Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 10]: Queensland Museum’s Whale Collection with Heather Janetzki

We’ve been having a whale of a time bringing the Museum Revealed podcast to your earbuds. In episode 10, Heather Janetzki, Collection Manager of Mammals and Birds reveals the Queensland Museum Whale Collection.

Listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Let’s meet our guest: Heather Janetzki

Heather joined the Queensland Museum in 1986, shortly after it moved to its present site at South Brisbane. She worked as an Education Officer for 8 years before moving to her current position as a Research Assistant / Collection Manager in the Biodiversity Program.

She is responsible for the collection and preservation of bird and mammal specimens as well as maintenance and searches of the vertebrate database.

Interested in learning more?

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RB: Welcome to the Museum Revealed podcast, brought to you by Queensland Museum Network, join me, Dr Rob Bell as we try to make museums so fascinating from curators to scientists and researchers. It’s a deep dive into conversations with these storytellers that inspire us to be curious about our past, make sense of the present, and, of course, help us consider the future. Today, I am joined by Heather Janetzki. Heather, why don’t you tell us what you do at the museum? Because I think it’s pretty fascinating.

HJ: I am a collection manager here at the museum and I look after the bird and mammal research collections.

RB: So it must be a pretty big collection. Birds and Mammals.

HJ: Size wise it is. Yes. Not necessarily in numbers because some of the smaller invertebrates with drawers and drawers beetles, for example. But we deal with stuff like whales right through to to small tiny finches or finches.

RB: So I’d like to ask you a little bit about the collection as a whole. And this must be the hardest question, I think, to answer, because it’s probably asking which one’s your favourite child, but do you have a favourite specimen in the collection? Maybe pick a couple of favourites.

HJ: Okay, so like on Monday I was moving some large mammal mounts around our shed at Hendra. And when I see the big moose it is, it’s a moose head. I mean, it’s absolutely inspiring. And on Tuesday morning my neighbour found a feather tail glider on the grass, had been blown out of a tree. With all our strong winds. And when you look at that and see the beautiful hairs on the tail that make it look like a feather, a little glowing membrane. This is an animal that’s no bigger than my thumb just absolutely gorgeous as an adult. It’s not a young one. It’s actually an adult. And this one got released. But we do have those in our collection because cats often bring them into people’s homes instead. But when you look at those tiny animals, look at the pads on the feet that allow them to climb up glass. And in the environment, that will be smooth bark off the gum trees and a tiny gliding membrane for an animal that small that might go, say, 14 or 15 metres with a glide. They’re extraordinary. So and that happens with each animal that we actually work on and prepare. So it might be spotted feathers on a tail of a bird. It might be the glistening of birds paradise in the collection, or it could be the shape of the teeth in the collection. So I have many favourites. And one of the big things is albatrosses. I too to actually have we get a lot of beachwash, specimens and some of those. So the big wandering albatrosses and to have those wings spread out while we measuring them, they’re just extraordinary animals.

RB: So how big is an albatross wingspan? Their huge, obviously, but do you have a table big enough to put them on?

HJ: So we stretch it right out through our lab sometimes. So that can be three metres wide and quite narrow compared to say something like a pelican, which is almost as wide, but they’re almost as long, but they’re much wider, just designed for different types of flight. So the albatross being continually on the wing is quite long and narrow and the birds are just extraordinary. That size bird.

RB: Now, you mentioned being surprised by moose at Hendra. How does a moose come to be in the collection? I don’t suppose that fell out of someone’s tree with strong winds.

HJ: We were very fortunate. And exotic animals are not something that we target. We tend to go for more native animals from Queensland. That’s what we’re trying to document. But we were offered a number of animals that was picked sort of given to us by the Australian Government. It was proceeds of crime, not for the animals themselves, but somebody forgot to pay their taxes. And it was seized as assets and they were offered to the museum. So it came with polar bears, brown bears, all sorts of different trophy heads, antelope, deers. It was quite an extraordinary collection. And those type of things in our collection are really good for exhibition. And that actually toured through our regional galleries, through Townsville, Cobb+Co in Toowoomba and also Ipswich. So that those can be seen and it’s animals people don’t tend to see apart from zoos and occasionally in the wild. So it’s really lovely to be able to get up close to some of those animals.

RB: Yes, certainly. I know I’ve seen a couple of the ones you just mentioned. I’ve seen in the collection here of a polar bear, I distinctly remember seeing and you’re right, it’s fascinating. Whilst I have sort of seen them before, not in the wild, but I have sort of seen them before. It’s always at such a distance that it is you get the scope, but maybe not quite as much as when it’s less than a metre away from you standing upright. That thing is absolutely enormously strong. So I suppose they might also some of those might qualify for this next question. But what would be some of the stranger elements in the collection? And I suppose that could be either native animals or some of the exotics that you’ve just mentioned.

