Backyard Explorer North Queensland May 2012

Catching insects during the “hands-on” BE workshop

Queensland Museum scientists will conduct free workshops this week in Atherton, Innisfail, and Cairns dedicated to assessing local biodiversity and the effect of human impact using data from insect trapping. These workshops will be funded with assistance from Landcare through Fiona George (Regional Landcare Facilitator, Terrain Natural Resource Management, Innisfail).

The Queensland Museum Backyard Explorer North Queensland May 2012 workshops will include a free full day workshop held at the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Atherton facilities on Thursday 17th. During this workshop we will be completing a study with Yungaburra Landcare and other interested community members at the Lower Peterson Creek re-vegetation site.

Participants from teachers to local naturalists, council representatives, Landcare members and staff, and interested community members will attend a program that encourages the region to become more involved in science. Backyard Explorer shows community groups how to complete a survey of their property, work site, even backyard, incorporating scientific examination of habitat, vegetation and wildlife using the techniques museum scientists use in research including identifying any insect finds and interpreting the bio-health of the area.

Landcare have also funded an after school session for teachers, Landcare members and staff, and other interested community at the training room at the Disaster Management Centre in Innisfail on Wednesday May 16th.

Additionally Landcare have organised for the Queensland Museum scientists to visit schools and provide students and teachers hands on experiences with collecting and identifying insects. The Juniors from St Rita’s school in South Johnstone doing Mini Beasts will be involved on Wednesday morning May 16th. All Year 3 classes at Bentley Park College south of Cairns will be working with the Queensland Museum  scientists on Friday 18th May.

Watch this space for reports on the Queensland Museum Backyard Explorer North Queensland May 2012 workshops.

Further reports, photographs, and resources from Backyard Explorer community sessions held in 2011 can also be accessed from this Queensland Museum Talks Science page.

Christine Lambkin is leading the BE workshops and will be joining the QMTS writers group as a guest author.  She is the curator of Entomology responsible for the Queensland Museum collections of Diptera (flies), Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers), Hemiptera (bugs), Phasmatodea (stick insects), and a number of smaller insect orders. Her main research interest is the systematics, evolution, taxonomy, and biodiversity of Diptera, specialising in combined molecular and morphological phylogenetic analyses and monographic revisions of beeflies (Bombyliidae) and stiletto flies (Therevidae).

Chris Lambkin

New Ways of Looking at Old Treasures

The recent opening of Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition prompted delight on the faces of QM staff and the visiting public.  In addition to supervising the opening of the exhibition, British Museum expert Dr John Taylor identified a very significant old treasure. The piece of papyrus laying quietly in the display of QM artefacts has now been identified as part of an important Book of the Dead belonging to Amenhotep, a chief builder in the 15th century BC. For many adults such discoveries are pretty amazing; but for primary school learners it is hard for them to really grasp the magnitude of these and other historical items. Time has little meaning beyond last week and tomorrow, and old is someone in their forties!

So how can we engage young learners in the appreciation of artefacts? Teachers could get very excited and tell their students about an amazing new discovery of a piece of papyrus written some 3500 years ago. They could explain how Books of the Dead contained magical spells and were entombed with the mummified bodies of Egyptians to ensure their safe passage from one life to the next. But this one-directional sharing of knowledge rarely produces long-term retention in Early Years children’s brain storage system. Teachers know the importance of fostering the processes of inquiry. As the Australian Curriculum states, inquiry develops transferable skills, such as the ability to ask relevant questions; critically analyse and interpret sources; consider context; respect and explain different perspectives; develop and substantiate interpretations, and communicate effectively (Australian Curriculum: History accessed on 30/4/12).

