MV Blog


Mexico in the World Cup

by J. Patrick Greene
Publish date
30 May 2014
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Patrick is talking about Searching for the Aztecs in Mexico City as part of the Aztecs lecture series.

On 13 June, Mexico kicks off its World Cup campaign with a match against Cameroon in Group A in the group stage. Group A also contains Croatia and Brazil. Chances of a win against Brazil, the World Cup hosts, are not encouraging for Mexico. In three of Mexico’s 14 appearances in the World Cup these two teams have met, with Brazil scoring a total of eleven goals while conceding none. Mexican fans will be pinning their hopes on better results against Cameroon and Croatia. Mexico is lucky to be in the finals at all; after a series of indifferent results against other Latin American teams they scraped into the playoffs in which they qualified by beating New Zealand.

Perhaps the occasion will bring out the best in the Mexican team – and perhaps they will be inspired by a tradition of ball games that goes back to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilisations. A ball game was an integral part of Aztec culture, with specially designed courts (or tlachtlis) placed in prominent locations in sacred and administrative precincts. However, it was not football. The rules required participants to use their hips and upper arms to keep the ball from touching the ground.

tlachti ball and ring Visitors to Aztecs can lift this replica ball - rather like a rubber cannonball - and imagine trying to propel it off their bodies and through the tiny hole in the stone ring.
Source: Museum Victoria

In the exhibition is a replica of the heavy rubber ball that the Aztecs used. Despite wearing a thick belt around the lower waist, injuries could result. Even worse, the game sometimes ended in human sacrifice. On the other hand, if a player achieved the near-impossible feat of sending the ball through one of the pair of stone rings high on the long sides of the court they were entitled to the pick of the possessions of all the spectators!

On their shirts, the Mexican footballers will wear the crest of the Mexican Federation of Association Football. The crest shows a football in front of the Aztec calendar stone, surmounted by the eagle that was part of the Aztec foundation myth.

When Mexico players have a home match they perform in one of the world’s largest stadiums, the Estadio Azteca. Footballers that play for one of Mexico’s leading clubs, the Pumas de la UNAM, have as their home ground the Olympic Stadium, which has on its exterior a huge sculpture designed by Diego Rivera with Aztec symbolism such as the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. Mexicans will be expecting their footballing heroes to rise to the World Cup occasion, inspired by the country’s proud Aztec heritage.

Olympic Stadium in Mexico City Olympic Stadium in Mexico City showing the sculpture designed by Diego Rivera.
Image: Patrick Greene
Source: Museum Victoria


Live broadcast of 2014 FIFA World Cup matches at IMAX Melbourne Museum

  • Saturday June 14th @ 8:00am - CHILE vs AUSTRALIA
  • Sunday June 15th @ 8:00am - ENGLAND vs ITALY

More about the Aztec ball game at

National Geographic: Aztec, Maya Were Rubber-Making Masters?

Visiting Arnhem Weavers

by Matthew Navaretti
Publish date
26 May 2014
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Matthew is our Outreach Program Manager.

Earlier this year, Melbourne Museum was honoured to host a visit of the Arnhem Weavers, a group of Yolŋu women from Mäpuru in northeast Arnhem Land. Their visit to Melbourne was facilitated by the Friends of Mäpuru who are a Melbourne based group who have visited the community of Mäpuru. By staying in the homes of members of Friends of Mäpuru, each were able to share their daily lives and activities.

The visit to Melbourne Museum started with the Arnhem Weavers being taken on a tour of First Peoples by Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre's Project Officer Kimberley Moulton. The women connected with the culture of Koorie Victoria, especially with the stories of Bunjil and Waa having similar creation stories of Eagle and Crow ancestors from their country. The women also saw objects in Many Nations that were from their country up north, that they were very proud to see.

The museum visit was a chance for the elders to explain and share culture with the younger generations of women, museum staff and Friends of Mäpuru, connecting two ways of learning, learning about the past and seeing and understanding ‘the other way.’ The experience, which was the first visit to a museum for most of the students, creates links with their school curriculum and will be shared back home in Mäpuru.

After the tour of First Peoples the group had a back of house collections tour of Arnhem Land objects and photographs with Senior Curator of Northern Australia, Lindy Allen. This was exceptionally moving for the group to be able to connect with their cultural material made by their ancestors. The group also had the opportunity to view photographs from the Donald Thomson Collection and this was particularly special as there were many family members in the images including one of Roslyn Malŋumba’s grandfather, Wuruwul. After the Arnhem Weavers day at Melbourne Museum, Roslyn was very moved by her experience and as a gift of thanks donated a basket made by her mother and fibre artist, Linda Marathuwarr.