HJ: Some of the strange people, visitors to the collections, tend to look at some of the old stuff because their collections are one hundred and fifty years old and there’s a lot of old display mounts and sometimes bad taxidermy specimens tend to be a focus of some people. So squirrels that might look like they’re about to eviscerate you. But there’s lots of strange things in the collection. And some of those crabeater seals have these the most amazing teeth like crocheted teeth. They’re just they’re just extraordinary. And the seals use those as almost like a colander to push all the water out from the krill that they’re eating and that why they’re not swallowing the water as well. So when you look at the teeth, it’s just this it looks like your grandmother is crocheted the end of a doily. It’s so beautiful. Probably one of the strange. And then we have strange things like elephant foot rubbish bins that are given to us by customs and narwhal tusks, which is just like the left tooth of a narwhal that grows through its lip and keeps going. The unicorns of the ocean. And but one of the weirdest things I’m not quite sure on has been of all things, because our collection is the whole animals as well as traces of those animals. So I have nests and eggs and scat.

RB: So you have poo in your collection? But I can understand from a scientific point of view what’s interesting.

HJ: Well, it’s actually quite useful because that’s the bits you see. But I have one scat that was brought in by a colleague and it’s made of echidna quills and got perfectly aligned and together. So what predator ate that echidna and managed to get it out the back end and not be damaged. And in fact, we do have a specimen on display, which is a big goanna Parente that’s eaten in an echidna. The chemicals have gone through the throat. And both have perished and become mummified. Whereas this one managed to cope with the animal. You think if the echidna was dead, they might flip it in and go through the belly with less problems? But the quills are there as well. I’m not exactly sure what it’s come from. It was picked up by colleague.

RB: Fascinating to know because I just can’t imagine any animal in its right mind tackling an echidna for food it doesn’t look or seem appetizing, and yet it’s obviously very desperate. But how it’s managed to do that. That is interesting. You mentioned some of the things that come in taxidermy. Do you also prepare specimens onsite with regard to that?

HJ: And that’s 99 per cent of what we have is prepared on site. And we are work in with a big network of national park rangers and Marine Park offices who provide a lot of specimens from the regions. And that’s really important that we don’t want stuff just from Brisbane that we actually they will pick up roadkill or look for, it can be remains of animals to doesn’t have to be whole. So if the animals are in good condition, we might make a study skin off that, remove the skin, the skeleton. A lot of things like roadkill, the window strikes anything lying on the ground for more than a couple of hours in a hot summer, sun tends to rot. So we strip those down and make full skeletons out of those, or at least keep the skull because the skull has many features to help us identify the animals. And then some of the animals, if they’re in slightly bad shape, what we might do is actually pickle those in and preserve them in alcohol, because those sorts of things can give you information on the whole animal that the skins wouldn’t give. So maybe the reproductive organs in an echidna that was looked at in the last few years and. And the gut content of, say, a strike possum would give you information about what it’s been feeding on, which might be difficult to observe in the wild.

RB: Now, when you’re taking something down to the skeleton, and I seem to remember this was something I’ve heard before, you use little tiny animals to do that, is that correct? Beetles for something?

HJ: Yes, for some things.

RB: Can you tell me a little bit more about them, because I remember hearing about something that was just fascinating and what a great way to do it.

HJ: And with coronavirus, one of the things is I’m making sure I go in and feed those beetles to keep them ticking. So what we do is usually take off the outside skin of the animal and strip off some of the chunkier muscles and the gut contents will be pulled out. But really, the rest can be left there. So these are dermestidae beetles. It’s the larvae that tend to do the work. And so the larvae will chew the flesh off the bones. So they do such a beautiful, delicate work and it might take them a few weeks to work their way through a whole skeleton. But things like birds, there’s bony, ossicles in the eyes of birds, and they will eat that eye and the rest of the flesh off to leave really fine bones. And they can actually leave it quite almost semi articulated. Just beautiful. And then we just have to usually just wash it and then clean it up. And we always make sure we put it through a freezer to kill any other bugs that might be left on that skeleton.

RB: Because you don’t want those bugs getting anywhere else in the museum, do you? Lots of things around here that I might eat that you don’t want them to.

HJ: Exactly right. So we are always careful to remove those before.

RB: So they are always in isolation.

HJ: They’re actually I have to walk through a huge walking freezer full of frozen animals and then through a back door of the freezer into a little warm room where the dermestidae beetles are kept.

RB: So if they do escape, they’re escaping into a freezer, right?

HJ: Very much so.. But not all skeletons can be done that way. If it’s quite a big greasy skeleton, like a whale skeleton, we would use our boiler. So I actually have a huge boiler that we fill up with hot water and put bones in and kind of just warm them up slightly and then wait till the flesh and the oil is out of those.

