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.

When Museum Victoria is not enough

Author
by Max
Publish date
24 December 2013
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You come to the museum and ask; ‘Do you have any (insert hoped for item - cocoa tins, paper bags, vintage telephones, glass time capsules, etc) on display?’ To which we respond by explaining that, even though Museum Victoria has about 17 million or so objects in our collection, we only have a tiny fraction on display. This causes you great disappointment as you are one of those members of the public with specific interests and desires. You can view more at Collections Online, but you want to see the actual objects in the flesh don’t you? Well fear not, now you only need to visit Victorian Collections, a project developed in partnership by Museum Victoria and Museums Australia (Victoria)

 

SSW Shopping Bag Two brown paper bags which were available for free in SSW Supermarkets, so that customers could pack their grocery purchases to be able to take them home. The bags have SSW advertising printed on them in red, yellow, and navy blue inks.
Image: Sunshine and District Historical Society
Source: Sunshine and District Historical Society
 

Here you can search the database to discover your favourite things and where they might live. You like all things glass? Well, there are hundreds of items for your viewing pleasure, but the best of all if you click on the object it will tell you where you will find it. It could be beer glasses from Dixon's Hotel, now the Commonwealth Hotel in Orbost. You’ll find these at the Orbost and District Historical Society Inc. So jump on your bike and start peddling. Or how about a Glass vessel time capsule c1800's? Alfred Hospital Nursing Archives. Start walking - it’s around the corner.

 

Old Dutch Cocoa Tin Tin metal and tin top for cocoa with colour print and round internal lid. Caption of a woman drinking cocoa, red Australian flag and British flag on other faces. Top embossed "H". Marked - "Old Dutch Cocoa", "Net Weight 8 ozs," (Display side) "Manufactured by Hoadley's Chocolates Ltd, Australia.
Image: Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum
Source: Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum
 

Now you never have to go without, never have to say ‘Gee I wish they had more Hand Planes’ (nearly 1500 – check it out). All you need do is get online, go to Victorian Collections then set off for one of the many unique and varied museums that can be found dotted across the Victorian countryside. Enjoy!

 

Mobile Telephone handset, battery in carry case. The Future is here! Early mobile phone. Bought in 1990 this was the first type of mobile phone used in the field by ATCV.
Image: Conservation Volunteers
Source: Conservation Volunteers Corner University Drive & Enterprise Grove Mount Helen 3350
 

Where the locals know best

Author
by Paing Soe
Publish date
26 November 2013
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Paing Soe is a Master of Environment student at the University of Melbourne.

This is the third post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago.

Dr. Kevin Rowe and Dr. Karen Rowe give their unreserved credit to the local people—the guides, the village heads and the Indonesian scientists—for the discoveries that they've made together in Sulawesi. But it took a bit of work to get them on side, according to Kevin. "They were not convinced that you can make a living doing what we do. So they were suspicious that we probably had a hidden agenda," he says.

Sulawesi field team A photo opportunity with the local team in Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, May 2012.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

"On these mountains, only the local people really know what's there," says Kevin. The locals in Mamasa, a mountain town on the island of Sulawesi, had a name for almost every species, including animals that have not been described by science. Such knowledge was essential in the scientific discovery of an almost toothless rodent, Paucidentomys vermidax.

Man holding rodent Gherzhon, a local guide from Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, holding the recently described Paucidentomys vermidax he helped collect.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

On the last day of a trip in 2012, local guides caught a rare rat that in local tradition is believed to safeguard homes from fire. While some of the guides wanted to keep the rat for this reason, one guide argued how important it could be to the expedition and made sure it was shared with the scientists. The specimen turned out to be the only record of the species at the site. "That kind of support depends on building trust and relationships with local people," says Kevin.

"It's just impossible really, to go in there without a local partner," agrees Karen. Local scientists understand the cultural context, the bureaucracy, and are much more effective with exploration and conservation when it comes to biodiversity on these islands. Working with Anang Achmadi, Curator of Mammals, and Tri Haryoko, Curator of Birds, at the national museum of Indonesia, Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense, their research programs have led to a strong collaboration between Museum Victoria and MZB.

The more that local scientists can work independently, the better. Kevin and Karen Rowe take this approach despite the fact that their own expeditions are going so well. "The future of biodiversity research in Indonesia lies with local scientists. Our hope is that we can promote their training and success," says Kevin.