So what can Queensland Museum do to help? Well firstly, we have an abundance of real objects which can be explored. If you visit the museum, you can book a school program which, at a current cost of $5 per student, gives your class a 45 minute session with a museum staff member presenting in an allocated room with museum artefacts which students can handle. The current programs are on our website and can be tweaked to meet specific curriculum intent if you book early and explain what your particular focus is. There are teachers-in-residence at QM who can advise staff about the Australian Curriculum and C2C lessons which we can address – so let us know how we can make your visit really valuable. In addition, Queensland Museum loans offers a wide range of objects many of which students can actually handle and are related to many aspects of the National curriculum. ( Of course, local museums and historical societies will also be willing to enrich your classroom learning.

Unfortunately, some objects cannot be handled. Handing around the piece of the Book of the Dead or the mummified hand of a very young child pictured here is not possible. Therefore the way we engage  students in interpreting these objects becomes the crucial factor as to whether the learning is of long-term value. The key to this engagement is enticing the students to co-construct the story around the object. Providing a picture of the artefact and an actual papyrus painting (cheaply purchased online) to each small group of students, with the instruction to share what you know or can deduce, begins the process of inquiry (explore before explain). Then the trick is to ask questions which look at the bigger picture and link this object to customs/ objects that the students can relate to. For example, do people today have things placed with them when they die? What book or item from today do you think people in the 30th century might want to see in a museum? Do we need to collect old things and why? Will we still be writing using an alphabet in 3000 years time? If you could be mummified, would you want to be? Do you think Amenhotep would be happy for us to have a piece of his scroll? Do you think this piece of papyrus will exist in another 3000 years? The factual knowledge about the objects emerges through the conversations but more importantly, the students are engaging in the processes of inquiry. Finally, if you come on an excursion to the museum, the students will take a new look at these old treasures and see much more than a fragment of papyrus in a glass cabinet!

To help teachers deliver the national curriculum, QM teachers are developing resources based on objects/images in our collection and from QM loans. Visit and search for Australian curriculum to find the current range so far. If you have specific objects you would like us to put high on the priority list please let us know by emailing or calling

Incredible Insects: From the desk of Quentin the Quoll

Photo of Quentin the Northern Tiger Quoll at his computer

To teach the Biological Sciences sub strand of the Australian Curriculum well, teachers need to feel fairly comfortable with living things. Of particular benefit is knowledge of insects, firstly because they are invertebrates and therefore don’t require the enormous screeds of paperwork for approval to use them.  Secondly, insects are just simply amazing and frankly, without them, we’d all be dead!

Insects of course are one of the main organisms which support the food webs of all others. For the lower primary year levels (K-6), insects provide a wonderful real life resource that students can observe at first hand. Insects are freely available and with a little knowledge can be easily kept for classroom learning. Many go through some quite mind-blowing transformations and they have found ways to survive in nearly every physical environment on this amazing planet. They can teach students about the needs of living things, external features, growth and change and the effects of the physical environment on survival. And insects are cited for classroom use in the Australian Curriculum and in a number of current curriculum resources for example mealworms in C2C units and the new Primary Connections module. Watch it grow!

For older students (7-10) insects are an exceptionally good resource for teaching about biodiversity, classification, taxonomic keys, sustainability and the planning and conducting of extended experimental investigations. Queensland Museum Entomologist Dr Christine Lambkin (shown below getting a few hot tips from Quentin), has been instrumental in developing a project called Backyard Explorers. The materials and videos located on the QM website  provide a step-by-step guide to conducting a biodiversity assessment using insects, complete with Excel spread sheets for recording and an automated graph creator. For this investigation and especially for the safety of students, the insects are immediately placed in preserving alcohol upon collection. Whilst this is not something teachers feel comfortable with, the deep understandings built through close and detailed examination of the specimens in fact create a greater respect for living things. The insects are only collected for scientific education explicitly following specified methods and certainly this is not open slather on killing things. The impact on insect populations is far less than that caused by the Mortein can, electric bug zappers, and car headlights.

