Category Archives: Conservation

Discovering the world’s largest kangaroo – Part 2: In the lab

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum 

The giant kangaroo tibia (shinbone) found at the megafauna fossil sites of South Walker Creek, travelled safely back to the Queensland Museum’s Geosciences collection. The specimen is treated like evidence for a case (fossil evidence!) and is processed through a series of stages from field collection (Part 1) and preparation, to research and conservation. The plaster jacket containing the kangaroo tibia was brought into the fossil preparation laboratory where it was prepared by specially trained fossil preparators, like Rochelle and Peter below. The aim of the preparator is to expose the bone while minimizing the loss of information and preserving the specimen for the future.

South Walker Creek’s senior preparator, Rochelle, using an air scribe to remove matrix away from the specimen.
Rochelle and technician, Peter, make sure to have the right protective equipment when cutting open the plaster jacket. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

To begin preparation, we cut off the lid of the jacket with a plaster saw. Once opened we started to prepare the underside of the kangaroo tibia, the side that was facing down in the ground in the field and couldn’t be seen. We use a range of tools and vibrational air scribes to remove the sediment or matrix surrounding the specimen. As the lab is a technical workspace using electrical tools, equipment and chemicals, we wear a range of safety gear like earmuffs, glasses, dust masks and lab coats. We look pretty cool!

Palaeontology is a little bit like forensic science except we are solving some very, very old cases that involve prehistoric victims. Can you think of the similarities between the two sciences?

Peter uses the plaster saw to cut the lid off the jacket.
Peter begins the bulk removal of matrix surrounding the specimen. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

We continued to remove the matrix in layers before exposing the kangaroo tibia. During this whole process we record, photograph and photogram any interesting features such as a change in the sediment colour or type, or if we come across any other bones and teeth that have been preserved next to the main specimen. This information can help us understand how the fossil site formed through the processes of sedimentology and stratigraphy (the way in which the sediment was deposited in layers) and taphonomy (how the animal decayed and fossilized) [Sketchfab 4]

The tibia is revealed in the matrix about half-way through preparation. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The final phase of preparation for this side of the kangaroo tibia is the surface cleaning and preservation treatment with chemical glues to consolidate [Sketchfab 3] the specimen, keeping it together. It’s during this stage that we see other interesting features on the surface of the bone. With our tibia we found a few pathologies (diseases or injuries). A deep groove [Sketchfab 1] within the shaft indicates an injury or bone disease. However, it also shows secondary bone growth indicating that the disease did not kill the animal because it had time to grow new bone. We then found two puncture marks [Sketchfab 2] which fit the form of crocodile teeth indicating the kangaroo was attacked by a crocodile and this is how the kangaroo died.

Are you starting to see how similar our science is to forensics? We now have an idea of who may have been involved in the death of our victim, the giant kangaroo.

Crocodile teeth of many shapes and sizes found within the South Walker Creek sediment. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The next phase involved the creation of a plaster cradle [Sketchfab 2] so that the specimen could be flipped over allowing us to complete the preparation of the other side. We have to make sure the cradle is just right to support the specimen, not grip it too tight, otherwise it may never be taken out without breaking it. We use plastic wrap to protect the bone and plasticine around the specimen to create a wall for the wet plaster mix (casting plaster and a polymer) to settle and dry into a strong cradle.

Rochelle stands next to the tibia which has completed the first stage of preparation.
The tibia is covered in plastic wrap which is tucked into the plasticine wall. The plaster mix is poured over the plastic wrap molding to the surface of the bone to create a form-fitted plaster cradle for the specimen to sit in. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Can you see the similarities and differences between the field plaster jacket from Part 1 and the collection plaster cradle here?

Once again, we have to undertake the tricky process of flipping the kangaroo tibia in one piece. If we have properly conserved the specimen it shouldn’t fall apart – which it didn’t! We took away the plasticine wall and cleared away any loose matrix to prepare the side we first saw in the field. When it was finished, we did some final photographs and photograms of the specimen, and completed the documentation of our preparation job. The specimen is now ready for further analyses and research!