Anang Achmadi, curator of mammals Anang Achmadi, Curator of Mammals at Museum Zoologicum Bogorinese in camp on Mount Gandangdeata near Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, Sulawesi.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Check out the other posts in this mini-series: The Age of Exploration continues and Exploration of Sulawesi, Indonesia

Alpine Bioscan

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
19 November 2013
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Nearly 30 museum scientists, staff and associates left Melbourne Museum early yesterday morning, headed for the Alpine National Park. They’re embarking on the next major Parks Bioscan – a program of intensive biodiversity surveys that MV performs, in partnership with Parks Victoria, of some of the state’s most wildlife-rich national parks. Volunteers from 4WD Victoria are providing additional help with access to the more remote and rugged parts of this cold and mountainous area.

Scientists at Bairnsdale sign Lunch stop at Bairnsdale for the MV scientists on the trip up the the Alpine National Park.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As the team was packing up last week, I talked with Dr Karen Rowe about the gear the crews are taking into the field – namely nine iPads that will be used to collect data about the observations, samples and specimens taken by our experts.

iPad data collection system Karen's iPad ready to collect field data.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Using iPads will allow the scientists and collection managers to upload the data directly into the museum’s collection database, EMu. This replaces the time-honoured tradition of recording data with pens and paper… followed by hours of painstaking transcription. Almost inevitably, transcription errors, bad handwriting, rain-sodden paper and other data disasters affect information brought back from the field this way.

The tablets have other benefits, too: an on-board GPS means that every observation is linked with a location, and the data collected for each location is standardised across the scientific disciplines. They also link to topographical maps, vegetation maps, and other useful field tools like the iPad’s camera and audio recording functions. In the case of alpine frogs, there are species that can only be distinguished by their calls so audio recording is vital to correct identification.

But why do the scientists collect all this data? Surely a biodiversity survey is just a big checklist of species? Karen explained that if you collect a specimen (or make an observation) without recording all the other information about that collection event, you "might as well have not collected the critter. We have a lot of specimens in the museum that have no provenance or location data. It’s useful as an exercise to help you understand that particular species but not the context in which it lives." Careful notes about the exact location (under a rock, up a tree), time of day (dawn, midday), and other factors help to flesh out the ecology and behaviour of a species.

"Particularly in areas that are hard to get to – and Sulawesi is a prime example – a lot of the species listed in the IUCN Red List are data deficient," continued Karen. "We don’t know anything about them or the habitats they’re in." Without that information, biologists can’t be sure of the scarcity of the species; a little-known tree-dwelling rat could seem extinct if you’re only looking for them on the ground.

The iPad will also help the museum photographers to attach species information to photographs taken in the field, which makes the images much more useful for research and reporting what we’ve found. Plus, teams can make accurate observations about animals outside their field of expertise – the entomologists can record the calls of birds, for example – for verification by the ornithologists later. That means a more thorough survey of the region.

Of course, in case of technical malfunction, Karen has a backup plan: the folders, clipboards and data sheets of yore. They’re charmingly labelled ‘Old fashioned iPads’ and to be used only in case of emergency.

box of field notebooks Old-school: the back-up field notebooks packed and ready to to to the Alps Bioscan.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In addition to traps and sampling equipment, these field scientists have packed gear for extreme weather, including four-season tents, sleeping bags, thermal underwear and more. And of course, the field gear most important for maintaining morale after 12-hour days in hilly wilderness: comfort snacks!

  Supplies for the biodiversity survey Field supplies packed up for the Alps Bioscan. Left: bait for the mammal traps include cat food and vanilla essence. Right: while the bush rats are drawn to fishy and floral scents, the scientists prefer chocolate.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

If you live in the Victorian Alps, come along to our Science at the Pub event at the end of the Bioscan at Omeo's Golden Age Hotel, Friday 29 November 6:30 PM. Meet the scientists and see what they've found in the park.

Links:

Parks Victoria media release about the Alps Bioscan

Wild: Victorian Alps

MV Blog posts from the 2011 Prom Bioscan and 2012 Grampians Bioscan

Exploration of Sulawesi, Indonesia

Author
by Bonnie & Rashika
Publish date
11 November 2013
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Bonnie Gambhir is a Computer Science student with interests in scientific exploration. Rashika Premchandralal is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology. Both are studying at the University of Melbourne.

This is the second post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago.

Wallace's exploration of the islands of Indonesia contributed to the theory of evolution by natural selection, as well as the field biogeography–the study of the distribution of species over space and time. Wallace famously divided the world’s animals into zoogeographic regions, with his travels through modern day Indonesia providing important clues about the transitions of more Asian-like species to those of Australian origin.

