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.

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
 

Why we can't give a stuff

Author
by Alice
Publish date
29 April 2014
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Comments (1)

The Discovery Centre receives heaps of enquiries from budding enthusiasts eager to learn the art of taxidermy – it’s no surprise because Museum Victoria holds the largest collection of taxidermy mounts in the state.

behind the scenes Rows of taxidermy mounts hidden behind the scenes of the Melbourne Museum.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Taxidermy is but one of many tasks performed by the multi-talented members of our preparation department. The preparators work purely on museum projects, combining skills in taxidermy, moulding, casting and model-making to enhance the state’s collections and research.

reptile moulds Reptile moulds and casts hand made by the preparation department.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria

 

Seal model Sculpting and modelling a seal for permanent display.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Only a fraction of the work that the preparation department performs makes its way to the public displays, with the majority of their work residing behind the scenes. Most animals coming into the museum join the research collections and don’t need to be prepared as life-like mounts; 90 per cent of the specimens prepared at the museum have data and tissue samples collected and are preserved as study skins and skeletons. These specimens become priceless tools in assisting scientists identify and compare new species, better understand the evolution of species over time, and research how we can conserve our fauna into the future.

Study skins Study skins used in the research collection.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Skeletal remains Skeletons prepared for the research collection with the assistance of dermestid beetles.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Due to the busy workload of our preparators, we are unable to provide personal advice to individuals about taxidermy. We are, however, bringing out our experts for the next Smart Bar to focus on the history, methods and tools of the craft. This Thursday 1 May, from 6-9pm our experts will explore the inside story of taxidermy with pop up talks and demonstrations.

Koala moulding Tools and measurements used in making a koala cast.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

exhibition maitenance Ongoing maintenance of exhibition material such as this interactive component from Think Ahead is a large part of the preparation departments workload.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

For those unable to attend, there is plenty of information available online through supply websites, online tutorials and forums. Commercial taxidermists can also be found in the Yellow Pages, and you may be lucky enough to find one who is willing to discuss their tricks of the trade. Formal tutelage in taxidermy is almost non-existent in Australia but getting involved in online forums and clubs is a great starting point to meet likeminded people and gain expert advice. Most of our preparators started out reading taxidermy books for beginners, many of which can still be found in local libraries.

Keep in mind that in Australia there are strict licencing protocols surrounding practicing taxidermy on native animals. For more information visit the Department of Environment and Primary Industries website.

Links:

Smart Bar: Stuffed

So many specimens

Cork Colosseum x-ray

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
17 April 2014
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An x-ray machine usually employed for mammography examined an unconventional patient earlier this year: a model of the Colosseum made from cork around 1800. Thanks to generous assistance from Lake Imaging in North Melbourne, object conservator Sarah Babister now has a view inside one of our most curious objects.

Four people discuss photograph Conservators Sarah and Dani show radiographers Jeff and Ghazia a photo of the Colosseum model.
Source: Museum Victoria

cork Colosseum model The facade of the Colosseum model. (HT 24386)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Radiographer Ghazia adjusted the settings of the mammography machine to accomodate this unusual material—cork is much less dense than human tissue—and produced wonderfully clear and informative images of several pieces of the Colosseum.

Woman with x-ray machine Ghazia placing a piece of the Colosseum on the mammography machine.
Source: Museum Victoria

Woman with computer Ghazia adjusting the levels of the x-ray to best show the hidden structure within the cork Colosseum.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We think that our Colosseum was built by English model-maker Richard Du Bourg (or Dubourg), but in the absence of a signature, Sarah is looking for characteristic materials and construction techniques that could confirm its maker. Further research by historian (and the museum’s Head of Humanities) Richard Gillespie and genealogist Neil Gill is fleshing out the intriguing story of Du Bourg and his models; Richard recently visited similar objects in overseas collections for comparison. Sarah and Richard will present a talk about the model and its story next month as a part of the History, Cultures and Collections seminar series.

From 1775 to 1819, Du Bourg’s models of classical ruins were the height of fashion and his a well-known London exhibition. “He’s a fascinating character,” says Sarah. Notoriously, his working model of Vesuvius destroyed an entire exhibition when its eruption set fire to all the other models on display. “He lived until he was in his early 90s and even though he’d been very famous he was living in poverty.”

Sarah explains that cork models “were really popular at a certain time and were kept as tools to teach students. Then they fell out of fashion and a lot of them were disposed of.” This may explain Du Bourg’s impoverished old age, and is the reason why the museum has this model at all – in 1929 it was sent from the Science Museum in London to the Industrial and Technological Museum in Melbourne.

cork Colosseum detail Sarah holding a large piece of the Colosseum model.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The model is over a metre wide and in poor condition. The base it sits on is cracked and the gesso applied to the perimeter is flaking, and several sections of wall have broken off. These broken sections are a mixed blessing, since without them there could be no x-rays, which reveal the lead pencil marking lines, and pins and nails used to hold the pieces of cork together. This information may help confirm whether Du Bourg made the model, but will also help Sarah reattach the broken pieces.

X-ray image of a piece of the cork Colosseum X-ray image of a piece of the cork Colosseum. The metal pins, and decorative carvings covered in lead paint, appear white.
Image: Lake Imaging
Source: Museum Victoria
 

“Most of the pieces are there so the model would be virtually complete with the exception of a few small columns which might need to be replicated,” she says. “I’d love to put it back together so it can be viewed how it should be viewed because it’s such an amazing object. The level of detail in the carving is wonderful, and cork lends itself so well to representing that ruinous state.”

To learn what the x-rays revealed, come along to Richard and Sarah's free seminar on 14 May, titled For the Nobility, Gentry & Curious in General: Richard Du Bourg’s Classical Exhibition, 1775-1819.

Links:

Cork Colosseum model on Collections Online

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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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