Natural history - from animals to minerals, fossils to sea slugs. MV's scientists use the state's collections in important research.

How cute is that?

by Patrick
Publish date
19 October 2015
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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”.

Meet Hyorhinomys stuempkei, a Hog-nosed Rat

by Web Team
Publish date
9 October 2015
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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.

Hawks vs. Eagles: who will win … according to SCIENCE?!

You’ve all heard of the big match taking place this weekend between the Hawthorn Hawks and the West Coast Eagles. The speculation is rampant – who is going to take home the Cup in 2015? 

Hawks vs. Eagles Hawks vs. Eagles...who will win?

At Museum Victoria we can’t tell the future but we do know our native animals. So we began to wonder – who would win if the match ascended from the grassy green of the MCG and took place between their mascots in the sky?

Firstly, because we’re scientists we need to establish the facts.

What species are we talking about?

There are three species of eagle in Australia – the Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and the Little Eagle (Aquila morphnoides). The first two are the largest raptors (birds of prey) in Australia. They all belong to the Accipitridae family, along with the other fifteen bird of prey species, except for owls, falcons and kestrels.

Within the same Accipitridae family Australia also has buzzards, kites, goshawks, sparrowhawks, osprey, bazas and harriers, but no species that actually goes by the common name ‘Hawk’. The colloquial term hawk can refer to many of these birds but is often also used to refer to birds outside this group.

We’re working with some loose definitions here (not ideal for scientists, as I’m sure you can imagine) but let’s presume that the goshawks and sparrowhawks are what qualifies as Australian hawks.

Thus our Grand Final showdown is set to take place between the largest eagle – the Wedge-tailed Eagle and the largest hawk – the Red Goshawk.

Big game strategy:
Eagles will spend hours circling at a distance before moving in for the kill. Hawks tend to hunt from concealed hiding places, attacking by stealth and finishing with a high speed chase.

Size and speed:
In this particularly case our Eagle is about five times the size of our Hawk. Eagles are also marathon flyers and can keep going for hours. Hawks are fast over short distances but will tire easily.

Hawks are very intelligent birds, second only to the Adelaide Crows. This has been established by Dr Louis Lefebvre of McGill University in Canada who developed the world’s only comprehensive avian IQ index. Eagles are also very intelligent…but not as intelligent as a Hawk.

Unlike umpires, Hawks also have excellent eyesight. They have five times as many photoreceptors as humans and ten times better eyesight, partly due to an indented fovea that magnifies their centre of vision. This superior intelligence and eyesight means that they are favoured over eagles by falconers. Eagles also have excellent eyesight, and are known to soar 2km above the ground searching for carrion or prey. But…their eyesight is not as good a Hawks.

Flexibility and adaptability:
Eagles are very large and their weight and power works against their flexibility in close quarters. But with a good run-up they are almost unstoppable. Hawks are more readily able to change strategy to reflect changing circumstances, to start and stop quickly, and to win against their opponents in tight struggles.

Game tactics:
Eagles consume a large part of their diet as carrion, which doesn’t require much intelligence. They also feed on large animals such as North Melbourne Kangaroos, which they overcome through brute force … and dubious umpiring decisions. Hawks feed mostly on birds, especially parrots, which are smart in their own right and require more intelligence to overcome.

So who’s going to win? We’ll have to wait and see, but rest assured that feathers will fly!

Prehistoric marine life in Australia’s inland sea

by Melanie Raymond
Publish date
2 September 2015
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

Explore our collections 24/7

by Ely Wallis
Publish date
28 August 2015
Comments (1)

Over the past two years, a team of programmers, designers, curators, collection managers and database experts from across Museum Victoria have been working on a new, integrated website for our collections. We are excited to announce that the MV Collections website is now live.

The new site provides a single website to explore our Humanities (including history, technology and Indigenous collections) and Natural Sciences (including zoology, palaeontology and geology) records, with over 1.14 million item and specimen records from our collections, and over 3000 authored articles and species profiles, representing our research.

Museum Victoria Collections website homepage Museum Victoria Collections website homepage  

As well as providing lots of information, there are more than 150,000 images on the site. Over 80,000 were taken by our own MV photographers and staff. We have applied a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license to these images so that anyone can reuse them, as long as the image is credited back to MV. In addition, 31,000 more images are shown as being in the public domain, which means that there are no known copyright restrictions on their use.

The text is also all available for reuse and there’s a handy ‘Cite this page’ reference for students and teachers.