"The island of Sulawesi is a place where many Asian lineages get their easternmost distribution and many Australian lineages get their westernmost distribution, and Sulawesi represents a mixture of the flora and fauna of these two great continents," says Dr Kevin Rowe.

Skull of Babirusa MV specimen R8050: skull of Babirusa, Babyrousa celebensis, an ancient lineage of pigs on Sulawesi. Pigs are not native to the Australian continent and Sulawesi represents their easternmost distribution.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

mount of Bear Cuscus MV specimen C27221: mount of Bear Cuscus, Ailurops ursinus. An ancient relative of the Ringtail Possum, the Bear Cuscus is endemic to Sulawesi and represents the westernmost distribution of Australian marsupials that never reached the Asian continent.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
  

Since Wallace’s time, further scientific exploration in Wallacea has contributed immensely to our understanding of the distribution and evolution of species.

Researchers at Museum Victoria are continuing this exploration on the island of Sulawesi; Dr Kevin Rowe and Dr Karen Rowe have made several expeditions in recent years, leading to the description of new mammal species and new knowledge of the evolutionary relationships between Indonesian and Australian birds.

When Wallace visited Sulawesi, he recorded only five species of rodents. Today, we recognise almost fifty. Described in 2012 by Kevin and colleagues, one recently- discovered species from Sulawesi challenges the definition of rodent. The unique rat, Paucidentomys vermidax, (meaning “few-toothed worm-devouring mouse”) is the only rodent, among more than 2,200 species, with pointed upper incisors and no molars.

Dr Kevin Rowe with Paucidentomys vermidax Dr Kevin Rowe with Paucidentomys vermidax, a nearly toothless rodent, on the day of its discovery in the rainforests of Sulawesi.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The honeyeater family Meliphagidae is one of the most diverse groups of Australian birds. Most of the nearly 170 species are found in Australia, New Guinea and adjacent Pacific Islands. A few species are native to Wallacea where the family reaches the westernmost limits of its distribution. Through her fieldwork on Sulawesi, Karen is studying the endemic genus Myza and their relationship to all other honeyeaters.

Lesser Sulawesi Honeyeater Lesser Sulawesi Honeyeater, Myza celebensis, found in the forests of Mount Dako, Sulawesi in 2013.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Mustum Victoria
 

Expeditions to Sulawesi by MV researchers and their Indonesian and US colleagues have produced several new records of species that have not been recorded since the 1970s. Many of these species were previously known from a single locality and are listed as 'data deficient' by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Hence the recent exploration of Sulawesi is helping to improve understanding of the habitat requirements and distributions of these little-known species.

Local knowledge and assistance is as much a part of modern exploration as it was in Wallace’s time. Our final post in this series will explore how international cooperation has contributed to the success of Museum Victoria’s research in the region.

Links:

MV Blog posts about Sulawesi field research

The Age of Exploration continues

Author
by Chenae Neilson
Publish date
6 November 2013
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Chenae Neilson is a Master of Science in Human Geography student at the University of Melbourne. This is the first post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago today.

Over the last 250 years, the taxonomic classification of life on Earth has described approximately 1.2 million species that share the planet with us, Homo sapiens. However, every year, we discover thousands of new species. Often these are organisms that have been concealed from scientific observation within impassable forests or the dark of the ocean abyss. A 2011 estimate suggests there are over eight million species on Earth, which means we have described fewer than 15 per cent of them. This stems, in part, because we have explored only five per cent of the world’s oceans, and scientists have yet to survey many terrestrial environments.

This celebration of exploration marks the centenary of the death of explorer, naturalist, and evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who died on 7 November 1913. To commemorate Wallace we return to the region of his most famous exploration.

Alfred Russel Wallace, circa 1895. Alfred Russel Wallace, circa 1895.
Image: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
Source: Wikimedia Commons

"Nature has taken every precaution that these, her choicest treasures, may not lose value by being too easily obtained."
Alfred Russel Wallace

 

From 1854 to 1862, Wallace traveled across the Indonesian archipelago from the Sunda shelf in the west through the island of Sulawesi and to the Bird's Head of New Guinea in the east. On this journey he noted a distinct transition from more Asian fauna to more Australian fauna – the line demarking this dramatic transition became known as the 'Wallace's Line'. The broader region between Asia and Australia, including the island of Sulawesi, is termed Wallacea, which hosts an endemic combination of Asian and Australian lineages. Wallace’s exploration of Sulawesi made a significant contribution to the species catalogue in this region and also became the backbone of evidence for his own theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace’s adventures in Wallacea were later chronicled in his book, The Malay Archipelago, written in 1869.

