Research

DISPLAYING POSTS FILED UNDER: Research (149)

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.

How cute is that?

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
19 October 2015
Comments
Comments (0)

Melbourne Museum recently participated in the global #Cuteoff on Twitter, where researchers from around the world posted photos of their supposedly ‘cute’ study animals. Given that many of these posts featured snails, turtles, spiders, squid and sea sponges, it begs the question whether cuteness is in the eye of the beholder.

Whipbird chick This baby Whipbird (Psophodes olivaceus) from the Forest Gallery is small, fluffy and vulnerable – in other words quite cute.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, first dissected cuteness in the 1940s with the concept of Kindchenschema (‘baby schema’), identifying that juvenile, or paedomorphic, traits are the key. From an evolutionary point of view, paedomorphic traits are a significant advantage to very young individuals, as they push the buttons of adult humans, encouraging their nurturing side. Cuteness in humans can be further broken down as the sum of certain traits (tiny chin and nose, chubby cheeks, large eyes and rosy complexion), where each element is a cumulative index of cuteness. When these features are enhanced in photos of adult subjects in scientific experiments, observers see the subjects as progressively cuter and report increasingly pleasurable and caring emotions.

Tawny Frogmouth Blinky, one of the Forest Gallery’s Tawny Frogmouths (Podargus strigoides). Blinky has large, wide-set eyes and a disproportionately large head, making him definitively cute.
Image: Chloe Miller
Source: Museum Victoria

The propensity to nurture cuteness is also applied by humans to other animal species with the same traits. Animals that have a flat face, short nose, large ears and large, expressive, wide-set forward-facing eyes are too irresistible to refuse. And the more exaggerated these features, the more appealing they are, as demonstrated by the Hello Kitty phenomenon and kawaii culture in Japan. A number of theories suggest many breeds of cats and dogs have been selectively bred to emphasise these characters, and this appears to be easier than you might think.

Silver Fox The Silver Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Image: Zefram
Source: Creative Commons: CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 50 years of experiments in the Soviet Union, scientist Dimitri Belyaev domesticated the Silver or Siberian Fox, a silver morph of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). By choosing the tamest offspring from each litter, i.e. individuals that were less likely to flee or more likely to whimper and sniff and lick the handler, Belyaev also inadvertently selected the retention of paedomorphic traits. After 40 generations the foxes had larger, floppy ears, shorter or curly tails, and shorter snouts.

Pobblebonk The large, toad-like Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerilii) upping its cuteness index by adopting a tap dancer’s stance.
Image: Melvin Nathan
Source: Museum Victoria

Animals that are not otherwise cute can, in certain situations, enhance their cuteness factor by adopting human attitudes or being associated with familiar human objects.

Alpine Blue-tongue Lizard The comportment of Beth, an otherwise cranky Alpine Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua nigrolutea), can be significantly softened and her cuteness improved when wrapped in a towel.
Image: Chloe Miller
Source: Museum Victoria

Healthy juvenile traits also play a role in cuteness – clear eyes, smooth skin, a pink glow (i.e. sufficient blood circulation) and bilateral symmetry. However, a helpless baby animal obviously in recovery from an illness or injury does sometimes press additional buttons.

Mountain Dragon The Mountain Dragon Falcor (Rankinia diemensis). Although not particularly cute on his own, the bandage raises Falcor’s cuteness factor several fold.
Image: Melvin Nathan
Source: Museum Victoria

Animals that can clearly look after themselves fail to evoke the cute response. Venomous animals, such as spiders and snakes, for example, or spiky or heavily armoured animals, require no nurturing from us. Animals with fewer than four legs, such as worms, or animals with more than four legs, such as centipedes, also elicit no empathy.

Prickly Katydid The antithesis of cuteness. The Prickly Katydid (Phricta spinosa) is laden with spikes and other armour, and well able to look after itself.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

Charities and wildlife groups latched on to the cute factor many years ago. For an endangered species, being cute is definitely an evolutionary advantage these days. A baby panda or harp seal will always get more attention and funding than an endangered snail or spider. According to Canadian ecologist Ernie Small, this is skewing the world’s conservation efforts (and biodiversity in general in the long run) towards the cute and fluffy. It’s reflected in the dollars spent on saving endangered species – highest for the charismatic megafauna and lowest for reptiles, invertebrates and plants, with the number of paedomorphic traits directly proportional to the dollars spent. Ernie Small goes as far as listing the features that will boost a conservation project.