The kangaroo tibia survived the flip and is ready for the final stage of preparation.
The tibia fully prepared and completed. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

A part of this stage involved the transportation of the kangaroo tibia to a hospital so it could be X-rayed (Computed Tomography scanned). Can you imagine what the other patients thought as we wheeled in a fossil leg bone of a giant kangaroo! A radiographer, like Nikki below, takes x-ray images of the bone from different angles to produce digital slices of the specimen [Sketchfab 1]. This allows us to see inside the bone [Sketchfab 4], like x-ray vision, and in this case to study the pathology [Sketchfab 2, 3] in greater detail. Once a specimen has gone through the research stage it is finally ready for conservation, which is the final treatment of the specimen into a safe environment where it is either stored within the collections or placed on display.

The kangaroo tibia is on its new plaster cradle ready to be CT scanned.
Nikki controls the scanner with her computer and uses special algorithms to process images of the fossil bones, which are denser than human bones. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

We use all of the data collected as evidence to form a profile on our victim. We have found some teeth and other limb bones representing a giant kangaroo that may be associated with our victim. Its unguals (claws) [Sketchfab 3] on its feet also have a unique morphology (form, shape) being long and hoof-like, similar to a deer. It may have used its strong unguals to tip toe, making itself taller, to reach food that was higher up in the trees.

Starting from the back, the white coloured tibia is from a modern kangaroo followed by two fossil tibiae from our giant kangaroo and finally the shinbone of a smaller species of kangaroo. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

In fact, what stands out about this giant kangaroo, is its size [Sketchfab 5] perhaps reaching up to 3 metres in height when on its toes. We compared it to other known extinct giant kangaroos and it didn’t fit these species. Its tibia [Sketchfab 1] is longer than these species even without the epiphyses (end caps) fused, meaning it wasn’t fully grown adult. We think our giant kangaroo might be a new species and it looks to be the biggest species ever found!

Reconstruction of the giant kangaroo with a joey in its pouch next to an adult human of average height. Image Credit: Vlad Konstantinov, Andrey Atuchin, Scott Hocknull, Rochelle Lawrence.

Make sure to check out Part 1: In the Field as we go behind the scenes to collect evidence of a giant kangaroo.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The stages our kangaroo tibia went through from being excavated in the field, documented through photogrammetry, CT scanned and finally reconstructed. Image Credit: Vlad Konstantinov, Andrey Atuchin, Scott Hocknull.

Discovering the world’s largest kangaroo- Part 1: In the field

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum 

As the weather begins to cool, the ‘dig’ season starts for us (palaeontologists) as we venture off along the coast and into the outback heart of Queensland. Over the last ten years we have been investigating a series of fossil sites at South Walker Creek located near the town of Nebo, west of Mackay. It is here that we are finding some of Australia’s last tropical ice age megafauna.

The dig team excavate megafauna bones at the main fossil site on an ancient floodplain. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Our dig team usually consists of palaeontologists, along with other scientists and specialists who contribute and volunteer their time. During the year of 2016 one of our volunteers, Noel Sands, who specializes in caving (and their fossil deposits!) called speleology, found a very large fossilized bone. Using an array of brushes and dig tools, Noel carefully excavated the sediment from around the bone to expose its shape and size. It was identified as a tibia (shinbone) [Sketchfab 1] from a kangaroo, but not just any kangaroo, the world’s largest species of kangaroo!

Using a palaeontologist’s tool kit to remove the sediment and find the extent of the bone. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Once the position of the bone was established, we trenched around the specimen to create a pedestal so it could be isolated, with its surrounding sediment, from the rest of the dig site. The bone was then recorded and photographed in situ (the original place of deposition). We also place a temporary paddle pop stick [Sketchfab 6, 7)] with an identifying field number on the bone so it can be plotted in 3-D using a process called photogrammetry.

Scott and Rochelle doing the ‘photogrammetry shuffle’ where they take overlapping photos at different heights and angles of the exposed bones across the entire dig site. These photos are uploaded to special software to reconstruct them in 3-D, kind of like a 3-D puzzle. Image Credit: Clare O’Bryen.

To begin the process of extraction, we first cover the bone and pedestal with foil to act as a protective layer. It is then covered with strips of wet newspaper, which provides cushioning for the jacket we are going to make to contain the bone. To make the jacket we use strips of hessian dipped in a plaster mix (casting plaster and water) and wrap them around the pedestal with the bone and wait for it dry. This is always the fun job!