Map of Sunda and Sahul Map of Wallacea, featuring the island of Sulawesi and the biogeographic lines defining breaks between Asian fauna within Sunda and Australasia.
Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker
Source: Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons.
 

Despite the countless scientific findings made during the Age of Exploration in the 1800s, exploration still remains important today, particularly in a world where natural environments are under threat.

Wallace's trail of exploration has been retraced many times by contemporary scientists, amateur naturalists, and television personalities. Exploration may mean something different to each. For the scientist, these areas are revealing new species and answering questions about the evolutionary history of the region. To the naturalist, the 'discovery' of animals found nowhere else on earth and the chance to walk in the footsteps of an influential figure may be the very definition of exploration. Regardless of our definition of exploration, areas like Wallacea hold many new possibilities.

Over 100 years later, two research scientists at Museum Victoria, Dr Kevin Rowe and Dr Karen Rowe, have been following in the footsteps of Wallace. Some of their recent findings will be the subject of the next blog in our mini-series.

Woman in rainforest in Indonesia Karen Rowe hiking into a remote field camp on Mount Dako, Sulawesi where scientists from MV, Indonesia and the United States inventoried mammals and birds for the first time in 2013.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

The McCoy Project

Author
by Robin Hirst
Publish date
1 October 2013
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Dr Robin Hirst is the Director of Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Museum Victoria.

On Wednesday 18 September, Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne launched the McCoy Project. This initiative will foster collaborative research between our two institutions, formalising a tradition that stretches back almost 160 years.

Event Organisers of the McCoy Project Launch At the McCoy Project launch: (L-R) Dr Robin Hirst, Director, Collections, Research and Exhibitions, Museum Victoria; Susannah Morley, Research Collaboration Manager, University of Melbourne; Ms Christine Tipton, Business and Grants Manager, Collections, Research and Exhibitions, Museum Victoria; Professor Mark Hargreaves, Professor, Department of Physiology, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Partnerships), University of Melbourne.
Image: Les O'Rourke Photography
Source: University of Melbourne
 

The McCoy Project is named after Irishman Fredrick McCoy, one of four inaugural professors appointed by the University of Melbourne in 1854. When he arrived, the newly-established National Museum of Victoria occupied a couple of rooms in the Old Assay Office in La Trobe Street.

McCoy was desperate to have the museum and its collections at the university in Carlton, despite fierce public opposition. McCoy had a victory when the University Council provided funds to build a museum wing on the north side of the Quadrangle. Now he just needed the collections.

In July 1856, McCoy took direct action and transported the contents of the museum from the city to the university. Melbourne society was outraged. The Melbourne Punch had a field day, and published a highly critical poem. It talks of McCoy, William Blandowski the museum’s first curator, and Ferdinand von Mueller, the colony’s botanist.

There was a little man,
And he had a little plan,
The public of their specimens to rob, rob, rob,
So he got a horse and dray,
And he carted them away,
And chuckled with enjoyment of the job, job, job.

Blandowski’s pickled possums,
And Mueller’s leaves and blossoms,
Bugs, butterflies, and beetles stuck on pins, pins, pins,
Light and heavy, great and small,
He abstracted one and all –
May we never have to answer for such sins, sins, sins.

There were six foot kangaroos,
Native bears and cockatoos,
That would make a taxidermist jump for joy, joy, joy,
And if you want to know,
Who took them you should go,
And seek information from McCoy, Coy, Coy.

When one’s living far away,
Up the country dare I say,
It’s very nice to have such things at hand, hand, hand,
Yet it don’t become professors,
When they become possessors,
Of property by methods contraband, band, band.

cartoon in Punch, 1856 Caroon titled 'The successful foray: or the professor's return'
Source: Melbourne Punch, 14 August 1856
 

McCoy’s museum outgrew the space in the Quadrangle, and he had a new National Museum building erected on adjacent land (where Union House now stands). The public were gradually persuaded to make the trip to the ‘country’ to visit the thriving new museum and its big new exhibitions. And so the progenitor of Museum Victoria remained on University of Melbourne turf until McCoy died in 1899, when the authorities moved everything back to a city site - the State Library building.

With this shared history in mind, the university and the museum held a workshop in September 2012 to explore how we might work more closely together for our mutual benefit. From that sprang the Research Discovery Day in May 2013, where 100 researchers gathered to look at our collections and discuss research projects. Their enthusiasm was palpable and the McCoy Project was born. Its first initiative, the McCoy Seed Fund, will help get new collaborative projects off the ground.

Links:

The McCoy Project

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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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