Category Archives: Museum of Tropical Queensland

The last dicynodont? A 100 year old fossil mystery with bite

Dicynodonts were a group of plant eating stem-mammals (often called mammal-like reptiles), which with their toothless beaks and tusks looked a bit like a mix between a hippo and a tortoise, without the shell.

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Lisowicia bojani (dicynodont). Image credit: Dmitry Bogdanov / CC By 3.0

These animals were the most diverse and abundant herbivores in the second half of the Permian and during the Triassic periods, around 270 and 201 million years ago, after which they went extinct worldwide. Or at least so we thought…

In early 1914, a pastoralist in northern Queensland in Australia picked up some pieces of fossil bone in a gully on his property, which he donated to the Queensland Museum.

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First page of the letter sent from Mr F.L. Berney to the Queensland Museum notifying of a shipment of fossils from Mr R. Pool, consisting of a partial macropod femur (QMF559) and a left diprotodontid maxilla (QMF660)

One of the fragments in particular, which preserved a large curved tooth, showed some resemblance to dicynodonts found in South Africa. However, in the area where the fossil was found, there are no Permian or Triassic rocks, only Cretaceous, which are nearly 100 million years younger.

It’s similarity to dicynodonts and it likely originating from Cretaceous rocks, caused researchers in the early 2000’s to conclude that dicynodonts had found a refuge from the end-Triassic extinction, in Australia!

This was not a far-fetched idea, as a group of amphibians called temnospondyls had already been shown to have done exactly that. While they had gone extinct elsewhere at the end of the Triassic, they had survived for millions of years later in Australia. The only problem was that the Cretaceous dicynodont material was very fragmented, causing contention amongst palaeontologists as to its real biological origin.

A study led by Senior Curator of Palaeontology for the Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University Dr Espen Knutsen, published in Gondwana Research, looked closer at this possibly highly significant material using both traditional and state-of-the-art analytical techniques.

The results show that rather than belonging to a Cretaceous dicynodont, the fossils are that of a much more recent diprotodontid, a wombat-like animal the size of a hippo, which lived in Australia around 2.5 million years ago.

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Diprotodon optatum (Diprotodon) Illustrator: Anne Musser © Anne Musser 

By searching through 100-year-old museum archives, the study found that another fossil was found by the same pastoralist, only months prior in the same gully, meters away from the dicynodont fragments. This fossil, however, was from the left upper jaw of a diprotodontid.

Letters from the pastoralist to Queensland Museum, states that he believed the fossils all belonged to the same individual. To test this, the researchers analysed the trace element concentrations in the fossilised bone. By comparing the elemental signatures of the bones, the researchers showed unequivocally that the fossils came from the same rock unit, and likely the same individual.

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Letter from Mr R. Pool of Alderley Station to the Queensland Museum regarding another shipment of specimens.

What more, after CT scanning the dicynodont material at the Australian Synchrotron, it became clear that its anatomy did not match that of dicynodonts, but rather that of diprotodontids.

The give-away came in the form of the distribution of enamel on the large tooth, which only covered the front. This is what is normally seen in the front teeth of diprotodontids and other mammals with so-called ever-growing incisors.

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Another interesting find was a pit in the bone just in front of the large incisor, the result of an abscess. As the fossil remains suggests the animal was a young individual, it is likely this infection led to an agonising early death.

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The diprotodontid fossil on display as part of the 2019 exhibition Natural Curiosity: Discovering the secrets of Queensland’s greatest collections at Museum of Tropical Queensland

Dr Espen Knusten is the Senior Curator, Palaeontology at Museum of Tropical Queensland

UPDATE ON MAGNETIC ISLAND’S GIANT CLAMS

This is the 2nd installment of a blog monitoring a bleaching event currently occurring in reefs off Magnetic Island, 14kms from the coast of Townsville in North Queensland

Unfortunately by 7 March, approximately two weeks since the last inspection, the bleaching of the giant clams along the snorkel trails of Magnetic Island had worsened.

In just a few short weeks, the number of giant clams (Tridacna gigas) on the snorkel trails that were bleached white had increased from two to five.

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Partially (N5) and fully (N4) bleached clams at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

A further eight were pale and/or blotched, a less extreme form of bleaching (e.g. N5, N6 & N7).