The large tibia bone on the pedestal ready to be jacketed.
Scott, Christina and Natalia have fun plastering the specimen. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Once the plaster jacket is dry, the field number and a directional north arrow are written on it so we know which specimen it is and its position in the site. The next step of the process is always tricky and is about getting it just right to roll the jacket over with the specimen kept in one piece. We use a hammer to bang in chisels at the base of the pedestal to loosen it from the underlying sediment. When it becomes loose it is ready to be quickly rolled over. If we have made a good jacket the specimen should stay all in one piece. On rare occasions we are not so lucky, but this time it went without a hitch! You can see this whole process in the video below, check it out!

Scott using a hammer and chisel to slowly wedge the plaster jacket away from the ground.
Noel and Scott sit happy and proud with the successful roll over of the plaster jacket. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Finally, the other side of the plaster jacket is sealed with the same plastering process to form a lid. Now the specimen is protected in a hard, egg-like shell to be transported back to the Queensland Museum and stored temporarily in the Geosciences collection with other unprocessed specimens awaiting preparation. There was also a distal tibia epiphyses (end cap) bone [Sketchfab 3] sitting on the shaft of the tibia and a bone shard [Sketchfab 4] nearby that were carefully collected so they were out of the way of extracting the tibia. We will be able to see if these bones are associated (connected) to the tibia.

Scott and Christina make the lid to the plaster jacket so it is sealed and protecting the specimen inside on its travels back to the museum. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Another challenge of the fieldwork is getting large jackets from the dig site back to the field vehicle. As the terrain is quite rough and our excavations occur in an eroded creek bed we cannot drive very close to the dig site. We have to use trollies, stretchers and manual handling to slowly walk the jackets with their specimens out of the dig site. Whilst excavating fossils by hand is exciting, it is also a lot of hard work. It involves good fitness, experience, precision, problem solving and most importantly team work.

Scott and Peter are tasked with transporting the large plaster jacket across the bumpy terrain to the field vehicle using a trolley. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Check out Part 2: In the Lab as we go behind the scenes to investigate the giant kangaroo leg further.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The dig team sit proudly around the tibia of the world’s largest species of kangaroo, all ready to be extracted. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

 

A Crime scene of the past – investigating tropical ice age megafauna

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum

In 2008, an extraordinary discovery was made at South Walker Creek, located near the town of Nebo, west of Mackay in Queensland, Australia. Traditional owners of the area, the Barada Barna people, were conducting a cultural heritage survey for the South Walker Creek Mine when they came across some interesting bones. These bones were not the usual white colour, like those of cows you find in the paddock, nor were they light in weight or becoming brittle from exposure to the sun. They were dark coloured, a little heavier than usual and quite solid in form.

We have found the white, brittle bones of modern cows and sheep on many of our fossil surveys. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.
 A fossil osteoderm (bone plate) from the scales along a crocodile’s back and a piece of bone below that was first found at South Walker Creek. Image Credit: Andrea Bull.

The bones were fossils! Fossils are the remains or traces of organisms (animals and plants) from a past geological age. Most fossils form from the bones and hard parts of animals and plants, but sometimes in rare conditions the soft parts, such as flesh and organs, can be preserved. The feathers, fur and stomach contents of animals have also been preserved, as well as small creatures, like insects, trapped in the sticky sap of trees, which has hardened into amber over millions of years. Trace fossils can include animal droppings, burrows, eggs or footprints, which can tell us a lot about the animal’s habits. They are all evidence of once-living things!

Brachiood fossil found at Homevale National Park on 29/09/2008 by Josh Moulds.

Fossils are found all over the world, but they only represent a few of the many organisms that have existed on the planet. Special conditions are required for an organism to become a fossil and survive the changes within the Earth’s sediment through time. Firstly, an organism has to be buried by sediment, such as mud and sand, which is usually washed in by water. The next stage of fossilisation depends on the organism itself and the environmental conditions. The bones from South Walker Creek have undergone a process called (per)mineralisation. Minerals from the soil and water in the creeks enter the cracks and pores of the bone making it harder over time and giving it a stony appearance.