RB: Well, join us again shortly as we find out a whole lot more about whales as well as the rest of the mammal and bird collection. Welcome back to the Museum Revealed podcast. And I’m with Heather Janetzki, who manages the Birds and Mammals Collection here at Queensland Museum. We touched briefly on whales, which are obviously part of the mammal group, and I wanted to ask a question about it well, several. But I’ll start with the obvious one. Whales generally are pretty big, so they must take up a lot of room. I mean, they’re quite iconic for the South Bank part of Museum Network. Anyone who’s been here would know the Whale Mall and the huge whales up there. There are enormous things. How do you keep them as part of the collection? Some huge storage somewhere?

HJ: We do have a big storage. And we do have skulls like sperm whale skulls that are five metres long and skeletons. And they’re kept in a warehouse with the large mammal mounts when they’re not on display. So it does take up a lot of room. But as you say, they are big animals and we try to keep a few of each of the species that beached themselves along the Queensland coast.

RB: Well, there you go. That’s one question. How does a whale specimen come to be in the collection? Do they come from typically beached ones like that? I don’t imagine all species beach with whales, but then I don’t really know.

HJ: We rely heavily on marine park rangers who are often called out to strandings on beaches, and they’ll deal with those animals when particularly if they’re still alive when they beach. So we’re called in when the animal dies and we have a chance to retrieve the skeleton. It can be a little bit difficult if it’s on a beach where there’s lots of swimmers. You want to deal with that animal really quickly. So it might be that we just take samples off of baleen or the blubber or maybe even remove the skull to take that quickly and the animals are buried on site very rapidly. But if it’s on a more remote beach somewhere, then we have an opportunity to take whole skeletons depending on how large they are. We don’t often get mechanical assistance. It’s only occasionally that we’ve had a backhoe, which makes a world of difference. But normally we’re working with a car trailer and the winch off the front of the car. So the winch is then used to help remove the blubber off the outside of the specimen. Well, we hook that through blubber strips and it puts tension on the animals so that we can just then cut off strips of blubber. That’s the first port of call, was to get through that blubber layer to get into the meat inside. And we can then just cut through into the bones and then slowly work our way along the skeleton.

RB: So it’s the skeleton you’re primarily after and something like a whale?

HJ: So some of them will be on the beach for a few days before we’re able to get to them if it’s in a remote area and sometimes it’s actually an advantage because there’s a lot of other animals that want to attack that flesh. Microorganisms that help break down the meat, flies and unfortunately, thousands of maggots as well.

RB: But I can a little bit unpleasant when you first arrive.

HJ: It’s not, it’s not good. And you usually try and have morning tea before you start and because you know you don’t want to eat for a while after that. But they actually have a huge advantage in that they break down a lot of the flesh, which makes getting into the bones a lot easier.  And the trick with removing skeleton bones is to cut when you need to. And there’s an awful lot of body parts of a whale that you can leave well alone where you don’t need to cut. And that just and just by observing other researchers, prior to me, working on whales, just they had had worked out where to cut. And that’s something that I’ve learnt is where you cut the animal to be out to remove the bone. We have had problems with a southern right whale. Well, that came in and it had come in upside down and fixed itself. So we spent a whole day just cutting these waterbed of a tongue into small strips and winching that all out of the skull so we could take the get into the skull and take it home. But normally you can get into areas and remove the skull and remove the bones fairly quickly. And that’s not something I do myself. We have people who are all volunteers who come with me to go and collect the whales off beaches, and often we have to do it in a short time. You’ve got tides. You’ve got sharks attracted to the areas. Often the tides are really bad hours of the night. So there are a lot of people will come and assist in removing the skeleton, getting onto the trailer, getting it home, and then that if it’s a large enough animal, we’ll take it somewhere like the sewage treatment plant has a lovely big grassy paddock at the side if they allow me to store it. And then small parts of that will then be brought back to the museum for processing in a boiler. There’s a lot of scraping. There’s a lot of leaving it in the sun. And then I just do little bits at a time.  Over a long period.

RB: I guess they’re less likely to notice the smell of a sewage plant.

HJ: They don’t. Yes, so, Urban utilities, have been really helpful in that regard to actually have a place to store while we can process the bigger ones anyway.

RB: So you’ve effectively got a small crack team of volunteer. Skeleton emergency removal people who sort of drop things and come and help you out.

HJ: Yes. And it’s a couple of those a retired recently and over the last few years and there’s a few people who are brought in as ring ins. And you don’t want too many because it is quite dangerous. You’re dealing with greasy gloves, sharp knives, winches, big animals. And so the people who do come with me, we’re sort of getting to know the animals. But I do have some that will come just once and then that’s then that’s enough for them.

RB: But I’ve had the experience. I now know not to go back. And I’m sure it’s exciting to stand next to.