Mitchell's Hopping Mice The cute-as-hell Mitchell’s Hopping Mice (Notomys mitchelli) behaving cutely. This species is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ in Victoria.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

So it’s no wonder all researchers want their study animals to be the cutest. Perhaps social scientist Paris Hilton said it best: “The only rule is don’t be boring and be cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in”.

Vale Ken Porter

Author
by Liza Dale-Hallett
Publish date
12 October 2015
Comments
Comments (1)

Liza Dale-Hallett is Senior Curator Sustainable Futures at Museum Victoria.

After a number of years of ill health Ken Porter passed away on Saturday 3 October. Ken was a key player in the interpretation and development of the HV McKay Sunshine Collection and has been an invaluable contributor to Museum Victoria. 

The H.V. McKay collection dates from 1884 with the extraordinary story of the ‘energy, vision and pluck’ of Hugh Victor McKay. Who, at the age of 18, built a stripper harvester prototype and went on to create the largest manufacturing enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere, known as the Sunshine Harvester Works.

In the mid-1950s the McKay family sold its interests in the company to the global giant Massey Ferguson. The name of McKay was unceremoniously chiselled off the Sunshine head office buildings, the timber panelling and desks were painted over with Massey Ferguson grey, and hundreds of workers lost their jobs.  Ken Porter started his 41 years work as a ‘Massey Ferguson man’ in 1956, right in the middle of this difficult transition.

Man with crate Ken Porter with the mysterious crate he rescued from a dumpster.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

The breath and scale of the H.V. McKay Sunshine Collection was the result of what Ken called a ‘quirk of fate’. In 1991, he spotted a wooden crate in a dump master, during a major clean-up at Massey Ferguson.  He thought the box might have been of some use to him at home, but when he recovered it he noticed that a square of cardboard had been nailed to it reading, “The plaster cast of H.V. McKay.  Not to be opened until another one needed”, signed Cecil McKay.

Ken knew this was important.  And with the help of a colleague Ron Doubleday, over the next two years they secretly rescued nearly 100 years of history. This ‘rubbish’ was squirreled away in the old Director’s Garage.  Ken liked to call this ‘Jurassic Park’ – it was long forgotten and littered with the skeletons of pigeons. The perfect hiding place for history. In 1993 Ken successfully secured the support of the company secretary, Ted Pask, to formally offer this substantial collection to Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne Archives.

In 1996 Ken Porter worked closely with Senior Curator Liza Dale-Hallett to establish the McKay volunteer project.  He conscripted and led a team of 20 volunteers to identify and document the collection.  They represented a company experience of over 800 years.  About 200 ex-employees from across Australia also offered their expertise and memories. The McKay volunteers have catalogued and provided expert analysis of 28,000 images, 750 films, nearly 500 artefacts, over 10,000 trade and marketing publications. They have written stories that describe the 84 factory departments, the hundreds of types of farming equipment manufactured and the special stories associated with being part of the ‘Sunshine family’.

Ken also provided strategic advice on key themes and areas of research, identified opportunities for collection development and actively promoted the project to key stakeholders and community groups. His tireless commitment and enthusiasm has been an important ingredient in maintaining the volunteer team since 1996, and has been fundamental in increasing the significance of the collection and facilitating its public access.

Ken and his team were celebrated for their efforts in 2002 when they received the Victorian Museum Industry Recognition Award for the “most outstanding volunteer project in the Victorian Museum sector”.  Ken was also awarded an Honorary Associate by Museum Victoria in 2002 for his contribution to the development and interpretation of the McKay collection.

group of people with an award Ken and his team of volunteers received the Victorian Museum Industry Recognition Award for the “most outstanding volunteer project in the Victorian Museum sector".
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Ken described himself as a ‘Massey Ferguson man’ – and by jumping into a rubbish skip he became a man who made history. His special efforts, passion and vision were fundamental to creating and documenting one of the most significant industrial heritage collections in Australia.

