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DISPLAYING POSTS FROM: Sep 2011 (14)

Daddy long-legs

Author
by Tim Blackburn
Publish date
20 September 2011
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Recently, a visitor to Bugs Alive! asked me whether daddy long-legs are spiders. The answer depends on what one is referring to when employing the term "daddy long-legs". It can be used to refer to a group of close relatives of spiders known as the harvestmen, which are arachnids (as are spiders) but are nonetheless not spiders. It can also be used to refer to crane flies, which are insects and not arachnids. The term is, however, most commonly used in Australia to refer to a species of spider known scientifically as Pholcus phalangioides. P. phalangioides is also sometimes known as the grandaddy long-legs, the cellar spider or the house spider, and is commonly found in houses in its irregularly structured webs which it often weaves in dark areas, such as under desks and behind bookshelves, or in the corners of ceilings in disused rooms.

The spider Pholcus phalangioides The spider Pholcus phalangioides is commonly referred to as the "daddy long-legs".
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria

Harvestmen, however, live in vastly different environments than does Pholcus phalangioides. They have been found in moist leaf litter, under rotting logs, under rocks and under the bark of trees. Unlike spiders, which are classified under order Araneae, harvestmen are classified under order Opiliones. The cephalothorax (the anterior/front body segment) of harvestmen is fused broadly with the abdomen (the posterior/rear body segment) to form a body which seemingly lacks a waist, whereas there is a distinct division between these two body segments in spiders. Furthermore, harvestmen have two eyes which are each positioned on the end of stalk-like projections found in a region approaching the top of the cephalothorax, as compared with spiders, which generally possess eight eyes attached directly to the anterior (front) region of the cephalothorax.

Harvestman specimen
Harvestmen are commonly referred to as “daddy long-legs” but they are not spiders. The above specimen’s second right leg appears blurry because harvestmen use their second pair of legs much like antennae, constantly waving them around.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Harvestman on a leaf The two body segments of harvestmen are fused to give the appearance of a body with a much reduced or absent waist.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unlike spiders, harvestmen do not produce silk, and they are omnivorous, having been known to feed on other invertebrates, plant matter, and the rotting carcasses of birds and mammals. They are non-venomous but can chew their food, whereas spiders must use venom injected by their fangs to convert their prey to liquid which they drink. Male harvestmen have a penis, which facilitates the direct transfer of sperm (from the genital region) to the female, whereas male spiders must use their pedipalps (which encircle the mouth) to do this indirectly.

Pholcus phalangioides
The distinct division between the two body segments of Pholcus phalangioides gives the appearance of a waist.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Pedipalps of Pholcus phalangioides The bulbous terminations to the male’s pedipalps of Pholcus phalangioides are used to transfer his sperm to the female.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

pedipalps of harvestmen The pedipalps of harvestmen are used for food-handling only as males have a penis which enables the direct transfer of sperm to females.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Live Exhibits department sometimes has harvestmen in its collection. We are considering the merits of putting them on display in the near future, possibly to illustrate the differences between spiders and harvestmen.

Harvestman. A harvestman I recently found inside a house, oddly enough.
Image: Tim Blackburn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Further reading:

Harvey, M. S. And Yen, A. L. (1997) Worms to Wasps. Oxford University Press, Oxford: p. 86-87.

Milledge, G. A. and Walker, K. L. (1992) Spiders Commonly Found in Melbourne and Surrounding Regions. Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne.

Links:

Question of the Week: Daddy long-legs spiders

Harvestmen (CSIRO)

Harvestmen (Wikipedia)

Pholcus phalangiodes (Wikipedia)

Pholcidae (Wikipedia)

Royal Charter gold

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
14 September 2011
Comments
Comments (4)

When Natural Sciences Collection Manager Dermot Henry heard a radio report about efforts to salvage gold from the Royal Charter shipwreck, the story rang a bell. "I had recollections of seeing a little gold specimen that had come from a shipwreck." Sure enough, in the Geology Collection he located a small nugget with a curious label explaining that it was a survivor of the Royal Charter, which was lost off the coast of Wales in 1859. The typed label probably accompanied the nugget on display at the former Industry and Technology Museum. It reads in part:

One of the passengers had a part of his property in a belt round his waist, and in swimming ashore was dashed against the rocks and the belt burst where this was picked up but his life was saved after being three times washed back into the sea off the rock. Name of above passenger W. J. Ferris.

The ship was just three hours from its destination in Liverpool when a terrible storm drove it onto rocks. Carrying over four hundred people and gold worth millions in today's money, the loss was a terrible one for Australia and England. Many of the passengers were returning home after striking it rich in the central Victorian goldfields. Just a handful of people survived including the man on the label William J. Ferris, a Ballarat shopkeeper.

