Incredible Insects: From the desk of Quentin the Quoll

Photo of Quentin the Northern Tiger Quoll at his computer

To teach the Biological Sciences sub strand of the Australian Curriculum well, teachers need to feel fairly comfortable with living things. Of particular benefit is knowledge of insects, firstly because they are invertebrates and therefore don’t require the enormous screeds of paperwork for approval to use them.  Secondly, insects are just simply amazing and frankly, without them, we’d all be dead!

Insects of course are one of the main organisms which support the food webs of all others. For the lower primary year levels (K-6), insects provide a wonderful real life resource that students can observe at first hand. Insects are freely available and with a little knowledge can be easily kept for classroom learning. Many go through some quite mind-blowing transformations and they have found ways to survive in nearly every physical environment on this amazing planet. They can teach students about the needs of living things, external features, growth and change and the effects of the physical environment on survival. And insects are cited for classroom use in the Australian Curriculum and in a number of current curriculum resources for example mealworms in C2C units and the new Primary Connections module. Watch it grow!

For older students (7-10) insects are an exceptionally good resource for teaching about biodiversity, classification, taxonomic keys, sustainability and the planning and conducting of extended experimental investigations. Queensland Museum Entomologist Dr Christine Lambkin (shown below getting a few hot tips from Quentin), has been instrumental in developing a project called Backyard Explorers. The materials and videos located on the QM website  provide a step-by-step guide to conducting a biodiversity assessment using insects, complete with Excel spread sheets for recording and an automated graph creator. For this investigation and especially for the safety of students, the insects are immediately placed in preserving alcohol upon collection. Whilst this is not something teachers feel comfortable with, the deep understandings built through close and detailed examination of the specimens in fact create a greater respect for living things. The insects are only collected for scientific education explicitly following specified methods and certainly this is not open slather on killing things. The impact on insect populations is far less than that caused by the Mortein can, electric bug zappers, and car headlights.

A picture of Quentin the Quoll and QM entomologist Dr. Christine Lambkin

For younger year levels, Quentin and Christine have some other ways to obtain insects which don’t involve killing them and are also safe because the identity (and ability to sting or bite) of the insects is known. To get you started there is a fact sheet called ‘Keeping live insects’ on the following page:

Quentin will return soon with more tips for Primary and Early Years teachers in future blogs.

Aboriginal Science Tools: the Morah Stone

Greetings from the Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ). My name is Letitia Murgha and I am a member of the Strategic Learning team which is comprised of four seconded teachers from Education Queensland. We do lots of things across the museum network as you will have read in previous blogs.  As an indigenous elder and experienced teacher, my main role is to work alongside Trish Barnard (Senior Curator for Cultures & Histories Customs, Cultures and Country) at MTQ to develop new learning resources from an indigenous knowledge perspective.  These resources are aligned with the new  Australian  Curriculum. I’d like to tell you about an aboriginal object from the state collections that I have been investigating that will be included in a set of new Aboriginal Science kits. The special object is called a Morah stone.

Morah Stone: Look at the striations (grooves) in the slate

 To the casual observer it may seem to be a stone with scratches all over it but to the Aboriginal people of the North Queensland rainforest this stone aided their ability to survive, sustain themselves and to prosper.  It is known as a Morah stone and  is a specialised type of grooved grindstone formed from sedimentary rock, such as grey slate.  It was an integral tool used by Aboriginal people, especially the women,  of the rainforest who used it to process particular plant types such as the Zamia Palm (Lepidozamia hopei) and Black Bean (Castanospermum australe).  These distinct plant types while abundant in the rainforest are highly toxic.  The rainforest people knew about the toxicity of these plants and through scientific processes discovered how to extract the toxin from them.  The stone was invented as an aid in extracting toxins from the seeds of the toxic plants. The rainforest might look and feel cool and inviting, but there lurks many hidden dangers.

Of the many rock types slate was chosen because it formed into smooth flat sheets.  Slate has a low water absorption index. It is also fireproof and has a level of resistance to breakage and is easily portable.  It is a very handy tool. Most morahs have roughly parallel incised grooves running across the grinding surface perpendicular to the axis of the stone. These grooves or incisions would most likely have been made with a pointed bone, sharp stone or piece of sharp coral.

