By Patrick Couper, Senior Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, Queensland Museum
I grew up in New Zealand and was always interested in natural history. As a child, I collected many things – shells, feathers and rocks etc. At the time, I belonged to the junior branch of the Forest and Bird Society in Wellington and would attend meetings where members would display the interesting objects they’d found. My Christmas holidays were in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland, where my grandfather owned a beachfront property. We would often row his boat across to the bay islands to look for rare, pink coloured Murex shells – the collecting was always better following some rough weather. My grandfather, who had been a surgeon at the Gisborne Hospital, was a keen amateur naturalist and had many natural history books that would keep me occupied for hours. He had a passion for bird watching and would sometimes wake me at first light to visit his favourite bushland haunts. He had a way of calling up small songbirds; making a squeaking sound by rubbing a wet cork against the side of a glass bottle.
A pivotal experience for me was visiting the Dominion Museum in Wellington for a night-time tour. The staff were on deck to show off their various collections. There were shelves of whale bones, drawers of study skins and artefacts – so much to see. However, it was the taxidermist, posing a native Wood Pigeon, with its iridescent green and bronze plumage, that caught my attention. Museums were a different world, where wonderful things happened behind the scenes. I wanted to be a taxidermist too but my early, self-taught, efforts were disastrous and I put the idea on hold.
Biology was a favourite subject at school, so zoology was the obvious thing to pursue at university. Upon completion of my degree, I worked for a year making whole mount microscope slides for a louse and flea taxonomist. I then married and moved to Australia where my father-in-law was head of the Psychology Department at the University of New England (Armidale, NSW). Here, I gravitated to a small museum that was tucked away in the basement of the Zoology Department. They welcomed my visits as an enthusiastic, would-be taxidermist and provided helpful guidance allowing me to perfect my skills. My first attempt was a Currawong but soon I was stuffing all sorts of animals (a kookaburra, tawny frogmouth, possum, koala, fruit bat, turtle to name a few).
There was a lack of job prospects in Armidale, so I moved to Brisbane and accepted a job in the hospitality industry. I wasn’t suited to this work but it gave me the opportunity to volunteer at Queensland Museum when I had days off during the week. Here was a chance to put my newly acquired taxidermy skills to use. The timing was perfect. This was the early 80s when the museum was gearing up to move from Bowen Hills to its current site in the Cultural Centre. It was expanding and more hands were needed in the display program. I was offered a job in the Prep Section and left the hospitality industry with no regrets. The museum opened on South Bank in late 1986 and, soon after, I transferred to an assistant’s job in the Herpetology Section working with the curator, Jeanette Covacevich, and have been working with reptiles ever since.
As a footnote, when I was a third year student at Canterbury University, I studied parasitology. Our course involved a weeklong, winter field trip to the Kaikoura coast; a narrow coastal strip nestled between a cold grey-green ocean and majestic, snow-clad mountain peaks. Most of the students divided their time between daytime fish dissections and long evenings in the pub; it was 1979 and a jug of beer only cost a $1.20. The parasites we collected were later cleared, stained and then mounted on glass slides in a bed of Canada balsam. These were later incorporated into our parasite collections, which formed a significant component of the final grades. A small monogenean flatworm that I extracted from the gills of a Groper was amongst the slides I submitted. It is hardly surprising that I had no memory of this small, seemingly insignificant worm and I doubt that I even noticed that it was missing from my collection following our final assessment. What is surprising, however, is that this specimen, still on a glass slide with a hand written label bearing my name, independently made its way to Queensland Museum and is now registered as G227041 in the state’s parasite collection. It was donated by a parasitologist who, at one time, lectured at Canterbury University. Upon his retirement, he lodged his collection here at Queensland Museum. It is satisfying to see something that I collected, as a student so long ago, now forming part of an important scientific collection and knowing that it will be available to other researchers for many years to come.