WJ Ferris gold nugget The gold nugget that survived the Royal Charter shipwreck. It is 17mm long and weighs about 4g.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Dermot tracked the specimen back to a donation to the Public Library, Melbourne, from Mr Gordon Thomson, reported in the Argus in 1874. "We don't know how Thompson ended up with the gold," says Dermot. The report says that the two men met in Ireland but the nature of their transaction is not recorded.

Thomson himself was quite a character with a habit of collecting curious things. Irish-born into a wealthy family, he spent much of his life travelling the world and amassing ethnographic objects. His "very fine mansion" in Belfast called 'Bedeque-house' held "rich stores of curiosities and relics gathered from many lands." Among the relics were at least two treasures from Victorian history from his first visit to Melbourne in 1835, when the city was in its wattle-and-daub infancy. There he befriended William Buckley, who absconded from imprisonment to live with the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip Bay for more than 20 years. Buckley gave Thomson a greenstone axe-head that had "passed 20 years of its life of usefulness in Buckley's belt." The axe head and the Royal Charter gold specimen ended up in the Belfast museum along with hundreds of other objects Thomson collected on his travels.

When Thomson decided to return to Melbourne to live, he requested that the Belfast museum return the colonial objects, believing that they rightly belonged in their home country. Thus, in 1874, they travelled back over the oceans and were deposited in Melbourne public collections. We still have the gold but Buckley's axe has been missing for many years, its whereabouts unknown. Thomson built another 'Bedeque-house' in Dudley Street, West Melbourne. His 1886 obituary mourned the "death of one of the oldest Melbourne residents."

Links:

'Gold rush ship yields its treasures' - The Age, 18 July 2011

Report of Thomson's donations, The Argus, 23 Octopber 1874

Thomson's obituary, 'Death of one of Melbourne's Oldest Residents' - The Argus, 8 Jun 1886

William Buckley on Australian Biography

 

Further reading:

Winifred Glover, In the Wake of Captain Cook: The Travels of Gordon Augustus Thomson (1799 - 1886) Ulster Historical Foundation, 1993

Sturt’s Pigeon

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
12 September 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

13 September this year marks the 150th anniversary of the day that Alfred Howitt and his party reached the dig tree at Fort Wills, where the missing explorers Burke and Wills and their party had made their base for the trek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Two days later a member of Howitt’s party, Edwin Welch, found John King alive and being cared for by the local Aboriginal people. The remains of both Burke and Wills, who had died around the end of June, were found and buried a few days later.

As noted in a previous post, Museum Victoria holds a small but interesting group of specimens that Howitt collected on two expeditions to Cooper Creek.

Bird specimens Howitt dispatched to Melbourn The bird specimens Howitt dispatched to Melbourne are shown here in taxonomic order.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Howitt's specimens include two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon, Geophaps plumifera. The species had been described as the Plumed Pigeon by John Gould as early as 1842, from a specimen collected by Benjamin Bynoe, the ship’s surgeon on the Beagle, a man who had treated Darwin for illness on its historic voyage. However it was known to the explorers of the 1860s as ‘Sturt’s Pigeon’.

two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon Howitt's two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Some years later, Howitt wrote that when he reached the dig tree he found 'the loose sandy soil was so run over by the tracks of birds and small animals that no traces of footprints could be seen'. He and Welch both noted in their journals the presence of ‘crested pigeons’ in the area. Howitt says they were 'numerous', Welch that they were in 'immense numbers'. The Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes was certainly present; there are two in the upper right corner of the collection pictured. But Howitt specifically states that it was the 'small crested pigeon, spoken of by Sturt' to which he referred.

Welch also remarked that the pigeons were a first-rate change of diet, roasted on coals. Sturt’s party had also enjoyed them, unlike the O. lophotes which he found 'neither tender nor well-flavoured'. Why Burke and Wills were unable to exploit this source of food as Howitt’s party had done remains a mystery. Their deaths were the result of starvation. Is it possible the pigeons had only arrived in the area of Fort Wills in such numbers in the intervening eleven weeks since the deaths?

Sturt first encountered the bird in 1845 during his search for an inland sea. It was on his third and final exploration from Fort Grey, his last base camp near what is now the meeting of New South Wales, South Australian and Queensland borders. At the eastern end of Cooper Creek (which he named) he realised, with advice from local Aborigines, that no substantial body of water was to be found and began what was to prove his penultimate retreat. On the way back down the creek, 4 November 1845, he recorded in his daily journal: 'Mr Stuart shot a new and beautiful crested pigeon'. (John McDouall Stuart would himself achieve great fame as an explorer.) Four days later another was shot and he recorded a description of its behaviour. There is a colour plate illustration of it in the Narrative of this journey that he published in 1849, written up from his journal.