Women with basket Roslyn Malŋumba presenting a basket made by her mother, fibre artist Linda Marathuwarr, to Meg in the Discovery Centre.
Image: Loredana Ducco
Source: Friends of Mäpuru

Together FoM and the Mäpuru community are planning to sustain these cultural exchanges into the future, to give the opportunity for others from Mäpuru to share time in the city, including connecting with Yolŋu cultural artifacts at the museum.

Eltham Copper Butterfly update

by Kate Phillips
Publish date
13 May 2014
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Once thought extinct, the Eltham Copper Butterfly was rediscovered in 1986 in Eltham, in a small patch of bush that was going to be bulldozed to build houses. A campaign to save the butterfly’s habitat began and the local council, State government and local community raised the money to buy the land and make it a conservation reserve. Since then other sites have been reserved in other parts of Eltham, Greensborough, Castlemaine, Bendigo and Kiata.

Eltham Copper Butterfly Eltham Copper Butterfly (Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida) perched on Sweet Bursaria, Bursaria spinosa.
Image: Andrea Canzano
Source: Andrea Canzano

Over time, butterfly numbers in the Eltham reserves went down. People from the nearby houses would walk through the reserves, let their pets in and local kids couldn’t resist building cubby houses. Active trampling wasn’t the only problem. The reserves weren’t being grazed by native fauna or cleared by periodic burns any more. Vigorous native plants and weeds started to crowd out Sweet Bursaria, the butterfly's sole food. The habitat was no longer ideal for the larvae or butterflies which need patches of sunlight and clear flight-paths.

Eltham Copper larva with ants Eltham Copper larva being tended by Notoncus ants on a Sweet Bursaria bush. The Eltham Copper Butterfly can only live in habitats where this plant and these ants are present.
Image: Andrea Canzano
Source: Andrea Canzano

A couple of years ago I ventured out one cool September night to help with the larvae count at an Eltham reserve. While it was exciting to be in the bush at night we didn’t find a single larva where they had been numerous a few years earlier. Results like his made people realise that it was not enough to fence off reserves and expect the butterflies to flourish.

In 2012 the Friends of Eltham Copper Butterfly in partnership with Nillumbik Shire Council, Parks Victoria, Friends of Diosma Road, Friends of Woodridge Linear Reserve and Eltham East Primary School obtained a Communities for Nature grant to protect and enhance the habitat of the Eltham Copper Butterfly.

The habitat restoration involved skilled workers selectively weeding the reserves and planting more Sweet Bursaria, other butterfly-attracting native grasses and daisies to bring the vegetation back to an ideal mix for the Eltham Copper Butterfly.

And the result? Already, only 12 months later, there has been a significant increase in the number of Eltham Copper Butterflies recorded in the counts in this summer (2013-14). It is an encouraging start, and supports the idea that active management can make a decisive difference for an endangered species. Ongoing community involvement and education is the other vital component. This takes many forms from festivals, to butterfly-friendly garden courses, to education in the local schools.

Children and performer Eltham East Primary School children have planted a butterfly garden. Here they're learning about the Eltham Copper Butterfly.
Image: Alison Bayley
Source: Alison Bayley

So it looks hopeful for the Melbourne Eltham Copper populations but what about the butterfly in Central Victoria?

In 2009 there were only three known butterfly sites in Central Victoria but in the last five years a small team surveyed 3,000 hectares of public land looking for the right habitat features for the butterfly – a combination of enough Sweet Bursaria bushes in an open forest habitat. Having identified promising areas, they went back at the right time of year to see if they could find the adults. With great excitement they found seven new sites bringing the total in the region to ten.

Julie Whitfield in butterfly habitat Julie Whitfield, a leader in Eltham Copper butterfly conservation in Central Victoria, at a site where a colony of butterflies was found at Big Hill, Bendigo.
Image: Kate Phillips
Source: Museum Victoria

However at the same time these new butterfly colonies were being discovered, the risk of fire was brought into sharp focus and fuel reduction burns given greater priority.

Areas surrounding regional towns such as Castlemaine and Bendigo are set aside to be burnt each year. Many of these overlap with the newly-discovered Eltham Copper butterfly habitat. The fuel reduction burns are designed to be ‘thorough’. While this is seen as good fire risk management it endangers fire-sensitive species such as rare orchids; a fire in Eltham Copper Butterfly habitat could wipe out one of its populations. However when on-the-ground knowledge is used to guide fuel reduction burns, important habitat pockets can be excluded. It is not a case of conservation versus safety, but a balancing of the two needs.