White cards with field numberes were used to indicate the fossil bones found within the ancient creek. The one on the left is an arm bone (humerus) from a giant kangaroo, which has a whole other story – stay tuned with future blogs. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The environmental officers of the mine contacted the Queensland Museum where they were put in touch with palaeontologist, Dr. Scott Hocknull, who studies fossils of ancient life. Dr. Scott and his team worked with the traditional owners and mine officers to conduct natural heritage surveys, looking for more fossil remains and traces of past ecosystems within the geological landscape (geology) along the Walker Creek system.

The team surveys the ancient creeks and floodplains of the area looking for other fossil sites. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

On inspection of the fossils, Dr. Scott identified them belonging to extinct giant creatures, not dinosaurs, but megafauna! The megafauna we refer to here occurred during the ice ages of the Quaternary Period from 129,000 to 11,700 years ago. An exciting find was waiting for them in the form of a partial skull from the giant wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum.

The tooth rows from a skull of the giant wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum, were eroding out of the ground. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The megafauna fossils from South Walker Creek mostly represent †extinct species, some of which are new to science, along with a few extant (living) species that survive today. We have found predators such as crocodiles †Pallimnarchus (giant freshwater crocodile), † ‘Quinkana’ (terrestrial crocodile) and Crocodylus (saltwater crocodile), the giant goanna †Megalania (Varanus priscus) and the marsupial ‘lion’ †Thylacoleo.

A fossil tooth from a crocodile found while surveying. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

These predators would have preyed on the herbivores (plant eaters) that they lived with, such as the giant wombat-like marsupial, †Diprotodon optatum, giant wombats like †Phascolonus gigas, the strange giant sloth bear-like marsupial, †Palorchestes, and kangaroos, including the giant forest wallaby, †Protemnodon, a short-faced kangaroo (†Sthenurine), the red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus), a giant wallaby (†Notomacropus) and a giant deer-like kangaroo (†Macropus sp.). 00Rare fossils, including eggshell, of the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) have also been found.

Dr. Scott excavates the tooth rows and partial skull of the Diprotodon to carefully remove it from the ground. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

In among the megafauna bones we also find small fauna of both aquatic (water-dwelling) and terrestrial (land-dwelling) species, along with the fossil impressions of leaves and seeds from the plants that grew in the environment at the time of the megafauna. These delicate remains are rarely preserved in fossil sites of this age and are especially uncommon in the tropics making these sites extra special for palaeontologists. Since 2008, teams have undertaken fieldwork to survey, salvage and excavate fossil sites at South Walker Creek and this work continues today.

Dr. Scott and field volunteer, Noel Sands, carefully carry the partial skull of Diprotodon out of the site as if it were the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The fossil discoveries from South Walker Creek are exciting because little is known about the megafauna from the tropical northern regions of Australia compared to those that have been studied in southern Australia. The site is significant as it preserves fossil evidence that is very close to the time of the megafauna’s ultimate extinction in Australia. By studying the site, we are finding answers to our questions surrounding the evolution and extinction of megafauna. Documenting the responses of megafauna to past environmental change is important to better understand the impacts of future change on our living species.

The team celebrate their exciting fossil finds and Diprotodon treasure. Image Credit: Queensland Museum and BHP.

Stay tuned for future blogs on South Walker Creek fossils as we take you behind the scenes and delve deeper into the past of these tropical ice age megafauna.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The main site of the South Walker Creek megafauna fossils where we are excavating their remains within an ancient floodplain. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

What are megafauna?

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum.

Megafauna are giant animals usually weighing over 44 kilograms (kg). Most megafauna are now extinct (no longer exist) and were closely related to living species of animals we see today. You have probably heard of the more commonly known megafauna species, like the saber-toothed cat and woolly mammoth from North America.

Here is a cast of a saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, that I walk by in our Queensland Museum’s Geosciences collection. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

However, Australia is unique with its own megafauna ranging from huge and sometimes strange marsupials (mammals with a pouch), like the giant sloth bear-like Palorchestes to very large monitor lizards like the giant goanna, Megalania. There were giant wombat-like marsupials the size of a rhinoceros like Diprotodon, an array of giant kangaroos different to today’s species and a weird super-predator called Thylacoleo, which means pouched-lion. Australia even had giant, armoured tortoises with clubbed tails, land-dwelling crocodiles, giant constricting snakes and huge flightless birds.