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Partially bleached clams (N6 & N7) at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

Only one of the fourteen giant clams had normal colouration (G2).

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Bleached (G1) and unbleached (G2) clams at Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

Scientist from Queensland Museum and Magnetic Island monitored the clams again on 15 March 2020 and little change had occurred.

More updates will follow from the team monitoring their progress.

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Dr Rick Braley measuring giant clams (Tridacna gigas) at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.
Giant clams can reach more than a metre in length and weigh more than 100 kg.

Written and Compiled by Dr Robyn Cumming, Collection Manager (marine) and Bryozoan taxonomist, Biodiversity & Geosciences Program, Queensland Museum and Dr Rick Braley, Aquasearch, Magnetic Island.

North Queensland giant clams under stress

Giant clams are large and beautiful reef animals, the largest bivalve molluscs in the world, commonly reaching more than a metre in length.

Like reef-building corals, they have symbiotic algae in their tissues, and under extreme heat stress can bleach like corals do.

This results in the symbiotic algae being ejected from their tissues and they turn white.

Currently, a giant clam bleaching event is unfolding at Magnetic Island, 14km off the coast of Townsville, North Queensland.

Inshore waters of Cleveland Bay (the stretch of water between Townsville and Magnetic Island) reached 32 degrees in February 2020, resulting in bleached clams and corals.

Scientists from Magnetic Island and Queensland Museum are now closely monitoring fourteen 34-year-old giant clams in Geoffrey Bay and Nelly Bay which feature on the Tourism Magnetic Island snorkel trails (six at Geoffrey Bay and eight at Nelly Bay).

Two of these animals are severely bleached white and in danger of dying whilst the other twelve are pale – a clear sign of heat stress.

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Bleached white giant clam at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 20 Feb 2020.

These clams have survived several coral bleaching events over their 34 years, including in 1998, 2002 and 2016/17, but have only shown signs of bleaching once before — in 1998 and were able to make a full recovery.

The clams were bred in 1986 at Seafarm, Innisfail, and raised at the giant clam farm at Orpheus Island (Palm Islands) by Dr Rick Braley, marine scientist and Magnetic Island resident.

When the clam farm closed in 1990 some clams were re-homed to Magnetic Island, and in 2013 fourteen of them were placed on the snorkel trails for all to enjoy.

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Healthy giant clams at Nelly Bay along the snorkel trail

Many locals and visitors have viewed these iconic animals whilst snorkeling Magnetic Island over the past seven years and their welfare is a concern for scientists, residents and tourists alike.

We will monitor the fourteen giant clams on the snorkel trails and we will continue to post photos with updates on their condition in this blog series.

Written and Compiled by Dr Robyn Cumming, Collection Manager (marine) and Bryozoan taxonomist, Biodiversity & Geosciences Program, Queensland Museum and Dr Rick Braley, Aquasearch, Magnetic Island.

Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of archaeology in Oceania

As part of the Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific (CBAP) Project (led by the Australian National University in Canberra), the Museum of Tropical Queensland is currently participating in the worldwide exhibition, Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of archaeology in Oceania. The collaborative display is featured in over 30 collecting institutions around the world, and explores the ideas, people and networks that were pivotal in the development of archaeology. The displays show how social interactions continue to affect the ways in which we interpret and engage with the history of the Pacific.

The Museum of Tropical Queensland chose to feature a range of stone adzes from HMS Pandora and investigate what the objects themselves can tell us about who made, used and traded them.

Polynesian stone tools excavated from HMS Pandora (1791)

Twenty five basalt adze blades and five basalt pounders were excavated from HMS Pandora, from the area thought to be the officer’s storeroom. These Polynesian tools give insight into the movement of objects in the 18th century.

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Stone adzes excavated from HMS Pandora

The late 18th century was a time of burgeoning exploration, colonisation and settlement by Europeans throughout Oceania. Driven by the high demand for ‘artificial curiosities’ in Europe, sailors on the early voyages made a habit of collecting souvenirs or ‘curios’ from islands in the Pacific. Museums and private collectors sought out these prized objects, with many items forming the basis of early European museum collections.

Objects often become disconnected from information about where or how they were collected, and the people who originally owned and used them. The Pandora collection, however, is different. Documentary evidence – the captain’s log – links the stone tools to specific regions in the Pacific islands where Pandora stopped to search for the HMAV Bounty mutineers.