Ken has not just made history – his commitment and enthusiasm has substantially enhanced the lives of hundreds of ex-employees who have been involved in documenting their lives and this remarkable history.

Ken was a great colleague and friend. He was loved by everyone.  He will be greatly missed.

Links
H.V. McKay Sunshine Collection

Meet Hyorhinomys stuempkei, a Hog-nosed Rat

Author
by Web Team
Publish date
9 October 2015
Comments
Comments (2)

As part of an international research team, Museum Victoria scientists have discovered a new species of mammal: a hog-nosed rat named Hyorhinomys stuempkei.

Discovered in a remote and mountainous area of Sulawesi Island in Indonesia, the Hog-nosed Rat, Hyorhinomys stuempkei, is a new species of mammal previously undocumented in any scientific collection.

Hyorhinomys stuempkei Hyorhinomys stuempkei
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The new species has such a unique anatomy and is so genetically different from other species that it was described not only as a new species but a new genus (a step above a new species). The team’s research will be published as the cover story of the October edition of Journal of Mammalogy.

Discovered by an international team comprising Dr. Kevin Rowe (Museum Victoria); Heru Handika (Museum Victoria); Anang Achmadi (Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense), and Dr. Jacob Esselstyn (Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science), this new discovery is the third new genus described by this international collaboration since 2012, and identifies a rodent with features never before seen by science.

Let yourself get acquainted with the "charismatically different" Hyorhinomys stuempkei, "like no other rat that's been seen on Sulawesi", courtesy of two of its discoverers, Museum Victoria's Dr. Kevin Rowe and the LSU Museum of Natural Science's Dr. Jacob Esselstyn.

The interest in the Hog-nosed Rat's discovery has been phenomenal on news sites and on digital and social media, including the BBC, Time, CNN, The Guardian, The Press Association, Al Jazeera, ABC radio and TV, The Age, The Guardian, the Jakarta Post, the Daily Mail, Mirror, the Independent and The Australian.

A media release, "Museum Victoria Scientists Announce Discovery of a Hog-nosed Rat", is available on the MV website.

Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea

Author
by Melanie Raymond
Publish date
2 September 2015
Comments
Comments (1)
Cover of Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea
Cover of Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea
Source: Museum Victoria
One hundred million years ago, Australia was not so much a continent, as a series of islands interconnected by vast shallow waterways. In place of our central deserts, lay great expanses of water, the legendary ‘inland sea’ once sought by European explorers a hundred million years too late. The Eromanga Sea teemed with a rich and diverse fauna and flora which left their remains to fossilise on the bottom of the ancient sea floor.


We didn’t end up using this blurb but it did catch my interest. Danielle Clode, a science writer and previous Thomas Ramsay Fellow at Museum Victoria, sent it to me as part of her sales pitch for a new title. That title, now called Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea, has just been published. It is the third book in the Museum Victoria Nature series.

The first book was Tom Rich’s Polar Dinosaurs and the second, Danielle Clode’s Prehistoric giants. The megafauna of Australia. The latter was shortlisted in the prestigious CBCA awards in 2008 and continues to be a bestseller for Museum Victoria Publishing.

Platypterygius australis: Ichthyosaur Platypterygius australis skull and rostrum specimen. An extinct ichthyosaur from the Cretaceous period.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Prehistoric marine conjures up the vanished world of the Aptian/Albian period. Written for a young audience who may never have heard of the Eromanga Sea, Prehistoric marine introduces us to a foreign landscape and its inhabitants. Monstrous Kronosaurus queenslandicus ruled the shallow inland seas, and other sharp-toothed predators, including sharks and ichthyosaurs, cruised around, looking for prey. On the sea floor, there was also an abundance of life, including the impressive Tropaeum imperator, an ammonite which measured up to 75 cm wide and was mistaken for a tractor tyre when first discovered.

