5 minutes with Dr Jessica Worthington Wilmer, Research Fellow and Molecular Identities Lab Manager

What is your favourite object/species in the collection and why?

My favourite species is the ghost bat (Macroderma gigas).

Ghost bats are pretty special being Australia’s only mainly carnivorous bat. As well as eating invertebrates, especially locusts and grasshoppers, they have been regularly recorded catching and eating birds, mammals (rodents and other small bats), reptiles and frogs. They are a relatively large bat, weighing up to 170g and have a 50cm wingspan and have pale grey fur. They also have large eyes and ears and often hunt by sight and hearing as to remain undetected by insects that can hear their echolocation signals. They also use what is called “whispering echolocation” to avoid alerting potential prey. Their large size and pale colour, coupled with their ability to hunt and fly so silently, gives them a “ghostly appearance” in moonlight – hence their name.

While I must confess to a strong personal bias towards ghost bats (they were my PhD study species), I think all bats are amazing. Sadly, bats are still so misunderstood and receive so much undeserved bad press.

Do you have any interesting facts?

Did you know Queensland Museum keeps and maintains a frozen tissue collection?

Tissues are preserved in ethanol and then stored at ultracold temperatures (-80oC); four times colder than your average domestic freezer (-20oC). We do this for many different types of animals because of the way they are stored in the State whole animal collection results in the destruction of their DNA. For example, many vertebrates are fixed with formalin prior to being accessioned into the collection while corals are dried killing the living polyps and leaving only the mineral skeleton. We have samples of a huge diversity of wildlife; ranging from corals, crustaceans, molluscs, insects, spiders, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. We even have tissues in the collection that are not primarily for the animals they come from but rather for the microscopic parasite species with which they are infected.

Researchers from all over the world who are working on wildlife are able access this collection, hopefully for hundreds of years to come.

I estimate that there are this many species waiting to be formally described in my area…

The addition of genetic data to the discovery and description of species has both revolutionised and complicated the numbers of species that biologists estimate are waiting to be formally described across all forms of life. Accessing genetic data has been like suddenly having a much more powerful microscope leading, in some cases, to greatly increased numbers of potential new species. For example, in cryptic species complexes, organisms are virtually indistinguishable physically but have been found to have striking differences in genetic signatures implying long term isolation. However, not all isolated populations go on to become new species so genetic data can also lead to uncertainty as to where species boundaries actually lie.

Tell us a little bit about your area and why do you love working in this specific research area?

As an evolutionary biologist I use genetics to gain insight into the history and understanding of the processes of how our incredible biodiversity came to be. I love that I am not limited to studying a single specific organism (all forms of life contain genetic material) or system and that some of the information that comes from my research can be directly applied to on-the-ground management and wildlife conservation programs.

What is your favourite thing about your role at the museum? Why?

The best part of my job at the museum is the incredible variety of projects that I’ve been involved with and the wonderful people with so many different skill sets and perspectives that I’ve worked with along the way. This includes scientific research (both in terms of the questions being asked and the animal groups on which those questions are focused), managing our ever growing frozen tissue collection (facilitating loans and cataloguing and accessioning donations) and the amazing public outreach programs we run (e.g. exhibitions, education resources, National Science Week and World Science Festival Brisbane events).

What is your favourite gallery/exhibition at the museum (current or past) and why?

Bouncing Back: Queensland’s Summer of Disasters (2012)

This was an in-house Queensland Museum exhibition that was developed in response to the 2010-2011 SEQ floods. This was the first exhibition I had ever been involved with as a curator and the amount of work and incredible team effort by so many highly skilled people it takes to bring even a small a exhibition from concept to the floor was truly eye-opening. However, that level of workplace collaboration was also an incredibly joyous experience. We had curators from both our main Collections and Research programs (Cultures & History and Biodiversity & Geosciences) co-creating content and show casing Queensland Museum research, working side-by-side with our talented exhibition and graphic designers, photographers, preparators, educators and marketing teams. I also loved the key messages of this exhibition, which were while natural disasters and global catastrophes bring incredible destruction they are also powerful agents of change and innovation highlighting the resilience and resistance of our communities and the natural world.

Learn more about Dr Jessica Worthington Wilmer here.