While the captain’s logbook does not specifically mention the crew actively collecting the ‘curiosities’ during the voyage, the excavated assemblage is evidence that trade and exchange occurred between the crew and the local peoples.

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Made from volcanic rock, the adze blades were usually attached or hafted to a wooden handle with plaited coconut fibre

Mid-20th century archaeological investigation placed emphasis on the shape and form of adzes, suggesting that certain types of adze originated from different island groups across Oceania. These studies also suggest that the location of where the artefact was found is also where the stone was sourced and the tool manufactured. This method of investigation is known as typological analysis, and it identifies the majority of adzes from Pandora as coming from the Society Islands where the crew spent many weeks during the voyage. The remaining adzes are thought to have originated from the Southern Cook Islands, where Pandora visited Aitutaki and Palmerston Island. Interestingly, typological analysis of one style of adze identifies it as originating from Tubuai, an island visited by Bounty but not Pandora.

More recently, researchers used a non-destructive geo-chemical technique called portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) to determine the composition of the stone tools and identify quarry sources. These results open up more interesting questions. Did each island group have their own quarry where they dug out the stone for their tools or was the unshaped rock moved between the different island groups? If this occurred, what can we learn about Polynesian voyaging, social networks and exchange throughout the Pacific?

Soon, we will be able to better understand how these objects moved throughout Oceania, prior to their journey on Pandora. The results of these studies are forthcoming.

Alison Mann, Assistant Collection Manager, Museum of Tropical Queensland

This display is now on at Museum of Tropical Queensland from 1 March 2020.

To see what other objects are on display around the world and the links between them please visit uncoveringpacificpasts.org

Cowboys in the Museum

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.

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Like most Queenslanders, I grew up knowing that Rugby League was a central part of life. I remember sitting with my dad watching the Friday Night Footy, the entire family wearing jerseys or team colours as good luck charms.

North Queenslanders – dare I say it – might even be some of the most passionate out of all rugby supporters. You can’t walk down Townsville’s main street without noticing the Cowboys Leagues Club situated right in the centre of town, and on a game day it’s completely normal that 80% of people hanging around town are wearing some sort of Cowboys merchandise.

While the Cowboys didn’t quite make it into the NRL Grand Final this year, the rugby league spirit was still alive in Townsville in the lead up to the match last week. In tune with recent finals season, have a look at something we have tucked away in our collections – a very different kind of museum object.

WHEN ART AND RUGBY COLLIDE

Around the same time that the Museum of Tropical Queensland was being developed, North Queensland formed its first every official rugby league team: the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys.

These two icons – the Museum and the Cowboys team – have a longstanding relationship aimed at assisting the local community, and advocating for education, accessibility and innovation.

As such, in 2006, a project between the two was developed: the Sports Star Art Torso Casting Project. Sports Star Art was a world-first, contemporary concept in sporting memorabilia. Six local Cowboys players had their torso’s cast in plaster, to raise funds for the development of the ‘Archie’s Shipwreck Adventure’ children’s exhibition at the Museum of Tropical Queensland.

Matt Bowen – affectionately called Matty by his fans – a former Cowboy and one of the teams most valued and popular players, was one of the six immortalised in plaster.

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The plaster casts were made at the Museum in March 2006. The players were positioned in a hospital bed, their arms and torso’s coated in dental alginate, for 45 minutes while the casts set.

That was the easy part – the casts then had to be removed from the players’ bodies, slowly so that (hopefully) only a minimal amount of body hair would be removed with the plaster.

Matt Bowen commented that the removal, “pulled every bit of hair I had on my chest – and it hurt”.

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Once the cast was removed, the museum displays preparator dried the cast, and applied both fibreglass and resin. Once set, the plaster was broken away from the outside, the cast was sanded, and then airbrushed to match the Cowboys uniform.

The final contribution for this item was Matty Bowen’s signature. Bowen’s torso then became a permanent part of the museum’s collections, and the five remaining casts were auctioned off at the Museums fundraising event for the new exhibition.

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People often assume they’ve seen it all when it comes to museum collections. But I guarantee they’ve never seen Matty Bowen’s torso at another museum.

 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

Snapshots in Time

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.