Platypterygius australis cartilage muscle overlay Reconstruction of platypterygius australis, an ichthyosaur from the Cretaceous period with cartilage muscle overlay showing developmental process of drawings.
Image: Peter Trusler
Source: Peter Trusler
 

You can hear Danielle talk about her book with Robyn Williams on ABC Radio National's Science Show.

  Artist's interpretation of a Kronosaurus catching a pterosaur Prehistoric marine creature Kronosaurus (similar to a crocodile) leaping out of the ocean to catch a pterosaur
Image: Tor Sponga
Source: Bergens Tidende
 

“Your PhD is on dragons?!”

Author
by Kirilee Chaplin
Publish date
12 August 2015
Comments
Comments (0)

People often give me startled looks when I tell them I am doing a three year zoology doctoral study on dragons. After a few Game of Thrones references and Harry Potter-esque jokes, I remind them that not all dragons breathe fire. My PhD is, of course, on dragon lizards, also known in Australia as agamids.

Thorny devil (left) and common central bearded dragon (right) Australia – a land of dragons. Left: the highly unique thorny devil (Moloch horridus). Right: the common central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps).
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

Australia, with more than 80 species of agamids, is one of the most dragon-diverse regions in the world. We have dragons of all shapes and sizes, ranging from 10cm to 1m, and include iconic species like the frill-neck lizard and thorny devil, and common species such as bearded dragons and water dragons. The family I am studying are called earless dragons (Tympanocryptis spp.): a group of small (10cm), ground-dwelling native dragons. There are currently about 12 species of earless dragons spread throughout Australia, and we are discovering or distinguishing new species more frequently than you might think. In the last couple of years, researchers at Museum Victoria have described three new species of earless dragons (T. pentalineata, T. wilsoni and T. condaminensis), and know of at least five more which are currently under assessment and yet to be named.

Earless dragons in Australia Earless dragons can be found throughout most of Australia, with some common species distributed widely across the country, and other rare species restricted to small regions of habitat. Top left: Roma earless dragon (Tympanocryptis wilsoni). Bottom left: Darling Downs earless dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis). Right: distribution map of Queensland grassland earless dragons.
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

This is where my PhD study comes in. As part of my doctoral research, I am looking at the three recently described species of earless dragons, as well as a couple of potentially new species, all of which are habitat specialists and live only in grasslands of Queensland. We know very little about these earless dragons, except that they are relatively rare and are each restricted to small grassland pockets across Queensland. My focus is on improving our limited knowledge of the evolution, ecology and taxonomy of these earless dragons, and using this data for conservation of these little lizards. These species are all of conservation concern, as their native grassland habitat has suffered extreme degradation and fragmentation in recent decades due to agriculture, mining and other anthropogenic impacts. Less than 15% of native grasslands remain in Queensland, with less than 5% in some regions. The continued decline in available habitat has prompted these earless dragons to be a research priority, and for their suitability for conservation status under legislative protection to be assessed.

Grassland habitats Left: open-cut coal mining and CSG fracking are the two most common mining practices in the grassland habitat of earless dragons. Right: agriculture, including farming and mono-culture cropping, has cleared and destroyed much of Queensland’s native grasslands.
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

However, conservation legislation requires taxonomic recognition of a species. That is, for something to be considered endangered and have appropriate legal protection in place, it needs to have a name and be formally accepted as a distinct species. One of the major problems with the earless dragon group, and many other taxa worldwide, is that multiple species can look very similar, but are actually very different in terms of their evolutionary and genetic history. These are called cryptic species, and are a taxonomist’s and conservation biologist’s worst nightmare, as they cannot be easily distinguished without complicated physiology and genetic analyses. Unfortunately, due to cryptic species within the earless dragon group, the taxonomy is still unresolved. Conservation protection cannot occur until this is sorted out.

Earless dragons Can you see the difference? Cryptic species look almost identical, but are evolutionarily very different. Left: a new species of earless dragon found near Emerald (Tympanocryptis sp. nov.). Right: Darling Downs earless dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis).
Image: K. Chaplin
Source: K. Chaplin
 

Follow my earless dragon adventures on Twitter (@KirileeChaplin) and watch out for my next MV blog where I continue my quest to untangle the Tympanocryptis taxonomy.

