Research+ March 2019


It is not clear when or why these birds became extinct, but the answer is somewhere in the combination of climate change, changes in vegetation patterns, and human predation.”

The Smithsonian (quoting anthropologist, Kristina Guild Douglass)

This edition of Research+ began its life with discussions around the idea of the Cabinet of Curiosities, also known as ‘wonder rooms’, which became popular from the late 1600s through the work of Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731). Ruysch, an anatomist and a physician, artistically displayed specimens from his animal, plant and human collections, wanting to capture his audience’s interest and to educate them. In particular, he was interested in the way the details of the specimens, as a seemingly disparate range of extraordinary objects, together evoked an experience of the beauty and fragility of our life on earth.

Dr Fiona Utley
Research+ Editor
Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research)

This idea immediately appealed to me, as I had once had the pleasure of attending an exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (in 2016) which had created its own wonder room, titled “Prospero’s Library” as part of a museum-wide exhibition. Echoing themes in Shakespeare’s play, the TMAG webpages described the exhibition as designed to “evoke a sense of wonder and discovery” in a world of “shipwrecks and stormy seas, romance, discovery, tragedy and magic”. The exhibition was breathtakingly beautiful, with the historical artefacts and specimens imbued with new life and meaning because of the strange collection of objects that they were now a part of. The object that mesmerised me was a cast of an Aepyornis egg. Also known as the Elephant Bird, and once found on the island of Madagascar, this huge flightless bird is now extinct. The Smithsonian webpages tell me that their eggs are the largest of any known vertebrate, including dinosaurs—a single egg could feed multiple families. It is not clear when or why these birds became extinct, but the Smithsonian, quoting Kristina Guild Douglass, an anthropologist, says “the answer is somewhere in the combination of climate change, changes in vegetation patterns, and human predation.”

I went in search of more information about the elephant bird and its eggs and found that in 1993, a giant egg, confirmed to be an elephant bird egg, was found by three schoolchildren in ancient sand dunes about a kilometre from what is now the shoreline of Cervantes, north of Perth. The egg would have floated across the sea from Madagascar and is estimated to be 2,000 years old. This story has everything to make it worthy of Ruysch’s conception of the wonder room, or of belonging to “Prospero’s library”; a strange and magical passage across the sea, romance, discovery and tragedy.

This story also has the involvement of citizens, those of us who are not scientists; those of us who share the planet with a host of marvellous creatures, plants and natural artefacts, and who observe and engage every day in a world that is utterly familiar but also marvellously strange. The collection of articles in this edition of Research+ share this theme of the wonder, beauty and fragility of life on earth, which necessarily includes the issue of extinction or possible extinction. The articles also share the significance and importance of all of our ongoing interest in the world, the time we take to observe, often day after day, and the time we take to make notes of our observations, so that those who are capable of interpreting them have the opportunity to do so. Natural historical observations have played a significant role in continuously expanding our understanding of this living planet, from the microscopic to large-scale processes and systems.

These observations have been critical to the research of Associate Professor Karl Vernes, for example, who is currently mounting an expedition to search for the presumed, but not confirmed, extinct desert-rat-kangaroo, and to Dr Steve Debus who is currently working with a number of doctoral researchers on local raptors, birds of prey. Brooke Kennedy, an Indigenous doctoral researcher, is working with the Tiwi Island community to build an animal management program that actually works, understanding that this can only happen by working with and developing the capacity the local people to understand an aspect of their environment in a new light.

Professor Fritz Geiser is working with pygmy possums to understand how dramatic changes in weather patterns and food sources will affect the possum’s capacity to use torpor to survive. Dr Chris Goatley’s research is looking at how the small fishes of coral reefs, those that usually go unnoticed, are, in fact, providing nutrition to whole reef systems. Dr Romina Rader’s career has been spent researching another vital part of our ecosystems—pollinators, including bees, flies and other insects. The focus on flies and other wild pollinators is particularly crucial as bee numbers continue to be threatened worldwide by disease and invasive species. Exploring the world of parasitic creatures, Dr Tommy Leung describes another hidden but vital part of our ecosystems.

And finally, Geoff Hughes is undertaking a PhD focusing on the Bell’s Turtle. He tells me that it didn’t take very long for him to realise that this research needed to be as much about what we need to do to save this turtle from extinction, as about the turtle itself.

The subjects of this range of research pursuits confirmed the focus of the March 2019 edition of Research+; we need to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the world in order to care for it, protect it and nurture it. I hope this edition goes some way to inspiring you to share in this wonder.

[Top banner image: Specimens from the UNE Natural History Museum’s egg collection. Left to right: Pluvialis apricaria – European golden plover; Corvus corax – Common raven; Larus argentatus – European herring gull; Menura novaehollandiae – Superb lyrebird; Pterocles orientalis – Black-bellied sandgrouse; Larus canus – Common gull ]