One step closer - Burramys, the Mountain Pygmy Possum

October 31, 2008 04:21 by Tracey-Ann Hooley

Burramys parvus, the critically endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum Image credit: E. Rotherham  Source: Museum Victoria

Burramys parvus, the Mountain Pygmy Possum, officially moved one step closer to extinction this month. Every few years the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) updates its Red List, the global register of threatened species. In the most recent assessment, this little possum from the alpine areas of south-eastern has been upgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. And, needless to say, the next step along that path is not ‘Lives happily ever after…’

Extinct in the wild.

The exhibitions that we’re creating now will be in place for at least a decade. This influences many decisions in the development process, everything from the choice of materials we use to build the showcases to the wording of the object labels. How do we create something now that will still look appealing, still feel contemporary, still be up-to-date and relevant in ten years time? Things change quickly. In 1998 there wasn’t nearly the same level of public engagement with the concept of climate change as there is today, yet recently a whole exhibition on the subject opened in New York amid great publicity. And environmental change, particularly climate change, will be a very strong theme running through the new exhibitions at Melbourne Museum.

Climate change is one of the threatening processes listed for Burramys. As an alpine species that relies on an insulating layer of snow to protect it during its winter hibernation, Burramys is particularly susceptible to climate change. Save for being relocated to a captive-breeding ‘ark’, these creatures have nowhere to go if conditions become too unfavourable in their mountain-top habitat.

So will the Burramys label need updating during the life of the exhibition? The label I’m writing now says ‘Critically Endangered, estimated population 1700 adult females, 550 adult males and declining’. If the day comes when the label needs changing to ‘Extinct’, or even ‘Extinct in the wild’, please don’t ask me to write it – that’s not something I’d be able to do.

But of course, it doesn’t have to go that way.  Perhaps in three years time the label can just read ‘Endangered’ again. Then in five years, ‘Vulnerable’. And maybe somehow, with enormous persistence, sound management and great science, the label that gets taken out of the exhibition when it finally closes one day could read ‘Burramys, population secure and increasing’.

Ten years is a long time in the life of an exhibition, and a short – but potentially very significant – time in the history of an exhibited species.

View from the office – Mt Stirling

October 17, 2008 09:55 by Tracey-Ann Hooley

MV camera hard at work on Mt Stirling
Image credit: Benjamin Healley. Source: Museum Victoria

It doesn’t get much better than this if you love mountains and fieldwork!  The alarm goes off at a startlingly early 4.30am and a glance out through the window of the hut reveals a dark, dark, far-from-the-city sky bursting with stars. The Southern Cross and Pointers are just to the right of the big Snowgum and we’re looking out towards the east.  No sign yet, but sunlight will soon be spilling across the horizon and into the first of several thousand photos in Ben’s time-lapse sequence for the day.
We head to the summit, kicking steps in the snow.  It’s still too dark to make out colours in the little line of prayer flags strung across the summit cairn, but the wind shooting up the mountain flicks their shapes violently.  And it’s cold, very cold!  The camera is already in position by the outcrop of granite boulders and, after clearing the ice from the protective casing, Ben soon has it warmed up and clicking away at 10-second intervals.

We’re on the summit of Mt Stirling to capture our ‘hero image’ for the alpine section of the new exhibition. We’re after a sense of seasonal change, trying to represent those complete transformations that shape life in the mountains. In winter, this place is a snow-encased, blizzard swept, environment with few obvious signs of life – an occasional Pied Currawong call, here and there a scattering of Gang-gang Cockatoo chewed gumnuts, some squiggles left on the snow by telemark skiers.  But things change very quickly up here and soon all the snow will have melted away to reveal a rich diversity of alpine life.  In this environment plants race against time to grow and reproduce – we’ve already found some Alpine Marsh Marigolds flowering under the ice waiting for the very first chance of pollination.  Later in the year bushwalkers and mountain bikers will relax on the summit after a decent climb up, and the shrubs, grasses and Snowgums will be filled with a feeding frenzy of robins, honeyeaters, swallowtails, crickets, skinks and many other creatures feasting while conditions are good.

We’ll make several visits here between now and August next year, each time to get a full dawn-to-dusk run of shots that can be edited into sequence - first snowfall, mid-winter, spring melt, first flowering, late flowering, first snowfall…  And hopefully we can capture some of those remarkable contradictions and contrasts that mountains give us - the blanketing silence when snow falls and the cacophonous cascading when it melts, the glaring heat and breathtaking cold, the sense of vulnerability and of invincibility that you sometimes have when you’re up here, the macro-lens details in the flora and those wide, wide angle views out across ridges of blue towards infinity.

The camera keeps clicking away and Ben adjusts the settings as sunlight creeps into the corner of the shot and starts to reflect off the snow. It’s warming up at last and the first coffee of the day is not too far away.