Use the site on your mobile device

The website has been designed to be used on whatever size screen suits you best. Desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones of all sizes will all work.

For programmers

For programmers and developers, the Our API section makes our data available for use by other institutions on their sites. You’ll already find MV data in DigitalNZ, the National Library of Australia’s Trove and the Atlas of Living Australia.

Also, the website code is available as open source on GitHub in Museum Victoria’s repository for any developers who wish to explore what’s under the hood.


The search function is powerful, and quick, but there are a few hints that are handy to know.

Firstly, you don’t need to enter any search term at all – and if you don’t, you’ll get back every record in the system. That’s over a million results!

Each word you type is searched separately. For example, a search for Melbourne fashion will give all records with Melbourne plus all records with fashion. Records with both words should come up high in the results.

Museum Victoria Collections search with search term of "Melbourne fashion"Museum Victoria Collections search with search term of "Melbourne fashion"

If you want to force the system to search on a phrase, use quote marks “” around the phrase. E.g., try “Port Phillip Bay”.

Search on a phrase: “Port Phillip Bay”Search on a phrase: “Port Phillip Bay”

If you have already done a search, e.g. for the word tractor, you can add extra terms by typing in the additional word or phrase then click the “plus” button to the right of the search box. Adding an extra term will result in a smaller set of results. For example, the search below will give you results for all tractors in the collection that are associated with Shepparton.

Search which will give results for all tractors in the collection associated with SheppartonSearch which will give results for all tractors in the collection associated with Shepparton

Another way to refine your search results is to use the filters on the left of the screen. You can turn on or off as many filters as you want.

Museum Victoria Collections website search filters Museum Victoria Collections website search filters  

Features coming soon

We’re still working on a few features. Next up to be added is the ability to download images.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy exploring MV Collections, any time of the day or night.

Read our historic field diaries online

by Nicole K
Publish date
14 August 2015
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In November last year, Museum Victoria started a project to digitise and transcribe the field diaries in our collection. These diaries, handwritten by Australia's early field naturalists long before the days of electronic notetaking, are rich in scientific data and historic detail. They provide insights into past species distribution and abundance, as well as the trials and wonders experienced on historic expeditions.

  Afternoon tea with Graham Brown (this diary, volume 4, is now viewable on the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Afternoon tea with Graham Brown (this diary, volume 4, is now viewable on the Biodiversity Heritage Library).
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria

They are fascinating sources of information and yet very few people have ever read them. As handwritten documents, each was created as a single hard copy. They have been carefully stored in the museum's archives for decades, protected from dust and light but inaccessible to anyone but the few curators who knew of their existence. Until now.

Rebecca Carland, MV's History of Collections Curator, with Graham Brown's field diaries. Rebecca Carland, MV's History of Collections Curator, with Graham Brown's field diaries.
Image: Nicole Kearney
Source: Museum Victoria

Over the past nine months we have digitised 24 historic field diaries from our collection and have been steadily uploading them onto DigiVol, the online volunteer transcription portal developed by the Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian Museum. In DigiVol, the pages can be individually transcribed, with a verification process ensuring the quality of the result.

We are immensely grateful to the volunteers who have contributed their time and attention to transcribing our field diaries. Ten field diaries have been fully transcribed and the volunteers are now working on a diary written by notable ornithologist Frederick Lee Berney between 1898 and 1904.

The first collection of five field diaries to be run through the digitisation and transcription process was produced by Graham Brown between 1948 and 1958. Now that they have been transcribed, the contents of the diaries can be searched and the data extracted. When analysed, Brown's diaries contained 5611 bird sightings, complete with dates and locations. This historic data will now be made available to scientists and can be used to inform climate change studies and species management plans.

A small fraction of the 5611 bird observations Graham Brown recorded in his diaries. A small fraction of the 5611 bird observations Graham Brown recorded in his diaries.
Image: Nicole Kearney
Source: Museum Victoria

The next step is to make the images of the field diaries available through a publicly accessible website. We have just uploaded four volumes of the Graham Brown field diaries and their transcriptions onto the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and we will continue to add more over time. Museum Victoria has already contributed over 500 rare books and historic journals to this global repository of historic literature (through a project funded by the Atlas of Living Australia). We are thrilled that our field diaries are now joining these other significant volumes.

Help us unlock the observations in our historic field diaries
If you would like to become a transcription volunteer, sign up on the DigiVol website.

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