A picture of Quentin the Quoll and QM entomologist Dr. Christine Lambkin

For younger year levels, Quentin and Christine have some other ways to obtain insects which don’t involve killing them and are also safe because the identity (and ability to sting or bite) of the insects is known. To get you started there is a fact sheet called ‘Keeping live insects’ on the following page:

Quentin will return soon with more tips for Primary and Early Years teachers in future blogs.

Aboriginal Science Tools: the Morah Stone

Greetings from the Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ). My name is Letitia Murgha and I am a member of the Strategic Learning team which is comprised of four seconded teachers from Education Queensland. We do lots of things across the museum network as you will have read in previous blogs.  As an indigenous elder and experienced teacher, my main role is to work alongside Trish Barnard (Senior Curator for Cultures & Histories Customs, Cultures and Country) at MTQ to develop new learning resources from an indigenous knowledge perspective.  These resources are aligned with the new  Australian  Curriculum. I’d like to tell you about an aboriginal object from the state collections that I have been investigating that will be included in a set of new Aboriginal Science kits. The special object is called a Morah stone.

Morah Stone: Look at the striations (grooves) in the slate

 To the casual observer it may seem to be a stone with scratches all over it but to the Aboriginal people of the North Queensland rainforest this stone aided their ability to survive, sustain themselves and to prosper.  It is known as a Morah stone and  is a specialised type of grooved grindstone formed from sedimentary rock, such as grey slate.  It was an integral tool used by Aboriginal people, especially the women,  of the rainforest who used it to process particular plant types such as the Zamia Palm (Lepidozamia hopei) and Black Bean (Castanospermum australe).  These distinct plant types while abundant in the rainforest are highly toxic.  The rainforest people knew about the toxicity of these plants and through scientific processes discovered how to extract the toxin from them.  The stone was invented as an aid in extracting toxins from the seeds of the toxic plants. The rainforest might look and feel cool and inviting, but there lurks many hidden dangers.

Of the many rock types slate was chosen because it formed into smooth flat sheets.  Slate has a low water absorption index. It is also fireproof and has a level of resistance to breakage and is easily portable.  It is a very handy tool. Most morahs have roughly parallel incised grooves running across the grinding surface perpendicular to the axis of the stone. These grooves or incisions would most likely have been made with a pointed bone, sharp stone or piece of sharp coral.

You may wonder how aboriginal people used the Morah stone. The seeds/kernels were placed on the incised Morah stone and the moogi, usually a harder stone, placed on top and in a rolling pushing and pulling motion grated the seeds/kernels.   This motion allowed for a quantity of meal, mashed seed kernels, to be crushed in a short time as the next step in the process was to leach this meal inside a basket in running water.  Using this motion across the stone the incised grooves facilitated the breakup of the starchy kernels.

How do we know which seeds were ground and leached?  Results of scientific analysis on residue analysis from the Morah stones suggest that Aboriginal groups settled on a more permanent basis in the rainforest. The residue analysis from some Morah stones found in North Queensland revealed the specific types of seeds which were ground down.  Food sources such as the Zamia seeds provided a high carbohydrate, protein and energy diet as well as being low in fat.  Six species of toxic plant sources in the rainforest provided and formed part of the Aboriginal people’s staple food  source                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         thatup

The Morah stone is no ordinary stone.

The Morah stone along with other tools invented by Aboriginal people will feature in the new loans kits developed by Queensland Museum.  Multiple Learning Kits will be available for loan by metropolitan and regional borrowers. The resources will be of particular interest for local area studies in schools, embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into the curriculum and most importantly being aligned  with the new Australian Curriculum: Science.

All You Want to Know About the Eastern Mouse Spider – But Were Afraid to Ask

Eastern Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi)
Eastern Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi)

It’s the stuff of nightmares, big hairy spiders with huge fangs.  But we don’t need to worry about that because the deadly funnel-web is down in Sydney and those other ones are from South America, right?

Wrong!  The spider in the picture is a Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) and they are found all over mainland Australia.  They are the little cousin of the famous funnel-web (which, by the way, is not found just in Sydney, but I’ll save that for another blog).

The Mouse Spider is an old world or primitive spider along with the funnel-web, tarantula, trapdoor and whistling spider. Basically all the big ground dwelling scary ones.  I say ground dwelling as the Huntsman spider may be big and hairy, but it does not belong to this group of spiders as it naturally lives under the bark of trees, so its natural habitat is different to primitive spiders, along with a different lung and fang structures.

Speaking of fangs, having large fangs is another primitive spider trait.  They are usually parallel and vertical in primitive spiders, except for the Mouse spider which has adapted its fangs to use as pincers.  They are still very large compared to its body size, but it can also grab, hold and crush prey using its fangs.  It is this powerful clamping action which has also led to the limited use of venom by the mouse spider.  Usually its crushing and piercing bite is enough to kill its prey; its venom glands are tiny when compared to the funnel-web.  Now don’t go thinking it’s harmless.   Apart from a very nasty bite, which easily and painfully pierces human skin, if the mouse spider does decide to use the little venom it has, it is just as toxic as the Sydney funnel-web. Lucky for one young Gatton boy, we learnt that the antivenom for the funnel-web works just as well on mouse spider bites.

Mouse Spider Burrow Entrance

So where would I find this spider?  The Mouse spider creates a silk burrow under the leaf litter.  There is no trapdoor or visible hole, just a flap of silk like a flattened sock indicates what lies beneath the soil.  They can be found all over Brisbane, in bush reserves and also backyards.  Mouse Spiders are a lot smaller than some other primitive spiders, a large

Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) from Brisbane Queensland
Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) from Brisbane Queensland

mouse spider may only be 5 cm long.  The one found by Dr Robert Raven from Queensland Museum was only 2 cm long and was estimated to be 7 years-old.  This specimen was brought back to Queensland Museum for further study as we know very little about the Mouse Spider compared to the famous funnel-web or even the daddy-long-legs.  the mouse spider is rarely seen, preferring the dark of night and the obscurity of the leaf litter.  They also rarely bite humans and when this has occurred, rarely use venom, so their profile as a dangerous spider is not very high.

Wolf Spider Loans Item
Wolf Spider Loans Item

So what should you do if your come across a mouse spider in your garden?  Well like most things with eight legs or no legs, leave it alone.  If you or your students want to get up close to our eight legged friends, consider borrowing one of the specimens from Queensland Museum loans  that way you’ll know they are safe, but at the same time, they can inquire and explore.

Engage, Explore, Discover, Queensland Museum

New Quoll on the block!

2012 brings some new faces to Queensland Museum and Sciencentre (QM&S). At the Southbank campus, Quentin the Quoll is lending a paw to show one of the new teachers in residence a thing or two.

My name is Narinda Sandry and I am one of two new seconded teachers at QM&S. Having mainly taught 3-8 year olds, I have worked in State Schools, C&K settings, at Griffith University in Early Childhood and Science courses and on projects writing science curriculum materials for the Early Years. No doubt you can guess my passions are for science and the Early Years. In my role at the museum, I will strive to unlock the wonderful resources in particular for younger learners and those entrusted to teach them. The Australian Curriculum: Science (ASC) will be the key organising framework, with special exhibitions and science events incorporated where relevant.

Quentin, a Northern Tiger Quoll
Quentin, a Northern Tiger Quoll. Photo courtesy of QM&S

Back to Quentin. Quentin is a Northern Tiger Quoll, an endangered species found only in some rainforests of North Queensland. Quolls are a carnivorous marsupial eating insects, small mammals, fruit and some birds. They are mostly nocturnal and are under threat because of habitat destruction, baiting by farmers, dogs, feral cats and road crossing at night.

Over the year, Quentin the Quoll and his friends will be featured as animals that students and teachers can identify with to heighten community awareness of the need to protect our unique wildlife. They will appear in some blogs, be ‘snapped’ discovering new and exciting experiences at various campuses and hopefully be able to visit some schools and Early Years classes. We hope to be able to include some of your experiences with Quentin and his friends in the Queensland Museum Talks Science blog too.

Many wonderful specimens like Quentin are available through Queensland Museum loans. Giving a character to a real specimen provides young learners with an opportunity to experience empathy and interpret the world through the eyes of an animal. Teachers can probe with questions like ‘how do you think Quentin might be feeling?’ or ‘what has Quentin learned?’ The character provides a point of reference to which learning can be attached and built up as a collective picture for example ‘remember when Quentin learned about or visited or saw? Remember what the external features of Quentin were? How can we use that knowledge now?’ Of course the character can be used across other curriculum areas too.

I am very much looking forward to finding creative ways of connecting with Early Years students and teachers across Queensland. If you wish to talk with me about the museum and its efforts with regards to young learners, please do not hesitate to contact me on or (07) 38407668 or of course via any one of our campuses if you prefer. Happy learning!

Classification with Year 7 (Australian Curriculum)

A couple of weeks ago I started working with a teacher at a local primary school. Her year 7 class had finished most of their science course for the year so we developed a short unit on classification that the students could investigate.

According to the Biological sciences strand in Year 7 of the Australian Science Curriculum, students need to consider that:

There are differences within and between groups of organisms; classification helps to organise this diversity.

The Elaborations state that students:

  • Consider the reasons for classifying such as identification and communication
  • Group a variety of organisms on the basis of similarities and differences in particular features
  • Use simple taxonomic keys e.g. dichotomous keys to identify, sort and name organisms.

We worked out a short teaching unit and this is attached.

Classification Unit Outline (PDF)

We discussed with the students the reasons for classification; the broad groupings of organisms (6 Kingdoms); and the five classes of Chordates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.)

Students had a chance to examine the external coverings of some specimens such as bird feathers, mammalian fur, snake skin, crocodile skin, and fish skin. We discussed animals that had coverings different from most of their group. e.g. mammals that don’t have fur; fish that don’t have scales; birds that don’t have ‘wings’ and so on. Students also investigated other characteristics possessed by most members of theses classes.

Students examining animal coverings

The students completed some worksheets that were taken from the

Micro Marvels Teacher Resource Booklet (PDF)

Then in another session after morning tea, we discussed the levels of classification and how scientists use dichotomous keys to identify organisms. Students started looking at the invertebrate specimens in the Micro Marvels kit and used a dichotomous key from the booklet to classify the specimens into their major animal groups.

Students examining invertebrate specimens
Students examining more invertebrate specimens

The following week, I brought in 20 invertebrate specimens (numbered 1 – 20) and the students practised using the dichotomous key to classify them. Students learnt how these organisms are grouped on the basis of shared features and how they are different from other groups.

Invertebrate Specimens to classify

Teachers can collect their own specimens over the year and build up quite a collection. So next time you are at the beach, collect some of those shells and other flotsam that wash up on the shoreline. There could be molluscs, sea urchins, sponges, crabs etcetera. Make sure you dry them out well before putting them into a sealed container to preserve them.

To investigate classification at a more in-depth level, we watched some videos entitled Hints on Identifying Insects and Using an Interactive Key on our QM website. Then several orders of insects were examined. (A tray of 9-10 insect orders is provided in the Micro Marvels kit.) Students then had some background information to help them identify the unidentified insects in the trays that I brought in. (Unidentified insect trays can be borrowed from QM Loans or the teacher and the class may like to collect their own.)

The key that we used was the online interactive CSIRO Invertebrate Key.

To examine small features of insects such as the rostrum of bugs and halters on flies, the digital microscope in the Micro Marvels was used. Good quality hand lenses can also be used.

Halters on a fly
Rostrum (sucking tube) of an Assassin bug

Students can collect their own terrestrial invertebrate specimens. Some instructional videos on this are shown in the Collect Insects section of our Wild Backyards site.

Hopefully from this short teaching unit, students will have gained an appreciation for the beauty and diversity of life on Earth.