Thanks to Andrea Canzano, Karen Borton, Anne Fitzpatrick and Julie Whitfield for their contributions to this post.

Hair of the dog

by Kate C
Publish date
8 May 2014
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The Aztecs were dog people. They were in awe of the jaguar for its stealth and fighting prowess, but for domestic companionship, they chose dogs, not cats.

And their dogs didn't look much like your typical house mutts. Known in English as the Mexican hairless dog, the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs called their breed the Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced show-loh-its-queen-tli) after Xolotl, a god with the head of a dog who helped the dead in their passage to the underworld. (Xolotl was also the beleaguered twin of Quetzacoatl and ultimately turned himself into the amphibious axolotl, but that's another story.)

Mexican hairless dog A Mexican hairless dog called Izzy Frittata.
Image: Xugardust
Source: Xugardust via Compfight cc

The Aztecs exhibition at Melbourne Museum features a dog statue carved from stone in about 1500. This little dog has the half-closed eyes and raised head of a dog receiving a hearty scratch under the chin. It seems an affectionate portrait of a much-loved friend. However, when the Aztec owner of a Xoloitzcuintli died, their dog was sacrificed to accompany them on the journey ahead. This sounds horrifying to dog lovers today but the Aztecs also raised dogs for food and had no qualms about putting them to death.

Sculpture of a dog Sculpture of a dog about 1500. When a person died, if they had a dog it was sacrificed after the funeral. The dog would then guide its owner’s soul through the nine levels of the underworld.
Image: Michel Zabe
Source: © Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH)

Almost unknown in Australia, Xoloitzcuintlisor Xolosremain quite rare in Mexico and the USA because they nearly vanished completely after the arrival of the Spanish in Central America. Believing them to have healing properties, people in remote Mexican villages sheltered these sacred dogs and protected them from mixing with other mutts. Accordingly, they survive as one of the oldest breeds, and have been used by geneticists to examine the history of dog domestication. Frida Kahlo kept Xolos and included them in her paintings, helping to boost the popularity of the dogs and save them from another near-extinction in the 20th century.

Museo Dolores Olmedo Pick the real dog! Three Xoloitzcuintli dogs lazing about a statue of this sacred breed in the garden of Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico.
Image: Joshua Bousel
Source: joshbousel used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Of course, the most striking feature of the Xoloitzcuintli is its virtual hairlessness, which is caused by a dominant gene. The gene is lethal when inherited twice (homozygous) – a puppy with two copies will not be born alive – while Xolos without a copy of the gene have an ordinary furry coat. Xolos often have missing teeth, probably linked to the same hairlessness gene.

Xoloitzcuintli puppies A pile of Xoloitzcuintli puppies
Image: Xugardust
Source: Xugardust used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Links and references:

Vilà C, Maldonado JE, Wayne RK (1999) Phylogenetic relationships, evolution, and genetic diversity of the domestic dog. Journal of Heredity Jan-Feb;90(1):71-7. (PDF, 184 kB)

Cordy-Collins, Alana (1994) An unshaggy dog story. Natural History Vol. 103 Issue 2, p34

Hairless dogs compete at Reliant Show, Houston Chronicle, July 20 2012 

Bugs within bugs, part 2

by Patrick
Publish date
7 May 2014
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Like any group of animals (or people), populations of bugs are susceptible to disease, pathogens and parasites. At Live Exhibits we keep our populations free from parasites, but sometimes new bugs from the wild turn out to be Trojan horses filled with unwanted guests.

Tachinid fly pupae Tachinid fly pupae, newly emerged from the abdomen of a Rainforest Mantid (Heirodula majuscula), collected from Cairns, North Queensland. These flies are always fatal to the mantid.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

The parasites not only kill the bugs themselves, but could get into captive populations and cause havoc. Most of them are easily controlled once identified, and occasionally we can even operate to remove the parasite and allow the host to lead a long and fruitful life.

parasitic wasp larva A parasitic wasp larva being successfully removed from the abdomen of a living Olive-green Katydid (Austrosalomona falcata) collected from the wild.
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria

But often this is not so successful and the first sign of something wrong is the presence of two different species within an enclosure rather than just one. When you get to recognise the signs of parasitism, it’s often difficult to find individual insects in the wild that are not parasitised.

tachinid fly larva A tachinid fly larva emerges from a wild-caught Robust Fan-winged Katydid (Psacadonotus robustus). The only indication of infection was the abnormally large abdomen of the male katydid.
Image: Melvin Patinathan
Source: Museum Victoria

One of the most insidious is the Gordian worm, named after the Gordian knot of mythology. These are long, hair-like worms up to half a metre long which begin their lives in freshwater streams attacking aquatic insects. When the aquatic host, such as a dragonfly or mayfly nymph emerges into adulthood, it leaves the stream and is caught and eaten by a spider, cricket or beetle. The worm grows within its new host, filling up the entire body cavity until the host is 95 per cent Gordian worm.