Reconstruction of one of my favourite megafauna, Palorchestes. Image Credit: Andrey Atuchin, Rochelle Lawrence, Scott Hocknull © Queensland Museum.

Megafauna can also refer to species that weighed less than 44 kg, but resemble a giant version of a closely related living species. For example, the extinct ‘giant’ koala (Phascolarctos stirtoni) was larger than the living koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) and probably weighed under 15 kg. Others include a giant echidna, (Megalibgwilia), the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger and a larger relative of the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus laniarius. The term ‘megafauna’ is still used to refer to our largest living animals today such as the elephant.

Can you think of any other living megafauna or extinct?

A species of living megafauna, the elephant, we saw on safari in Namibia, Africa. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The megafauna arose well after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago. In Australia they reached their largest size during the Quaternary Period (2.58 million to 11,700 years ago). The rapidly changing climatic and environmental conditions created grasslands and open habitats favouring the worldwide evolution of gigantic animals. Towards the end of the Quaternary, extinctions of megafauna occurred with nearly two-thirds of Australia’s largest animals dying out, along with many smaller species.

Skeletons of extinct megafauna, including the woolly mammoth, we saw in the Palaeontological Museum of Liaoning in China. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

There is a great debate in palaeontology (study of ancient life) and archaeology (study of human history) surrounding the big questions of why and how did the megafauna go extinct? Answers revolve around an extended period of severe climate change or human activity, or a combination of both, resulting in extreme changes to the environment. To answer these questions, we have to keep searching for the evidence and investigate more megafauna fossil sites – if they have been lucky enough to be preserved and can be found! Each individual site is a reflection of the different creatures and environmental conditions that existed within the ecosystem of that region representing a small piece of a bigger puzzle involving the whole of Australia and even the world. 

Reconstruction of a Diprotodon who had met its fate. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Climate change here refers to the long-term, natural processes that can change the Earth’s climate such as its orbit around the Sun, changes in solar radiation, levels of greenhouse gases, and plate tectonics (movement of the Earth’s crust). These changes appear locally in the form of sustained changes in weather patterns, like decreases and increases in temperature, the frequency of droughts or flooding and overall intensifying aridity. Human activity during this time refers to hunting and disturbance patterns to the environment such as the burning of the landscape.

The drying and cracking of the earth I captured in outback Queensland. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Today climate change includes anthropogenic drivers, like pollution from increased industrial activities of humans. Some of these include the burning of fossil fuels that generate extra greenhouse gases, pollutants and deforestation. These influence how the temperatures across the globe are regulated and drive global warming, a rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system.

Smog from pollutants, such as cars, released into the atmosphere surrounding a bustling city in Asia. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Megafauna fossils have been found around Australia and throughout Queensland. Those from the Quaternary Period have been found within sites in southern Queensland like the Darling Downs and Eulo. These sites are well known for the world’s largest wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum. Diprotodon would have browsed and grazed through the open woodlands and grassy plains of the downs and around the mud springs of Eulo, where on occasion they got stuck, leaving their bones for us to find tens of thousands of years later.

During this excavation we used the numbers to show where the bones of Diprotodon are situated within the ancient mud spring near Eulo. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

As we head north into the subtropics of central eastern Queensland we find fossils of megafauna from The Caves region near Rockhampton. The fossil remains of these animals that lived around and inside the cave systems have accumulated in cave chamber deposits. These deposits are unique as they record fossil fauna from different environments that transitioned through time from wet rainforests to dry open-arid habitats and then to today’s special vine thicket refugia (habitat supporting refuge). Here we find fossils of the extinct giant tree-kangaroo, Bohra, who is a larger version of today’s living tree-kangaroo species found in Far North Queensland and New Guinea.