HJ: It’s sad. It’s a bit of a mixed emotion because it’s really sad when you stand next to a really large beached while. But it’s quite exciting as well in that you can be so close again to something that you would normally just see moving around in the ocean. So it’s interesting to me.

RB: So tell me briefly, are there any, the whale collections that have come from, I guess, the days of old when whaling was still a thing, I mean, and obviously not too far from Brisbane. There was a whaling station. Are there any parts of the collection that have come from those days have been donated, I suppose will be in people’s collections from the whaling days?

HJ: Yes. And some of those are in the social history collection, as well as things like scrimshaw and whaling guns. Those types of things are part of the collection. We have bamboo tags where they were when the animal was killed. They would put in sort of a mark, a big, long bamboo with a flag on top. And that was put into the animals so that they could see the carcass when it was moving around. Sometimes it is bones that were collected, off the humpbacks that went into collections, but typically it’s tiny. But because the carcasses that were used in the whaling station was so precious and you every bit of them honest, there wasn’t actually whales donated to the museum from that. And it was only in the last few years when we were at Stradbroke Island, that point lookout there was a 15 metre humpback adult that got washed in there, that we had an opportunity to collect the whole skeleton of a humpback, really iconic species that passes our beaches. We’d had skulls before. We’d had partial vertebrae. And certainly a number of calves that had beached themselves as well. That when the very first full adult we had and thankfully we had an excavator from the council that helped and a number of marine park people. And that skeleton is actually being degraded at the moment. And will be articulated after the cleaning that we’ve done. And it’s going to head back over to Point Lookout as a display item.

RB: Oh, that’s actually I mean, it’s nice. I suppose it’s something that is obviously a tragedy for the animal, a loss for them. But we can turn into something positive and it can be a learning moment and something for the area as well. So I suppose the whole purpose of having a collection is to learn about these things, and that’s for the public, but also for researchers. So researchers come and use the collection, do they to as reference points, how does how does that work?

HJ: The ways in which the collection is used is as varied as the specimens we have in it. So text taxonomy is one thing, naming animals. And probably 150 years ago that was a major thing in the bird and mammal collection because people didn’t know what species were here in Queensland. It hasn’t stopped. There are small marsupial mice that have just been named from a number of areas, including just here in Brisbane. So that taxonomy, the naming and finding a new species continues, particularly with genetic studies as well, that really helps to show up where there’s very strong variation when the animals kind of look the same outside. But genetically, they’re quite different. They might just look at the width of the beak of a bird that’s a rainforest species to see whether it’s a transmitter of the seed dispersal. People might grind a shaving off a tooth and look at the isotopes of carbon and oxygen isotopes, which tells them what that animal was eating the type of the plant and also what type of weather it was if there was a lot of water around or not at the time. So they’ll look at, say, kangaroos in our collection. Now they’ll look at ones that were collected 150 years ago and then look at fossil kangaroos. So it’s a way of seeing how time has changed and how climate has changed over that time. That’s a big push with a lot of, say, birds in the collection. Now they’re looking at birds that perhaps live in arid zone bill width, which where they lose a lot of their heat through that weather that has increased over time. And so it shows how the collections can be used to help document some of that climate change. Or it could be where species have now gone from an area such as a Brigalow, where there’s a large proportion of that habitat lost. And it shows where those animals used to be. People just use it in so many different ways. And we get as many artists as scientists using the collection or a large number of them. And that’s used in many ways. They can be looking for accuracy in birds, such as a field guide on birds. And they want to know this red feather is in this area, or they could be painting a picture of an endangered species and artists are really good at connecting with people. Scientists will often produce papers on really important topics, but sometimes that doesn’t get across to the public. And artists sometimes have a foot in both camps. And they are a really good way of communicating with people by just painting a picture of an endangered species and just getting that information out to people to show them what it’s like. It’s really important. Or artists might just come in and look at the colours of a beautiful parrot and go, yes, I’ll use those in a silk scarf. So the uses are many and varied.

RB: Yeah, that’s amazing to learn that it’s a huge reference point, but not just as I wrongly assumed not just for scientists, but for all sorts of people to come in to have a look and to see how that might affect their job from creating a piece of art to naming a new species.

HJ: That’s right. And also information that’s generated within the collection is then used for exhibitions. And so particularly with mammals and birds, they are big space fillers. And so they tend to get used in a lot of exhibitions like our Wild State display.

RB: Wow, fascinating stuff. Heather, thank you so much for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. I certainly learnt a lot. What did what did you out there discover in this episode? And if you’re interested in learning, a little more will follow the Queensland Museum on social media. @qldmuseum or just head to the website, which is and you can also sign up to the news list where you can keep up to date on absolutely everything. Don’t forget, there are show notes that go along with this podcast where you can find out even more about what Heather has been telling us. And until next time. Stay curious.

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