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DISPLAYING POSTS FROM: Jan 2012 (22)

Penguin Awareness Day

Author
by Karen Rowe
Publish date
20 January 2012
Comments
Comments (1)

Karen Rowe is a Research Associate at MV where she studies evolutionary ecology and behaviour in birds and mammals.

January 20th is an auspicious day for birding enthusiasts, marking Penguin Awareness Day. With 17 species currently recognised, members of the family Spheniscidae (pronounced sfen-IS-kuh-dee) are found only within the southern hemisphere. While most of us think of penguins as cold-adapted animals, surviving long treks over ice to breed and raise their young in the middle of winter, many species live further north, among the islands off of Antarctica, along the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, and one species is found on the Galapagos Islands (the aptly named Galapagos Penguin).

Royal Penguins Royal Penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) – among Elephant Seals on Macquarie Island.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

As a group, penguins possess an amazing array of adaptations, uniquely suited to their predominately marine existence. Unlike other birds, penguins have solid, rather than air-filled bones, to help them dive in the water. They have highly modified feathers that form a thick insulating layer that cover the body, rather than growing in the well-defined feather tract found in other birds. They also have unique eyes that allow them to see clearly both on land and in the sea. And while their short legs and feet make them seem awkward on land, many species actually travel tremendous distances over land and rocks to reach their breeding sites – some even traveling as far as three kilometres from water.

Magellanic Penguin Captive Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) floating in the water. The coloured flipper band allows zoo keepers to distinguish between individuals.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Extant species show a wide range of body sizes, from our own Little (or Fairy) Penguins, weighing 1.1 kg and standing 40 cm tall, to the largest species, the Emperor Penguin, at a whopping 30 kg and up to 115 cm tall.

Little Penguins Little Penguins (Eudyptyla minor) in captivity. These coloured leg bands are another way to tell individuals apart.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But even the Emperor Penguin is dwarfed in size by some of the extinct fossil penguins, including a 15-million-year-old giant penguin (Anthropodyptes gilli) from Victoria that may have approached twice its size. Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Dr. Erich Fitzgerald studies fossil penguins here at Museum Victoria. "Victoria was home to a remarkable diversity of penguins over the last 20 million years," says Dr. Fitzgerald. "The tiny Little Penguin living in Australia today is an oddity on a geologic timescale. The fossil record tells us that most penguins that have lived in Australia were large to huge in size and that at any one time there were perhaps two or more species coexisting here." Currently, Dr. Fitzgerald and his student, Travis Park, are working on six-million-year-old fossil penguins found in Melbourne on the shores of Port Philip Bay that are thought to be the size of the living Gentoo and Emperor Penguins.

Penguin limb bones The upper wing bone (humerus) of living penguins compared with their fossil counterparts from Victoria. From left to right: the 18-million-year-old fossil Anthropodyptes gilli; the living emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri; the living fairy penguin Eudyptula minor; the living gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua; and the 6-million-year-old fossil Pseudaptenodytes. Credit: Photograph by Erich Fitzgerald
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Emperor Penguin and chick Emperor Penguin and chick, Antarctica.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

The unique ecology of penguins makes them particularly susceptible to a variety of human-induced threats. In particular, commercial fishing, often leading to death through by-catch or competition for prey items (which include fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods), directly impacts their survival. Penguins are also dependent on breeding grounds close to the shore and habitat loss is a major source of population declines. Smaller and fewer breeding grounds also promotes disease, as most species of penguins breed in large colonies.

Royal Penguin colony Royal Penguin colony. This species is endemic to Macquarie Island and this is the largest Royal Penguin colony with over 180,000 breeding pairs. The fluffy young penguin in the front on the right is in moult.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

Although little research has been done looking at the impact of climate change on penguins, their specialised lifestyle suggests that climate change could have dramatic impacts on their distribution and abundance. "Penguins are an ancient group of birds, with a history stretching back some 65 million years to the extinction of the dinosaurs," says Dr. Fitzgerald. "In southern Australia they have persisted through the last 20 million years of major climatic changes, but it is unknown how they will respond to the current human-exacerbated wave of environmental upheaval. It would be a terrible shame to see this ancient and superbly successful group of birds become threatened with extinction within our lifetime."

Adelie Penguin, Bechervaise Island, Antarctica. Adelie Penguin, Bechervaise Island, Antarctica.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

Links:

Emperor Penguins in the Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world

Penguins on Atlas of Living Australia

Happy Feet Two at IMAX Melbourne

2012 EOL Rubenstein Fellow

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
19 January 2012
Comments
Comments (1)

Dr Joanne Taylor has had a busy few months; just before Christmas the book that she co-edited was published, and now she has been selected as a 2012 Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) Rubenstein Fellow!