The New Holland mouse

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
31 July 2015
Comments
Comments (2)

The New Holland mouse (Pseudomys novaehollandiae) is one of Victoria’s threatened native rodents. The charismatic little species has only been recorded in three areas across the state in the past 15 years (the blue dots in the map below), whereas historically it was recorded in ten, including metropolitan Melbourne (the red dots in the map below). That’s why I embarked upon a PhD to determine the status of NHMs across Victoria and help protect this species from further decline.

New Holland mouse detection sites New Holland mouse detection sites across Victoria. Red dots indicate sites in areas where the species has not been detected in at least 15 years, blue dots indicate areas with more recent detections. Dates show the range of years during which New Holland mice were known at each site.

One of the greatest challenges for studying the status and conservation of New Holland mice (and many native Australian rodents) is that they can be very difficult to find; you can’t just see them with your binoculars or hear them calling in the bush. Many native rodents, including NHMs, go through natural periods where they persist in such low numbers that traditional survey efforts fail to detect them. New Holland mice are also particularly fickle about their habitat preferences and may only persist locally for a few years before moving on, making their populations even more difficult to track.

New Holland mouse captured and released New Holland mouse captured and released using live trapping.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

That’s why I’ve been trialling the use of cameras to detect the New Holland mouse. Traditional live trapping can be a great method for detecting a species in an area, and it’s critical if I want to know about health and reproduction, estimate abundance, or get DNA samples. However, sometimes when a species is at low densities, it takes a huge amount of effort to be reasonably confident that the species isn’t there, which in a world of limited time and funding drastically reduces the area you can survey. This is a real challenge when your species moves in the landscape.

This is where cameras can come in handy – you set them once and, rather than having to come back every morning and afternoon to check each trap, you can just leave them in place for weeks at a time. The animals are attracted to a tasty lure (I like to use peanut butter, oats, golden syrup and vanilla essence), and while they investigate, the camera senses the heat and motion and snaps a photo.

New Holland mouse Camera trap image of a New Holland mouse clinging to a bait station.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

Cameras allow you to survey much wider areas, for longer periods of time with a fraction of the effort of live trapping – at least until you have to sift through all the images and identify the animals. Once I know that NHMs are present in an area from the camera trapping, I can target those areas for live trapping to collect the rest of my data. My challenge, and the reason I did a camera trial, rather than just jumping straight into using cameras as a survey method, was identifying New Holland mice in the images.

New Holland mouse and house mouse Camera trap image of a New Holland mouse climbing on a bait station with a house mouse standing up against the base.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

Rodents tend to look very similar on camera, particularly if the images are in black and white. It doesn’t help that New Holland mice are about the same size as the non-native house mice (Mus musculus); they can be hard for some people to tell apart when they are holding them in their hand. Since the house mouse has infiltrated all known New Holland mouse habitat in Victoria, I needed to tell them apart from less than perfect images in colour and in black and white.

New Holland mice and house mice Infrared camera trap images of New Holland mice (left) and house mice (right) investigating bait stations.
Image: Phoebe Burns
 

Tens of thousands of images later, I can happily say that New Holland mice and house mice are distinguishable from one another in both colour and black and white images. In the colour images the species can be distinguished by differences in colouration, but in black and white the distinction is all in the shape of the two rodents. New Holland mice have a much sturdier build, a thickset neck and a snubby nose, whereas house mice are much more slender, with a pointed nose. It's not unlike the difference between rugby and footy players.

Now that I’ve got the IDs sorted, I’ll be using cameras (and live traps) to survey across Victoria and see where the New Holland mouse is persisting, so that we can do our best to halt the species’ further decline.

You can follow my PhD progress and fieldwork on Twitter and at my website to stay up to date with the status of New Holland mice as I search for them throughout Victoria.

Additionally, you can try your hand at identifying New Holland mice in my New Holland mouse quiz.

About this blog

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

Categories