Colourplate of Sturt's Pigeon Colourplate of Sturt's Pigeon from MV's copy the original 1849 edition of Sturt's Narrative.
Image: pigeon-colourplate.jpg
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The appendix to this two-volume work includes a description of the birds encountered on the expedition. He states the pigeon was 'entirely confined to about thirty miles along the banks of that creek'.

The species is now known to be mainly sedentary. It is highly unlikely they would have suddenly arrived in this area during the winter months; most likely they were present all along. Sturt was the first to note their quail-like flight; strictly ground-feeders, they would flush suddenly, fly a short distance, then go to cover and be difficult to flush again, preferring to run off through the scrub. Sturt also repeatedly noted the shyness of birds in his explorations throughout the region; it was difficult to get a shot at them. He described his pigeon as 'very wild'. These pigeons may well have eluded the exhausted Burke, Wills and King, along with other potential food sources such as the cockatoos and parrots that would also have almost certainly been in the area; they only seemed able to shoot a few crows that no doubt came nosing around too close to their camps.

Howitt’s collection at Cooper Creek extends the range of the pigeon somewhat further south than it is usually found today. Their main range extends further north into the driest stony deserts where there is often no vegetation at all. They like rocky outcrops and are typically seen perched on a rock in the blazing sun in forty degree heat. It was in such a region that Sturt was forced to abandon his search for the inland sea and wrote in his weekly letter to his wife: 'The scene was awfully fearful, dear Charlotte. A kind of dread...came over me as I gazed upon it. It looked like the enrance into Hell'. His pigeons were perfectly at home around the ‘entrance into hell’. Paradoxically, in spite of their fondness for blazing deserts, they are never far from water. But unlike Sturt, a muddy little puddle is enough for them.

pigeon specimen Sturt's Pigeon mounted specimen.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Following the travelling Tjitjingalla

Author
by Jason Gibson
Publish date
9 September 2011
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Jason Gibson is a Senior Research Coordinator with the Australian National University and the Indigenous Cultures Department at Museum Victoria.

In 1894 Walter Edmund Roth heard about a performance, called the 'Molong-go' that had been shared by the Wakaya people from the upper reaches of the Georgina River in the Northern Territory with the Pitta Pitta people in outback Queensland. As an ethnographer, Roth was fascinated to hear that the dance had 'originated from a point east or south-east of Darwin'; some hundreds of kilometres from the Queensland desert country where he was stationed. Two years later in 1898 Alice Springs Special Magistrate F.J. Gillen wrote to his friend and collaborator in anthropological studies, the then Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne Walter Baldwin Spencer, explaining that a corroboree almost identical to the one seen by Roth had appeared in Alice Springs. Gillen explained to Spencer that the dance, known as the Tjitjingalla altharte (corroboree) to the local Arrernte people, had been 'brought down' into the region by a 'northern group'.

Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901 Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901. The picture depicts one of the dance sequences of the Tjitjingalla as performed by Arrernte people at Alice Springs.
Image: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer
Source: Museum Victoria
 

After attending the performance, which extended over five nights, Gillen reported that the repertoire had indeed originated 1500kms north, in the 'country of the Salt water' and that 'the implements carried by the performers' were 'in all cases the same as described by Roth'. Three years later, during the Spencer and Gillen Expedition of 1901 Spencer collected two of the dancing sticks used in the performance.

Two Tjitjingalla dancing sticks Two Tjitjingalla dancing sticks wrapped in human hair string. These dancing sticks were used in one of the dance sequences of the altharte or what Spencer called an ‘ordinary corroboree’.
Image: Justine Philip
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Tjitjingalla dancing stick detail Detail of a Tjitjingalla dancing stick.
Image: Justine Phillip
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Earlier in the expedition, whilst camped by the Stevenson Creek in the remote north of South Australia, Spencer and Gillen were visited a small group of Lower Arrernte men. Gillen writes, 'we gave them a good feed and after tea rigged the phonograph up and got them to sing into it a number of corroboree songs' and Spencer also noted that the men 'were very much excited and interested, especially as we let them hear the instrument repeating what they had said.' It was here, almost by accident, that one of the Tjitjingalla song verses was recorded. A few weeks later when the expedition reached Alice Springs Spencer spent considerable time photographing and filming the altharte using his Warwick motion film camera. The sound and film recordings made of the Tjitjingalla are some of the earliest ever made on the Australian continent.