You don’t often go to a new place without seeing at least one postcard for sale. Beaches, small towns, big cities – there’s always a tourist shop, and there’s always a postcard stand. I myself have a series of postcards on my fridge, parading beautiful sights my friends and family have visited – my favourite being a picture of a fluffy sheep in front of the rolling hills of New Zealand.

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This postcard shows scenes much closer to home. The postcard was originally purchased by the late Lloyd Noel Vickers during his time stationed in Townsville in the mid-1940s as a member of the Australian Armed Forces.  Fold out postcards allowed people to send their loved ones multiple images at a time, rather than the single image postcards of today.

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Lloyd Noel Vickers, photographed at time of enlistment in Bendigo, Victoria by renowned wartime photographer William Vincent Kelly. During WW2, Townsville was the major North Queensland base for both Australian and US forces and had 11 operational airstrips within the city. Vickers was stationed at one of these during his time with the Air Force. The postcard was kept by Vickers as a memento of his time in Townsville.

This photograph and the postcard were recently donated to the Museum of Tropical Queensland by Vickers’ daughter, Denise Mitchell (Vickers), in memory of her father.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

Manufactured and distributed in the 1940s, the images of Townsville featured on the postcard depict a place very different from today.  The images used on this postcard depict significant locations throughout the city. Have a closer look at some of these sites, and try to spot the similarities and differences between their 1940s context, and their position in Townsville today.

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Railway station

Built in 1913, the Great Northern Railway Station was well-known to the many soldiers who travelled to and from Townsville by train during WW2, and is featured in many commemorative photographs from the end of the war. The station closed in 2003, when the new railway line was built. Today, the building is used by Queensland Rail as both a travel centre and office space.

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Another photo captures the Castle Hill lookout. The road to the lookout was developed as part of a Great Depression unemployment relief project, and officially opened in the year 1937. Today, visitors frequent the lookout by car, or by navigating one of the many designated hiking trails that traverse up the sides of the hill.

Victoria Bridge

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One of Townsville’s oldest bridges, Victoria Bridge opened in 1889 to connect the port on Ross Island to the Townsville CBD. The bridge became Queensland’s sole swing bridge during the years 1889-1925, and closed to traffic in 1975, when the George Robert’s bridge opened. Victoria Bridge was revamped and reopened as a pedestrian bridge in 2001.

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Flinders St

The Townsville Post Office (left), built in 1886, is a heritage-listed building that now houses the Townsville Brewery. In 1942, the clock tower was dismantled after the bombing of Darwin; as a significant landmark in Townsville’s city centre, and because of the building’s status as a communications centre, it was also considered a possible target. In the 1960s, the tower was modified by JE Allen & Co., and soon became the prime location for political rallies because of its central position in the Townsville CBD. The building was redeveloped as the Townsville Brewery in 2001. The Union Bank building (right) was built in 1885 and established as the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in 1981.

JUST LIKE YOU WERE THERE

The images on this postcard were produced from black and white negatives and then hand-coloured to bring life to the photographs. Hand-coloured images let manufacturers over-saturate the photographs with colour, to create a more ‘realistic’ visual experience. A range of pigments were used to create the vivid colours: oils, watercolours, dyes, crayons or pastels. The production of hand-coloured photographs generally stopped in the 1950s, when colour film became more available and the preferred method. However, many countries continued to hand-colour images because it was too expensive to obtain and produce colour film; in several places, this process was practiced as late as the 1980s. The 1970s also saw a resurgence in the technique, with trends in collecting antiques taking hold and a market opening for these types of hand-coloured images.

Murray Views, Gympie, was the key manufacturer for souvenir postcards during this period. Fred Murray opened Murray Studios in Gympie in 1906, initially only producing products for the Gympie region and surrounding areas. In 1929, the company changed to Murray Views, and was soon creating souvenir images and postcards from as far as Cairns to Grafton, with each photograph captured by Fred and his team. Fold out poster production began at the company in the mid-1940s, when Murray’s nephews took over the company.

MULTIPLE STORIES

This postcard is significant to the collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland for several reasons. The images provide a contrast between historical locations in the Townsville region that are still some of the main tourist locations today, and the techniques used to create the postcard give us insight into both image and souvenir manufacturing in the mid-20th century. It also encourages us to think about the situation in which Mr Vickers might have purchased the object, during his years spent in Townsville. By looking at these images, we can gain a sense of both time and place.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland