of the Lunacy Act 1903 in Victoria that provision was made for the employment of a full-time pathologist to the Lunacy Department. The pathologist was tasked with conducting autopsies and undertaking pathological examinations to attempt to associate post-mortem lesions in the brain with ante-mortem symptoms. The development of this new clinical-pathological approach to psychiatric research was one of the outcomes of the increasing secularisation of medicine (and studies of the natural world more broadly), that emerged following the dissemination of the Darwinian theory of evolution towards the end of the nineteenth century.

A selection of objects from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum. A selection of objects from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum). Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum).
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum). Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum).
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Like Willow Court in Tasmania, many of the pathology blocks associated with former Victorian psychiatric hospitals remain, although as yet none of them are offering bed and breakfast. One does, however, offer a fully-funded kinder program. Again, true story.

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.

Catalogue of cephalopods completed

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
4 June 2014
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Everyone loves a happy ending. And everyone loves octopuses. The recent completion of the third and final volume in the revised FAO Catalogue of Cephalopods of the World nails it on both fronts. 

Cephalopods of the World Volume 3 Cover of the new FAO Cephalopods of the World Volume 3.
Image: Emanuela D’Antoni
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
 

This is a brilliant – and free – resource designed to assist people working in fisheries to identify the cephalopods that we humans are most aware of, namely the ones we've identified, that we eat, or can cause us harm. Volume 3: Octopods and Vampire Squids was co-authored by MV's Dr Mark Norman and Dr Julian Finn. They are also are two of the four series editors.

'Octopus’ berrima Spot the 'Octopus’ berrima in the sandy substrate! (The inverted commas signify that this species is provisionally placed in the genus Octopus.)
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Years of work and drawing from cephalopod researchers worldwide sees FAO Catalogue of Cephalopods of the World summarising descriptions of species for practical use by non-specialists. "We've distilled it down to diagnostic characters that will allow people on research or fishing vessels to identify species," says Julian. "It's a review of all the taxonomic work that's out there, for people who don't have immediate access to the literature." The species descriptions focus on traits that are easily measured, which is no mean feat for animals famous for changing their shape and form at will. Says Julian, "everything is based on characters that survive preservation and are consistent across members of a species, such as numbers of suckers, presence or absence of structures, and relative lengths of body components."

Julian and Mark also note that this project would not have been possible without significant financial and moral support from the Australian Biological Resources Study and the Hermon Slade Foundation. This allowed them to do the work on octopus taxonomy that was required for this new edition of the Catalogue. 

Argonauta argo The beautiful female Argonaut, or Argonauta argo.
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So, if you have an interest in, as Ze Frank calls them, 'the floppy floppy spiders of the sea', head to FAO and download a free copy of FAO Catalogue of Cephalopods of the World Volume 3 (PDF, 25.77Mb). And in case you need a reminder about why you love octopuses, here's a video showing how they can open jars from the inside (while we humans sometimes struggle to open them from the outside).

 

Small(er) is beautiful

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 May 2014
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When we think of Ice Age land animals, we often add the word ‘giants’; certainly many of the mammals of the Pleistocene were very large  – including many here in Australia. In a previous post, we’ve defined megafauna, and looked at a few Australian examples from the Quaternary. There is a different way of looking at this, though – rather than thinking of the Ice Age megafauna as ‘ancient giants’, it is equally valid to study modern-day animals from the perspective of them being dwarf or pygmy forms of their Ice Age relatives.

The phenomenon of dwarfism in post- Ice Age mammals changes the question from “why were they so big back then?” to “why are they so small now?”

Before we go any further, we should keep in mind that not everything was giant-sized in the Pleistocene; there were many ‘normal’ sized animals (by today’s standards) living happily alongside the big guys – it was just that the big ones were really big. It’s also important to remember that many of the ‘pygmy’ forms lived alongside their ‘giant’ relatives, rather than replaced them – there’s no such thing as a succession plan in evolution.

Having said this, here are a few examples of ‘dwarf megafauna’ alive today that had gigantic skeletons in their closets.

An example of ‘miniature giant’ is the modern day Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus; certainly large for an Australian land mammal, but 40-something thousand years ago it was overshadowed by its immense relative Macropus titan by 30%.

  skull of Macropus titan Skull of the Giant Grey Kangaroo Macropus titan. The ‘giant’ part is correct, but the ‘grey’ part is speculative; the colour of the Giant ‘roo is unknown…
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Similarly, the largest living Goanna, the Perentie Varanus giganteus, impresses with its size….but is smallfry against the immense extinct evolutionary ‘cousin’ Varanus “Megalania” priscus, – estimated at over twice (some have said thrice) the size.  

­­This also holds true on the Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus laniarus, which had an over-sized, mainland-resident relative at least 15% larger than its living subspecies. All of these animals are at least in the same genus as their megafaunal relatives, in some cases they are subspecies of their modern-day pygmy forms.

Tasmanian devil skull Skull of the Giant Mainland (rather than Tasmanian) Devil Sarcophilus laniarus
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So, whilst it is true to say that in broad terms, there was an extinction event about 45, 000 years ago that led to the ‘end of the Megafauna’, this event was complex - there were other patterns at play that saw downsizing as a successful survival strategy.

Obviously many Australian megafauna taxa became entirely extinct as well, inconveniently leaving no close descendants or relatives, but their story is for yet another blog…

Taking nature to the nation

Author
by Nicole K
Publish date
1 May 2014
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In 2011 Museum Victoria produced our first Field Guide app: the MV Field Guide to Victorian Fauna.

The app has since been downloaded by over 85,000 people and gets great reviews. But there has been a repeated request – a request from people who don't live in Victoria.

Where are the apps for the other Australian states and territories?

This wasn't something we could address on our own. To make apps for the other states and territories, we needed the shared expertise of natural history museums around the country.

In 2012, Museum Victoria was successful in applying for an Inspiring Australia Unlocking Australia's Potential Grant to produce seven new Field Guide apps in collaboration with:

  • Australian Museum
  • Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
  • Queensland Museum
  • South Australian Museum
  • Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
  • Western Australian Museum


For the past two years, scientists around Australia have been writing species descriptions, sourcing images and we have been tweaking the code. We have also worked with colleagues from the Atlas of Living Australia to source taxonomic names, conservation status and recorded observations of each species.

We are very excited to announce that the products of this nation-wide collaborative project are now available.

Field Guide to ACT Fauna app (iPhone & iPad) Field Guide to ACT Fauna app (iPhone & iPad)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

There are now eight apps – Field Guides to the Fauna of New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and the ACT – as well as a new version of the original Field Guide to Victorian Fauna.

Collectively the apps contain 2105 species, 7281 images and 270 audio files.

They are available for both Apple and Android devices. And are all absolutely FREE.

We hope you enjoy them!

Links to the App Store and Google Play can be found via our National Field Guide Apps webpage.

Field Guide to Victorian Fauna (Android) Field Guide to Victorian Fauna (Android)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

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