This prestigious fellowship is awarded by the Smithsonian Institution to support scientists to upload information about the species they study into the EOL. As a Rubenstein Fellow, Jo will be adding over 400 species of squat lobsters to this amazing resource about the world's biodiversity.

In 2009, Jo started a postdoctorate project to produce the first comprehensive book about this group of colourful crustaceans. The resulting book, The Biology of Squat Lobsters, was published by CSIRO last year.

Dr Jo Taylor Dr Jo Taylor in late 2011 with her hot-off-the-press preview copy of her book, The Biology of Squat Lobsters.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Congratulations Jo!

Links:

MV News: New squat lobster species

MV News: Butterflies of the sea

Encyclopedia of Life

The Biology of Squat Lobsters, edited by Gary C B Poore, Shane T Ahyong and Joanne Taylor. CSIRO Publishing, 2011.

Five things about summer

Author
by Dr Andi
Publish date
18 January 2012
Comments
Comments (2)

1. Summer means getting to a century... in cricket, in the old Fahrenheit, and for a beer break.

As a little kid, I remember summer was celebrated by the number 100. It was a big deal when cricketers hit a century (as it still is) and being able to say "it's going to be (or was) 100 today!" to whomever you met that day. I also remember some outdoor workers used to stop work if it got to a hundred.

One hundred degrees Fahrenheit is 38° Celsius; it's marked as 'blood heat' (body temperature) on this old thermometer from our collection. According to Mr Myles Whelan, this advertising thermometer "had hung inside the office of Whelan the Wrecker since the 1920s." He donated the sign to Museum Victoria after the company went into receivership in 1991. I wonder... did they go for beers when it got to 100°F?

Thermometer Sign - 'Stephens Inks', Thermometer, Metal & Enamel, 1920s. (SH 930886)
Source: Museum Victoria
  

2. Summer means water worship... sun worship is too dangerous.

Mr Hogan from the council pool was a fit muscular chap like the Roman god Neptune; he was god of water, sea and master of the chlorinated pond. For summer after summer, Mr Hogan tried to teach me to swim. He eventually got me to swim half the length of the pool but I was never able to repeat it. Swimming is a skill that still eludes me.

Nevertheless summertime does call for a bit of water worship and don't we all miss the days of wonderful garden sprinkler action.

These floatation aids were used by Margaret Daws at the beach around 1930 when she was about four years old. The Daws family lived in Coburg and rented the same Aspendale house every year for their annual two-month summer holiday at Mordialloc and Aspendale (Long Beach).

floation aids from 1930 Water Wings - Father Neptune's Safe Float, circa 1930 (HT 21431).
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Here's Gerald Brocklesby jumping over the sprinkler in the back garden of his family home at Blackburn, on 17 January 1953. The Brocklesby children often played in the sprinkler in the backyard for relief from the summer heat.

Photo of boy playing in sprinkler Digital Photograph - Boy Jumping Over Rotating Sprinkler, Backyard, Blackburn, 1953 (MM 110316).
Source: Museum Victoria
 

3. Summer cool is a short queue at the Gelato van.

When I saw this toy ice-cream truck I thought I could hear the distant sound of a slow paced, slightly off tune - the electronic xylophone version of Für Elise. It is part of the William Boyd Childhood Collection of post-World War II country Victorian toys that belonged to Bill Boyd.

Toy ice cream truck Toy Ice Cream Truck - Metal, circa 1950s (HT 18771)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

4. Summer is all thanks to 23.5. The answer to the universe and everything is not 42, it is 23.5. The seasons of the year are a consequence of the 23.5° tilt of the Earth's axis and its orbital alignment with the Sun. The summer solstice (longest day) has been celebrated in a myriad of pagan, religious, humanitarian, commercial, and family rituals.

This orrery was made by Benjamin Martin in London, England circa 1770. An orrery is a mechanical model of the Solar System. Generally they were intended to be schematic representations for educational purposes rather than strictly accurate ones. This orrery contains a mechanism that can actually produce elliptical orbits around the Sun and is pictured in the winter position for Australia.

  Orrery circa 1770 Orrery, Tellurium & Lunarium - Benjamin Martin, London, circa 1770. (ST 023770).
Source: Museum Victoria
 

5. Summer in Melbourne is parasol one day, umbrella the next. When I started writing this blog it was a hot 35°C day. The day I was checking the final draft, it was 19°C and a hailstorm had just subsided. By the time I went for lunch the skies were clear and the sun was out.

Many years ago an overseas friend emailed me and asked me what the weather was like; instead of taking a photo outside my office window I saw this t-shirt in a souvenir shop – so I sent her a photo of that instead.

souvenir t-shirt Photo of a Melbourne 'Four Seasons in One Day' souvenir t-shirt taken many years ago at a city souvenir store.  