Listen to Baldwin Spencer's introduction to the recording, courtesy of the Gillen Collection, Royal Geographic Society of South Australia  (Length 0:29)  
(Download MP3)

"This corroboree, the Tjitjingalla corroboree, was first described by Dr. Roth in north central Queensland. Subsequently was performed by the natives of central Australia [unknown] the Arrernte tribe at Alice Springs. This corroboree was sung on the Stevenson River on March 22nd, 1901."

The peregrination of the Tjitjingalla/Molongo, which was subsequently documented at various locations in South Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, later became important to theories regarding the exchange of ideas, songs, dances and mythologies amongst the Australian Indigenous population.

More stories like this are being uncovered in a joint research project between the Australian National University, Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. The Reconstructing the Spencer and Gillen Collection Project will produce an online database of the W.B. Spencer and F.J. Gillen collaboration, including objects they collected, their photographs, manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and other material held in over 20 institutions, both in Australia and overseas.

Married to the Job vodcast

Author
by Dr Andi
Publish date
6 September 2011
Comments
Comments (3)

This episode of Married to the Job features Nick Crotty, Collection Manager, History & Technology, at Museum Victoria. He is based at Scienceworks.

In the spirit of tradition, we ask Nick to tell us about himself and his work by showing us something old, new, borrowed and blue.

 

Watch this video with a transcript

Conservation sound studio

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
5 September 2011
Comments
Comments (2)

MV's new conservation sound studio opened for business at the end of August. Conservator Sarah Gubby hosted an open day to herald the event and to show staff this wonderful new facility.

Sarah demonstrating studio Sarah demonstrating the Edison phonograph to MV staff at the sound studio open day.
Source: Museum Victoria

Sarah joined the museum as a paper, image and audio-visual conservator in February 2010. Among other things, she's been working with MV librarians to assess the condition of our rare books collection. In recent months she has been planning the new sound studio, which will assist her to preserve the museum's many recordings, such as interviews, oral histories, music, films and more. Some of these recordings exist on fragile media like wax cylinders, while others are in more stable formats that are now obsolete and haven't been played for years.

Before now, there weren't any dedicated spaces where staff could play back AV material. "There were pockets of room, but acoustically they weren't very good," explained Sarah. The new studio is a soundproofed, dedicated space where AV material can be played back in privacy, which is especially important for culturally sensitive items. Sarah has decked it out with a bank of both old and brand-new equipment that can accommodate almost any medium or format. This means that playback and digitisation can now happen in-house. The studio will also be useful for creating new recordings such as podcasts.

Bank of AV equipment The bank of AV equipment in the conservation sound studio. The older equipment, such as the laserdisc player, was first used in the museum's production studios.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Said Sarah, "Certain forms of AV materials are robust enough to travel out of the museum for copying, such as video and movie reels, but there are lots of very fragile and old pieces. Wax cylinders are particularly fragile. If conditions are too dry, they become brittle; if too humid, they become languid and malleable. And the more you play them, the more they wear down."

Sarah will assess whether AV items are sturdy enough to play, how they will be played, and she'll work with curators to determine whether their content should be transferred to a digital format. The studio contains all the cleaning and playing gear needed to do so. "To get good sound, you need to have clean equipment – a clean record and clean needles. So we've bought various types of very soft brushes and cloths to remove dust and a special record-cleaning machine." The studio's new turntable can play twelve different speeds and there is a variety of needles and differently weighted cartridges.

Sarah with the new record-cleaning machine. Sarah with the new record-cleaning machine.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The studio itself is a small room with an eclectic mix of furniture. Much of it Sarah salvaged from other parts of the museum, but there is one large cabinet that is definitely not standard office furniture. "I picked it up for a bargain from a Chinese antiques sale," she said. "It's the only thing I could find that would close and fit the Edison horn in it for storage. It's got good mass to it as well – I was adamant that I needed a very solid surface for the turntable. That's important, to help minimise reverb."

Sound studio cabinet The unusual cabinet in the studio is large and heavy enough to accomodate both the enormous old Edison horn and newer turntable.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

I asked Sarah which material she was most excited about working on. She didn't hesitate to say "the interviews and other sound recordings in the Indigenous Cultures collections. Those, and the birdsongs in our Sciences collections. It will be exciting to unlock their content after all this time, and share it with new audiences." These recordings will be invaluable for research and interpretation, so watch (or rather, listen out for) this space!

Links:

Edison phonograph cylinders 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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