Reconstruction of Bohra from the rainforest deposits. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.
Dig pit in Colosseum Chamber of Capricorn Caves preserving fossils of animals from modern refugia. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Even further north in Queensland, west of Mackay, fossils of megafauna are being excavated from sites at South Walker Creek. These fossil deposits are rare because they preserve a tropical megafauna. Not many megafauna fossil sites have been found in northern Australia. Many of the fossil bones have puncture marks made by predatory crocodiles including the extinct giant freshwater crocodile, Pallimnarchus. These crocodiles would have inhabited the billabongs and creeks, hunting at their edge for unaware megafauna that would come to drink.

Reconstruction of Pallimnarchus. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Research into the megafauna is helping us understand their responses to environmental change during the Quaternary Period and hopefully it will answer the many questions surrounding their extinction. If we can track down our past, we can better understand how our present has been shaped by the extinction of the megafauna and hopefully use that knowledge to prepare for the future impacts of environmental change.

Can you think of any impacts to our environments today that affects our living species?

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – Reconstruction of megafauna from the Darling Downs. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Let’s not forget the “little things”

By Dr Mike Rix (Principal Curator, Arachnida, and Research Fellow)

Most of us are all too familiar with the plights of large and charismatic species such as the tiger, black rhinoceros, giant panda and polar bear. Their iconic status and magnificence are synonymous with the international conservation movement, as their continued existence on planet Earth remains so dependent on the concerted efforts of citizens and governments.

In Australia, our emphasis on threatened species is likewise focused around vertebrate animals and plants with the highest of public profiles: mammals like koalas, bilbies and Leadbeater’s possums, birds like night parrots and cassowaries, and plants like the Wollemi pine. These species are undoubtedly deserving of our affection and conservation, and play an important role in shaping the Australian public’s environmental consciousness.

But threatened species come in all shapes and sizes, and conservation biologists are slowly, but surely, adding more and more invertebrate animals to our national and state threatened species lists. This is not just an esoteric exercise – insects, spiders, snails, crustaceans and other invertebrates are crucial to the functioning of all terrestrial ecosystems, and we are realising all too quickly (and possibly far too late) that they are not immune to the devastating impacts of the Anthropocene – impacts like land clearing, climate change, pollution and the gradual destruction of the natural world.

The recent devastating fires during Australia’s 2019/20 ‘Black Summer’ took a distressing human and environmental toll. On Kangaroo Island, intense fires ripped through large swathes of the island, exacting damage which was shocking even by Australia’s harsh fire standards. Unsurprisingly, iconic species such as the Kangaroo Island dunnart, glossy black cockatoo, southern emu wren and southern brown bandicoot were all front of mind – and rightly so – as vast swathes of their habitat were reduced to ash. But Kangaroo Island is also home to a remarkable invertebrate fauna, with large numbers of species found nowhere else, and many with significant evolutionary connections to other parts of southern Australia, and even to other continents.

One such species is the Kangaroo Island assassin spider (Zephyrarchaea austini), newly discovered in 2010, and described by myself and other museum scientists in 2012. Assassin spiders or ‘pelican spiders’ are remarkable for myriad reasons, not least their evolutionary antiquity (dating back to the Jurassic), their unusual pelican-like appearance, and their Gondwanan distribution as relicts from a time when southern Africa, Madagascar and mainland Australia were connected. Assassin spiders also live in complex understorey food webs, where they are important predators of other spiders. The Kangaroo Island species is known only from the Western River Wilderness Protection Area, in the north-west of the island. The spider itself is extremely small, extremely rare, extremely fussy in its choice of habitat, and it has an extremely limited ability to move around the landscape. These characteristics make it (and indeed all assassin spiders) inherently susceptible to fire, and during the 2019/2020 fire on Kangaroo Island, its entire known habitat was wiped out.

Concern was raised at the time for its continued survival, and that concern has not dissipated in the months since the fire. Preliminary surveys suggest the impacts on the Western River region were particularly severe, and no assassin spiders have been seen despite a number of preliminary searches. Its continued existence remains unlikely at best, with further detailed survey work required, both in the short and the long terms.

The case of the Kangaroo Island assassin spider is an important example of how threats to the natural world can impact biodiversity across the taxonomic spectrum, not just those species which are large, obvious or iconic. We are yet to scientifically document the majority of the Australian invertebrate fauna, and research museums like the Queensland Museum have a vital role to play in this respect.

