Research

DISPLAYING POSTS FILED UNDER: Research (132)

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.

Spawning sea anenomes

Author
by Michela Mitchell
Publish date
5 November 2014
Comments
Comments (1)

Michela is the first resident taxonomist of Actiniaria (sea anemones) in Australia. This title doesn't come with a ceremonial sash, but it should.

The Field Naturalists Marine Research Group members Joan Hales and Janet Davies sent me this gorgeous photo of the Victorian sea anemone, Oulactis sp., spawning last week.

Spawing sea anemone Female Oulactis sp. spawning with tiny pink eggs on the oral disc.
Image: Joan Hales
Source: Joan Hales
 

Sea anemones are closely related to corals and so, like corals, they spawn under the right conditions and environmental cues, usually in spring and summer. This can be associated with cycles of the moon. This particular anemone reproduces by broadcast spawning; females and males release eggs and sperm into the water column, where the tides and currents brings spermatoza into contact with the eggs for fertilisation.

This method is not for all species of anemones, however. Some have cunningly evolved various methods of reproduction (sexual and asexual) so they can stick around as long as they need to. Some species can even change the way they reproduce: they can clone themselves, they can split in half (fission), or leave a small fragment of their pedal disc (laceration) behind and a whole new anemone can grow. They can even be male and female together (hermaphroditic). They leave nothing to chance ensuring their survival on Earth – so far 600 million years and counting!

Beetle back from the dead

Author
by Ken Walker
Publish date
15 October 2014
Comments
Comments (2)

Ken is our Senior Curator of Entomology.

On Monday last week, live images of an attractive Australian lady beetle popped up on the BowerBird citizen science website photographed west of Portland, Victoria. The photographer recorded seeing more than 50 beetle specimens in a small swampy area.

beetle Micraspis flavovittata ladybird beetle photographed in October 2014.
Image: Reiner Richter
Source: CC BY 3.0 AU
 

There is a wonderful CSIRO lady beetle website with a gallery of images for all known extant Australian species, however we were unable to match the photo to any in this gallery. So we sent the BowerBird images to the Canberra scientist who created the website. His initial reaction was to doubt the veracity of the locality data as he claimed this was not an Australian species. I reconfirmed the Australian locality with the photographer so we began to wonder if this was an invasive species.

The images were then forwarded to the world lady beetle expert at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. We received news on Friday night from Roger at the NHM that this is a species "back from the dead". A species not seen or recorded for more than a 50 year period is considered to be extinct. There are only 4 known specimens of this species in collections (2 at the NHM and 2 at Museum Victoria) - the last specimen was collected in 1940!

Micraspis flavovittata Micraspis flavovittata beetle
Image: Reiner Richter
Source: CC BY 3.0 AU
 

This is indeed an Australian species, Micraspis flavovittata (Crotch, 1874). I remember we once had an exhibition at the museum called Extinction is forever…. and so it is, until someone finds it again! The only known localities of this species were Narbethong and Kallista so the Portland location is well west of these previous records.

Many people contend that the best citizen science projects are those in collaboration with professional scientists. Personally, I love the serendipity of citizen science discovery alone.

Links:

BowerBird

Fin win was no whale fail

Author
by Colin
Publish date
3 October 2014
Comments
Comments (0)

You may call me crazy for putting my hand up again for the chance to end up knee-deep in a decomposing whale. This time, the whale that washed up on Levy’s Beach near Warrnambool in Western Victoria was a Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Fin Whales are the second largest species of whale and can reach up to about 25m long and weigh more than 50 tons! They feed mostly on krill and can consume between one and two tonnes per day during the summer months when ocean productivity is high.

Fin Whale washed up a beach The Fin Whale washed up on the beach.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Upon hearing of the news of the wash up, Museum Victoria put together a team to retrieve it, along with the Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation (AMMCF) and Melbourne Zoo. The Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), Parks Victoria and the Cultural Heritage Officer were of great assistance in organising planning, logistics, contractors, public engagement and working near the significant cultural heritage sites in the area.