Gordian worm emerging A Gordian worm emerging from an Olive-green Katydid (Austrosalomona falcata).
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife

When fully fed, the worm causes its host to become thirsty to encourage it to seek out water where the worm emerges and continues its life cycle, laying more than 10 million eggs. Earlier this year Live Exhibits staff collected eight huntsmans near Cape Tribulation, North Queensland, five of which produced Gordian worms over the next few weeks.


Video: A newly emerged Gordian worm and its host, Beregama cordata, from the #liveexhibits takeover of the Museum Victoria Instagram account.
Source: Patrick Honan/Museum Victoria

The relationship between parasites and their hosts is an evolutionary arms race – as hosts come up with more effective defences, the parasites evolve techniques such as behavioural modification to overcome them. This fascinatingly gruesome relationship can be the stuff of nightmares; inspiration for everything from zombies to the film Alien, proving that science is stranger than science fiction.

This is the second in pair of posts about parasites. Don't miss Bugs within bugs, part 1


Askew, R.R., 1971, Parasitic Insects, American Elsevier, USA, 316pp

CSIRO, 1990, Insects of Australia, Volume 1 & 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1137pp

Gauld, I.D., 1984, An Introduction to the Ichneumonidae of Australia, British Museum (Natural History), UK, 413pp

Matthews, E.G. & Kitching, R.L., 1984, Insect Ecology (second edition), University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 211pp

Small(er) is beautiful

by Wayne
Publish date
4 May 2014
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When we think of Ice Age land animals, we often add the word ‘giants’; certainly many of the mammals of the Pleistocene were very large  – including many here in Australia. In a previous post, we’ve defined megafauna, and looked at a few Australian examples from the Quaternary. There is a different way of looking at this, though – rather than thinking of the Ice Age megafauna as ‘ancient giants’, it is equally valid to study modern-day animals from the perspective of them being dwarf or pygmy forms of their Ice Age relatives.

The phenomenon of dwarfism in post- Ice Age mammals changes the question from “why were they so big back then?” to “why are they so small now?”

Before we go any further, we should keep in mind that not everything was giant-sized in the Pleistocene; there were many ‘normal’ sized animals (by today’s standards) living happily alongside the big guys – it was just that the big ones were really big. It’s also important to remember that many of the ‘pygmy’ forms lived alongside their ‘giant’ relatives, rather than replaced them – there’s no such thing as a succession plan in evolution.

Having said this, here are a few examples of ‘dwarf megafauna’ alive today that had gigantic skeletons in their closets.

An example of ‘miniature giant’ is the modern day Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus; certainly large for an Australian land mammal, but 40-something thousand years ago it was overshadowed by its immense relative Macropus titan by 30%.

  skull of Macropus titan Skull of the Giant Grey Kangaroo Macropus titan. The ‘giant’ part is correct, but the ‘grey’ part is speculative; the colour of the Giant ‘roo is unknown…
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria

Similarly, the largest living Goanna, the Perentie Varanus giganteus, impresses with its size….but is smallfry against the immense extinct evolutionary ‘cousin’ Varanus “Megalania” priscus, – estimated at over twice (some have said thrice) the size.  

­­This also holds true on the Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus laniarus, which had an over-sized, mainland-resident relative at least 15% larger than its living subspecies. All of these animals are at least in the same genus as their megafaunal relatives, in some cases they are subspecies of their modern-day pygmy forms.

Tasmanian devil skull Skull of the Giant Mainland (rather than Tasmanian) Devil Sarcophilus laniarus
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria

So, whilst it is true to say that in broad terms, there was an extinction event about 45, 000 years ago that led to the ‘end of the Megafauna’, this event was complex - there were other patterns at play that saw downsizing as a successful survival strategy.

Obviously many Australian megafauna taxa became entirely extinct as well, inconveniently leaving no close descendants or relatives, but their story is for yet another blog…

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