You may wonder how aboriginal people used the Morah stone. The seeds/kernels were placed on the incised Morah stone and the moogi, usually a harder stone, placed on top and in a rolling pushing and pulling motion grated the seeds/kernels.   This motion allowed for a quantity of meal, mashed seed kernels, to be crushed in a short time as the next step in the process was to leach this meal inside a basket in running water.  Using this motion across the stone the incised grooves facilitated the breakup of the starchy kernels.

How do we know which seeds were ground and leached?  Results of scientific analysis on residue analysis from the Morah stones suggest that Aboriginal groups settled on a more permanent basis in the rainforest. The residue analysis from some Morah stones found in North Queensland revealed the specific types of seeds which were ground down.  Food sources such as the Zamia seeds provided a high carbohydrate, protein and energy diet as well as being low in fat.  Six species of toxic plant sources in the rainforest provided and formed part of the Aboriginal people’s staple food  source                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         thatup

The Morah stone is no ordinary stone.

The Morah stone along with other tools invented by Aboriginal people will feature in the new loans kits developed by Queensland Museum.  Multiple Learning Kits will be available for loan by metropolitan and regional borrowers. The resources will be of particular interest for local area studies in schools, embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into the curriculum and most importantly being aligned  with the new Australian Curriculum: Science.

All You Want to Know About the Eastern Mouse Spider – But Were Afraid to Ask

Eastern Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi)
Eastern Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi)

It’s the stuff of nightmares, big hairy spiders with huge fangs.  But we don’t need to worry about that because the deadly funnel-web is down in Sydney and those other ones are from South America, right?

Wrong!  The spider in the picture is a Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) and they are found all over mainland Australia.  They are the little cousin of the famous funnel-web (which, by the way, is not found just in Sydney, but I’ll save that for another blog).

The Mouse Spider is an old world or primitive spider along with the funnel-web, tarantula, trapdoor and whistling spider. Basically all the big ground dwelling scary ones.  I say ground dwelling as the Huntsman spider may be big and hairy, but it does not belong to this group of spiders as it naturally lives under the bark of trees, so its natural habitat is different to primitive spiders, along with a different lung and fang structures.

Speaking of fangs, having large fangs is another primitive spider trait.  They are usually parallel and vertical in primitive spiders, except for the Mouse spider which has adapted its fangs to use as pincers.  They are still very large compared to its body size, but it can also grab, hold and crush prey using its fangs.  It is this powerful clamping action which has also led to the limited use of venom by the mouse spider.  Usually its crushing and piercing bite is enough to kill its prey; its venom glands are tiny when compared to the funnel-web.  Now don’t go thinking it’s harmless.   Apart from a very nasty bite, which easily and painfully pierces human skin, if the mouse spider does decide to use the little venom it has, it is just as toxic as the Sydney funnel-web. Lucky for one young Gatton boy, we learnt that the antivenom for the funnel-web works just as well on mouse spider bites.

Mouse Spider Burrow Entrance

So where would I find this spider?  The Mouse spider creates a silk burrow under the leaf litter.  There is no trapdoor or visible hole, just a flap of silk like a flattened sock indicates what lies beneath the soil.  They can be found all over Brisbane, in bush reserves and also backyards.  Mouse Spiders are a lot smaller than some other primitive spiders, a large

Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) from Brisbane Queensland
Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) from Brisbane Queensland

mouse spider may only be 5 cm long.  The one found by Dr Robert Raven from Queensland Museum was only 2 cm long and was estimated to be 7 years-old.  This specimen was brought back to Queensland Museum for further study as we know very little about the Mouse Spider compared to the famous funnel-web or even the daddy-long-legs.  the mouse spider is rarely seen, preferring the dark of night and the obscurity of the leaf litter.  They also rarely bite humans and when this has occurred, rarely use venom, so their profile as a dangerous spider is not very high.

Wolf Spider Loans Item
Wolf Spider Loans Item

So what should you do if your come across a mouse spider in your garden?  Well like most things with eight legs or no legs, leave it alone.  If you or your students want to get up close to our eight legged friends, consider borrowing one of the specimens from Queensland Museum loans  that way you’ll know they are safe, but at the same time, they can inquire and explore.

Engage, Explore, Discover, Queensland Museum