Most importantly, we must all remember that small and seemingly insignificant spiders, insects and other invertebrates provide ecosystem services which are far more substantial than their size would suggest; they are, as one of the world’s most famous biologists Edward O. Wilson so famously stated, “the little things that run the world.”

We will continue to search for the Kangaroo Island assassin spider, and in the meantime, let us not forget the “little things” this International Endangered Species Day.

Female-Zephyrarchaea-austini,-lateral-view,-legs-removed

Preserved female specimen of the Kangaroo Island assassin spider (Zephyrarchaea austini), lateral view, with legs removed. This is the only known photograph of this extremely rare species. Image by M. Rix.

Zephyrarchaea_robinsi_W.A

Live male Zephyrarchaea robinsi, lateral view. This species, which is closely related to the Kangaroo Island assassin spider, is known only from the Stirling Range in Western Australia, where it too was impacted by devastating fires during the summer of 2019/20. Image by M. Harvey.

In Focus: The Ernie Grant Collection

This blog post is part of an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside the collections at Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

In 2016, the Queensland Museum purchased a collection of items from Jirrbal Elder, Dr Ernie Grant.

The Ernie Grant Collection, now housed at Museum of Tropical Queensland, represents the cultural and social life of Ernie Grant and his family. Although a small collection, it is personal and unique.

The objects in the Museum’s Ernie Grant Collection include boomerangs, shields, a ceramic shield created by artist Danie Mellor, firesticks, a shadow box and baskets – these are representative of Ernie’s wider personal collection, and document key moments in Ernie’s life and work.

These particular objects were collected over decades, and over that time they have been carefully curated by Ernie. As curator and custodian, Ernie recorded all the information possible about these objects, including where and when they were made, who made the objects, the history of use, and associated stories. The collection stands out amongst the many items in the museum, which have been disconnected from their cultural identity, makers, and communities from which they originated.

Ernie is a Jirrbal man from Tully in Far North Queensland. He has worked widely across Queensland, particularly in the Tully and Innisfail regions. In his early days, Ernie worked for the Railways, and for government departments controlling noxious weeds.

From there, he worked in the timber industry in Papua New Guinea, and in 1991 joined the Queensland Education Department as a Cultural Research Officer based in Cairns.

Ernie’s work in the Queensland Education system has made a significant impact in the way language and culture are taught in the Queensland curriculum. He was instrumental in the development of holistic planning and teaching frameworks, for embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledge in the education system.

Ernie has also collaborated with the Tasmanian Education Department, South Australian Museum and the National Library of Australia, and received national and international recognition for his life’s work.

The following four items from the Ernie Grant Collection were selected to provide an insight into the types of culturally significant objects Ernie curated throughout his lifetime.

Ceramic Shield

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This ceramic shield was made by artist Danie Mellor. The shield echoes the styles of traditional rainforest shields of the Murray Upper Region in North Queensland. Significantly, Danie gifted this item to Ernie Grant, to recognise Ernie’s crucial role in helping Danie understand his personal history and develop his art practice.

Shadow Box

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This three-tiered shadow box is constructed using several pieces of wood shaped as boomerangs, spearthrowers and clap sticks. The shadow box is painted and features motifs of fish, goanna, snake, platypus, and turtle.

Shadow boxes are a contemporary form of Aboriginal artwork, and were originally produced in the 1970s at the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. Shadow boxes are a representational artwork of Aboriginal culture, featuring scaled down versions of cultural objects such as boomerangs, spear throwers and shields.

Shadow boxes were often displayed in family homes, and were rarely sold outside communities; they were not produced as souvenirs, but as cultural representation. Ernie purchased this from a community artist and kept it in his collection for over 40 years.

Shield

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This item was made sometime between 1959 and 1989. Ernie stipulated that this type of shield was made by boys before they became men. It is much smaller than traditional rainforest shields.

Firestick (Bagu)

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This Firestick was made in the late nineteenth century. The Firestick is traditionally made up of two parts – the Bagu (body) and the Jiman (sticks).

The Bagu is made in the form of a man, and the patterned designs represent the fire spirit – who would take the Jiman, throw them across the sky, and leave behind a trail of fire.