Bentley Bird on the beach MV's Assistant Vertebrate Collections Manager Bentley Bird ‘gloves up’ ready for tissue sampling.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Kate Charlton-Robb with the Fin Whale Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation’s founding director Kate Charlton-Robb collects a tissue sample for future research.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Whale on beach A wave crashes over the whale’s starboard side. Strong wave action like this posed a significant risk and required the delicate skills of two excavators to move it higher up the beach.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Measuring a whale We took morphometric measurements prior to dissection which will add to what we currently know about the biology of the species.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Sarah Frith with dead whale Melbourne Zoo veterinarian Sarah Frith takes a stab at removing the eye.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Excavator working with whale on beach Tools of the trade: The excavator was invaluable when it came to removing the blubber layer and heavy lifting
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Tools used to dissect whale More tools of the trade: hooks, knives and flensing tools are essential for the removal of blubber (flensing) and flesh from the skeleton.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Brendan Taylor working on the whale Preparator Brendan Taylor gets to work removing flesh and blubber.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Burying whale bones By day two the carcass no longer resembled a whale. The bones were taken to a private location and buried to allow for bacteria and other flesh eating organisms to clean the skeleton. The cleaned bones will be retrieved in 12-18 months and added to the museum’s collection.
Image: Rob Zugaro
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The support provided by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), Parks Victoria, the local Indigenous representatives and the enthusiastic farmer who allowed for the storage of bones on his property, was second to none. Without their resources and assistance, the recovery could have not taken place.

Links:

Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation

Cryptozoology – imagination, science or folklore?

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 September 2014
Comments
Comments (3)

Where I grew up as a child, in Victoria's Wimmera-Mallee, there were persistent tales of strange animal sightings that fell outside the realm of science. Stories of Pumas, Cougars (which are actually the same thing) or other "Big Cats" living in the Grampians, for example, often seeped into school ground conversations. As a proto-scientist at this stage of my life (reared on Attenborough, How-and-Why books and old issues of National Geographic) I had developed a degree of scepticism to such stories – I knew to keep my 'bulldust detector' switched on but also kept my mouth shut - after all, everybody loves a good campfire story.

Jaguar A Jaguar Panthera onca. Just one of the numerous species of big cats probably not found in the Grampians.
Image: Benamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 
My teenaged mind would sometimes wander - so what if, just supposing for a moment, there really were large felines prowling the forests near Wartook in the Grampians, just an hours drive away? On nearly every occasion, the story-teller swore that their tale was true – to cast doubt on the validity was regarded as an insult to the story-teller's family, as inevitably they were retelling something a family member had seen. Hence, keeping the mouth shut was a wise option– it was a small town, after all.

In later years, I had need to move a little over a hundred kilometres to the west and found that a similar local story existed near Mt Arapiles – the stalking ground of the infamous "Ozenkadnook Tiger". By this stage of my life, my bulldust detector was more finely calibrated, and it pinged incessantly in my head when I heard stories on this animal – but was it really a myth? Everyone who spoke of it swore it was true....but empirical scientific evidence – in the form of clear photographs, verified footprints, samples of fur or other remains - were uniformly thin on the ground, so to speak (although a photograph of an indistinct animal did make its way to the front of the local newspaper in the 1960s, and is analysed in some detail here)

Thylacine A Thylacine Thylacinus cyanocephalus. Might this be a relative of the Ozenkadnook Tiger? Probably not.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria

As it transpires, almost every region of rural Australia has their own tales of strange animals, complete with oral accounts, familial anecdotes and rich folkloric traditions, from bunyips to big cats to presumed late-surviving megafauna. Whilst great fun, these stories are the realm of cryptozoology – a mix of folklore, imagination and pseudoscience – defined as the study of animals whose existence has not been proven. As I'm now a fully-realised scientist, my attitude to cryptozoology is uniform – whether it's Nessie, Bigfoot or the Ozenkadnook Tiger, hard evidence is the cornerstone of the scientific process – without empirical evidence, this is sadly pseudoscience.

So, whilst my bulldust detector remains active and fully charged, nobody would be happier than I to be presented with definitive, empirical evidence of these animals. Sightings, family stories and other anecdotal evidence are simply not enough. In the spirit of true science, we remain unmoved until provided with empirical evidence.

In the meantime, sightings and the like can be lodged via the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association. But not us!

Eastern Pygmy Possum

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
15 August 2014
Comments
Comments (1)

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
Comments
Comments (0)

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.

About this blog

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

Categories