Oh by the way... at the moment our award-winning Planetarium at Scienceworks is running a great show about the reasons for the seasons called Tilt.

And...if you visit Melbourne Museum in the next month don't forget to check out the Summer Holiday Snaps display in the foyer. It features 40 images from our image collection depicting summer holidays around 100 years ago. We are so used to looking at people from the early 20th century in austere portraits that it's wonderful to see these relaxed, leisure-time snaps with their candid, smiling faces. Some things haven't changed so much in 100 years, after all.

Summer Holiday Snaps display Summer Holiday Snaps display in the Melbourne Museum foyer.
Image: Andi Horvath
Source: Museum Victoria
 

A letter about Discovery Centre

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
17 January 2012
Comments
Comments (1)

Our CEO received a wonderful letter late last year from a member of the public who was particularly delighted with the help he received from the Discovery Centre to identify the spider that had taken up lodgings in his window. Here's part of the letter:

My wife and I, both Age Pensioners and Empty Nesters, live in a two-storey rectangular 1960s house.To avoid having to walk up and down sixteen stairs to find out what the weather is outside I installed an outside thermometer on the south side, which is viewed through the kitchen window at eye level above the sink.

This turned out to be an ideal spot for a Black House Spider to nest and spin its web. It was high enough to catch prey yet was a hideaway against bird strike. I was curious just what the spider was, and that's when I started asking questions of your staff. And they came up trumps! I won't name names as everyone I have spoken to over the months has been the same - 100% helpful.

The result is that I have watched the complete life cycle of this female - mating, nesting, offspring leaving - something not normally available to a householder. Two days a week we mind two sets of three primary school grandchildren after school, from different families, and I have been able to let them watch and ask questions and develop their own curiosity. I can guarantee that there are now six children who will not kill a spider as a natural reflex.

I enclose a photo of the first mating attempt - he was breakfast next day. Two days later another male repeated the ritual, he was gone next morning, but the inscrutable smile on the face of the female told its own story. She produced three clusters of eggs, but once the spiderlings had left the last clutch she then changed her former careful habits. Usually she only emerged from behind the thermometer at dusk but on the fateful afternoon was busy repairing the web in clear view and bright light. Vale Mother!

I do thank you and your staff for the interest and care you have displayed. It has generated an interest I hadn't explored before, and the long-term benefit of educating the next generation cannot be overstated.

Two Black House Spiders Two Black House Spiders next to the outside thermometer. Our letter-writer describes this photo as "the last sighting of the male who became breakfast next day, his ambitions unfulfilled."
Source: Anonymous
 

What a lovely letter to receive. Well done, Discovery Centre! If you have a critter you'd like identified, send the DC staff a request via the Ask the Experts form. Your query might end up featured in a Your Questions blog post!

Links:

Black House Spider

Small mammals at Wilsons Prom

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
16 January 2012
Comments
Comments (0)

In October 2011, 50 scientists and volunteers performed a rapid biodiversity survey of Wilsons Promontory in partnership with Parks Victoria. In this video, Dr Karen Rowe and Dr Karen Roberts talk about the mammals of Wilsons Prom, particularly the small mammals: native rats and antechinus.

 

Watch this video with a transcript

Links:

Prom Bioscan

Paradise Valley

Historian at the Prom

Hunting for herpetiles

Crayfish climbing trees

Plague Soldier Beetles

Author
by Jo
Publish date
15 January 2012
Comments
Comments (148)

Your Question: What are these swarming beetles in my garden?

The Discovery Centre has received many enquiries over the last few weeks about swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne; they are Plague Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus lugubris.

Plague Soldier Beetles Plague Soldier Beetles
Image: Peter Saunders
Source: Peter Saunders
 

 

This flattened, elongated, soft-bodied beetle has a thin yellow-orange stripe across the back of the pronotum. It has metallic olive green elytra (hardened forewings), covering most of a yellow-orange abdomen. The legs, head, antennae and rest of the pronotum are black and the beetle is usually about 15mm in length. This native species has earned its common name of the Plague Soldier Beetle not as a result of bringing or spreading any dangerous plagues, rather due to its habit of forming huge mating swarms.

 

Plague Soldier Beetles Plague Soldier Beetles
Image: Peter Saunders
Source: Peter Saunders
 

 

The larvae of this species live in the soil and feed on soft bodied invertebrates, while the adults feed on pollen and nectar. The species is found across large parts of the country including urban areas and adults can be seen from spring through to autumn. During their mating periods they can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.

Their bright colour warns off predators as they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and would not make a good meal. For homeowners who may be hosting huge numbers of this colourful species, don't be too concerned, following the mating swarm the beetles tend to disperse.

 

Got a question? Ask us!

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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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