See some of the contemporary artworks inspired by Bagu at the Girringun Aboriginal Arts Centre: http://art.girringun.com.au/projects/bagu-with-jiman/

Keep an eye out for the rest of the Ernie Grant Collection on the Queensland Museum Network Collections Online.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator, Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland

 

Re-imagining Pandora

This blog post is part of an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

In 1790, HMS Pandora sailed out of England with a clear mission: to find the HMS Bounty and its 25 mutineers. Pandora reached Tahiti in March 1791, and captured 14 of the mutineers, restraining them in the makeshift prison cell on the stern deck, ‘Pandora’s Box’. Leaving Tahiti in May 1791, Pandora spent the next several months searching for the remaining mutineers on other islands in the South-West Pacific, including Samoa, Tonga, Rotuma and Tokelau. On the eventual journey home to the United Kingdom in August, after failing to track down the nine other mutineers, Pandora ran aground and sank whilst attempting to traverse the Torres Strait.

The wreck remained undisturbed until 1977. Upon discovery of the shipwreck site, the Queensland Museum conducted several archaeological expeditions between 1979 and 1999. The extensive excavations unearthed a significant amount of the buried ship’s hull, as well as the well-preserved collection of artefacts now held by the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville.

When Pandora sank, so did almost everything on board the vessel. The Queensland Museum team uncovered a large assemblage of artefacts that shed light on the everyday lifestyle on board the ship during its eventful journey, as well as a range of Polynesian artefacts that the crew had collected whilst on the islands.

Among these Polynesian objects were a collection of fishhooks and shanks made from mother of pearl shell. Research on the collection deduced that the shell shanks, in particular, were parts of fishing lures used for trolling bonito fish. When suspended in water during use, the lures resemble small fish moving in the water, and attract the predatory bonito. After over 180 years underwater, the other distinguishing features of the lures – the hook and plant fibres – disintegrated prior to discovery of the wreck. The shanks, therefore, cannot be linked to one particular area, as this kind of lure was not only common in French Polynesia, but in a variety of regions across Oceania. They came in a variety of forms, colours and sizes, depending where they were manufactured.

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MA7901 Fishing/trolling lure component. Discovered at the Pandora shipwreck in the 1980s-1990s.

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MA8098 Fishing/trolling lure component. Discovered at the Pandora shipwreck in the 1980s-1990s

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MA8023.1 Fishing/trolling lure component. Discovered at the Pandora shipwreck in the 1980s-1990s.

Currently on display at the Museum of Tropical Queensland is the display, ‘Making Connections: French Polynesia and the HMS Pandora collection’. As part of the display, artist and anthropologist Tokainiua Devatine created an art installation inspired by the many pearl shell shanks from the Pandora wreck. In his artwork, Tokainiua aimed to represent the variation in the pearl shanks, displaying different sizes, colours and forms of the shell pieces in his interpretive artwork.

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Art installation created by artist Tokainiua Devatine, currently on display at the Museum of Tropical Queensland.
People in French Polynesia still use bonito lures made from mother of pearl shells to catch bonito fish. Although, today metal hooks and synthetic fibres are used on the lures, instead of the natural fibres and shell or bone hooks used when the Pandora’s crew acquired the lures.

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E40896 Bonito lure. PhD student and curator Jasmin Guenther purchased this lure in French Polynesia in 2018.

Alongside the pearl shanks found on the Pandora wreck site were several pearl fishhooks. Fishhooks used in French Polynesia at the time of Pandora’s journey through Oceania also came in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their intended use and associated region. Locals would frequently include the hooks in trade and exchange practices, and European visitors to the islands avidly collected them in the 1700s.

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MA8006 Fish hook fragment. Discovered at the Pandora shipwreck in the 1980s-1990s.

Unlike the lures, pearl fishhooks are no longer used for recreational or commercial fishing today.

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E40888, E40889. Tahitian artist Hiro Ou Wen created these fishhooks in 2018 as reproductions of the traditional pearl fishhooks discovered at the Pandora shipwreck.

To learn more about the material culture of French Polynesia, and the connection between Pandora artefacts and contemporary art in Oceania today, visit the Museum of Tropical Queensland and experience the current display, ‘Making Connections: French Polynesia and the HMS Pandora collection’.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland