Museums & Collections Blog
  •  
  •  
  • Categories

  •  
  • Tags

  •  
  • Archives

  • Happy 81st Thylacine Day: Thylacines were lucky to last as long as they did

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2017

    81 years ago today – the 7th September 1936 – the last known thylacine died, committing its species, indeed its entire family, to extinction.

    The last known living thylacine, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    It was locked out of the indoor section of its enclosure at a zoo in Hobart, and in the overnight chill of the Tasmanian winter it died of exposure. All that now remains of the then largest marsupial carnivore is in museums.

    In a sense it was lucky. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 306: The Bilby Skull

    By Jack Ashby, on 1 September 2017

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Australia is widely considered to be the extinction capital of the world. In the 230 years since European invasion, 29 of its 315 native land mammals have been driven to extinction, and by far the majority of those that do currently survive have suffered significant (and in many cases almost total) declines – they are now only found in a fraction of their former habitats.

    This is all very depressing, but as I write this I am undertaking fieldwork in a remote area of central South Australia, volunteering for an organisation who are trying to make things better. This week’s Specimen of the Week is one of the species they protect. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 283: The Eastern Quoll

    By Jack Ashby, on 17 March 2017

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Mongooses, ferrets, shrews, meerkats, otters, weasels and cats: These are animals that most people will be familiar with.

    Planigales, ningauis, kalutas, dunnarts, mulgaras and quolls: Not so much.

    Despite all being small mammals, strangely named, absurdly cute (the second set even more so than the first), objectively interesting in many ecological, behavioural and evolutionary ways, there seems to be a difference in the level of attention between these groups of animal. The latter are all Australian marsupials, and for undoubtedly complicated political, colonial and egotistical reasons embedded in the western psyche, they don’t get their fair share of the limelight*. This week’s Specimen of the Week is a tiny step in addressing that, with…

     

    (more…)

    Eighty years extinct: today is Thylacine Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2016

    80 years ago today, on the 7th September 1936, the last known thylacine died. With it, an entire branch of the tree of life was cut off.

    The last living Thylacine in Beaumaris Zoo, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were the last surviving member of a family of wolf-like marsupials that once hunted across all of Australia – the mainland as well as Tasmania. Regular readers of this blog (particularly these annual Thylacine Day posts, which we celebrate in the Grant Museum every year) will be familiar with the thylacine’s story, so I won’t go into detail here.

    A very deliberate extinction

    In short, thylacines were accused by Tasmania’s powerful farming lobby of predating sheep, and thereby damaging one of the island state’s principal economies. As a result, in 1830, they established a bounty scheme to encourage people to exterminate them. This policy was later adopted by the government, who (under pressure from the farmers) opted to pay for the bounty scheme themselves from 1888 to 1909. Inevitably over those decades the world’s (then) largest surviving marsupial carnivore’s numbers plummeted. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 224: The Rock Wallaby Skull

    By Jack Ashby, on 25 January 2016

    Rock wallaby skull. LDUCZ-Z845

    Rock wallaby skull. LDUCZ-Z845

    The high octane pop-rock band The B52s are responsible for one of the world’s most aggressive earworms – Rock Lobster. A tune so catchy that it takes no heed of the taxonomic boundaries in which it was placed. The B52s were very clear that the song’s habitat is a beach, and the lobster was discovered when somebody looked under a dock in 1978. Nevertheless, whenever I am on fieldwork in Australia, the unforgettable (no matter how hard I try) chorus begs to be applied to every rock-dwelling lifeform I encounter, none of which are crustaceans. In the sandstone escarpments of northwest Australia there are plenty of zoological opportunities for the song to crop up: rock ringtail; rock pigeon; rock rat; rock monitor; rock dtella; rockhole frog; but most of all, this week’s Specimen of the Week…

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 218: The Sugar Glider

    By Jack Ashby, on 14 December 2015

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Climbing up things can be challenging, be it hills, cliffs, trees or stairs. Climbing down, however is arguably far more difficult – your eyes are further from your hand-and foot-holds, your body is pointed in the wrong direction and gravity combines with momentum to pull you down faster than you’d like.

    Due* to the many drawbacks of climbing downwards, gliding has evolved many times in the animal kingdom – there are many species which have flaps of skin which form parachutes to slow their descent. Their names often contain the word “flying”, but true flight requires flapping wings. This post is not about flying lemurs, flying frogs, flying dragons, flying snakes, the four-winged dinosaur Microraptor, or even flying squirrels. This week’s Specimen of the Week is the far more accurately named… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 185

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 April 2015

    Scary-Monkey-Week-NineThis week I’m honouring a mammal that we can link to two significant factors in my life recently. First, it’s an Australian hopping marsupial, as are kangaroos. Our current Strange Creatures exhibition centres around Europe’s first painting of a roo – by George Stubbs. Secondly, I’ve been in Australia for the last few weeks doing fieldwork with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and my first task was to help test a mechanism for surveying this Critically Endangered mammal.

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is…. (more…)

    On the search for the Scaly-tailed possum: Wet and Wildlife

    By Jack Ashby, on 11 December 2014

    A scaly-tailed possum caught on a camera trap in AWC's Artesian Range. (C) Australian Wildlife Conservancy,

    A scaly-tailed possum caught on a camera trap
    in AWC’s Artesian Range.
    (C) Australian Wildlife Conservancy,

    Over the past few years I have been spending my spare time in a remote area of the Kimberley, on the northwest corner of Australia, helping a conservation NGO – the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) – to do ecological fieldwork. AWC are Australia’s largest private owner of land for conservation, and their mission is to manage it based on scientific research. In the northwest their big long-term projects involve determining the effects of cattle and different fire management practices on tropical savannah ecosystems. And in my most recent two trips I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the detection of super-scarce species in extremely remote pockets of rainforest and monsoonal woodland.

    A few years ago AWC acquired an amazing patch of the Kimberley called Artesian Range – monsoonal savannah criss-crossed with sandstone ranges, gorges of vine-thickets and rainforest pockets. I remember going through the first set of remote camera trap images that came back from Artestian in 2011 and being amazed at the species that were being detected.

    An endemic Kimberley rock rat being re-released

    An endemic Kimberley rock rat being re-released

    The haven from extinction

    It seems that Artesian Range is the only place in mainland Australia not to have suffered any mammal extinctions since European colonisation. A community of amazing endemics has clung on – scaly-tailed possums, golden-backed tree rats, monjons, golden bandicoots and Kimberley rock rats. When I was analyzing those camera trap images in 2011 I was a couple of hundred kilometres south of Artesian, on AWC Northwest’s main home sanctuary, Mornington. Artesian Range is in one of the least accessible parts of Australia, requiring a combination of propeller-plane, serious 4WD and helicopter to get to. As amazing as it was to see these species on the screen, I instantly knew I had to go and see them in the flesh. For me, the scaly-tailed possum had become the holy grail.
    (more…)

    Following Captain Cook, and How the Kangaroo Nearly Never Was

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 October 2014

    The Grant Museum is extremely excited to be a partner in the National Maritime Museum’s Travelers’ Tails project, which will involve this painting of a kangaroo by George Stubbs – the first ever western painting of Australian wildlife – coming to the Grant in March.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    Last month I was in Australia on zoological fieldwork. I decided to visit the places that Cook went on his first voyage of discovery, which resulted in Britain’s first kangaroo encounters and ultimately this painting being made. It very nearly didn’t happen, and Cook’s Australian expedition would have been a zoological disappointment.

    I wrote this post for the National Maritime Museum’s blog. It begins…

    The kangaroo painting that might never have been – following in Cook’s footsteps

    The painting of the kangaroo by George Stubbs would never have existed if it weren’t for an extraordinary bit of bad luck in a very dangerous situation. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 153

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 September 2014

    Scary MonkeyAs a scientist, with Vulcan-like levelheadedness, my outlook on the natural world is totally free of emotion. My interactions with it are purely perfunctory, in order to amass and analyse cold data, motivated solely by the advancement of scientific understanding of solid facts. The world is only there to be databased. It is irrelevant whether facts are “interesting” or not, all that matters is if they are useful for detecting some larger pattern. Anyone who says otherwise is a panda-hugging sentimental fluff-monger…

    Wouldn’t it be weird if ecologists thought like that? On the one hand science is supposed to be independent of emotion, but on the other most of us are only in it because of our emotional attachment to the subject matter (animals and ecosystems).

    Normally on this blog I take the chance to rave about the animals that amaze and excite me. This week I’m going to highlight one that I utterly despise*.

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)