TMAG scientists share knowledge

TMAG’s extensive invertebrate zoological collections and research activities were under the microscope recently at conferences attended by Senior Zoology Curator Dr Cathy Byrne and Senior Invertebrate Zoology Curator Dr Simon Grove. 

Both Cathy and Simon attended the combined annual conference of the Australian Entomological Society (that’s insects) and the Australasian Arachnological Society (that’s spiders and their allies), held in Hobart at the end of November.

Cathy, who was also on the organising committee for the conference, gave a presentation highlighting TMAG’s participation in recent BushBlitz surveys, in which acknowledged taxonomic experts from around Australia converge on newly reserved biodiversity hotspots to help assess their conservation values, including describing new species. Cathy’s involvement in BushBlitz in Tasmania and Western Australia has seen the recognition of 13 new species of moths, which she is in the process of formally describing and classifying.

Meanwhile, Simon gave a presentation that explored Tasmanians’ likes and dislikes in the invertebrate world, based on an analysis of the hundreds of identification and information enquiries that Zoology Unit staff receive from the Tasmanian public annually. Simon also presented research on the landscape ecology of forest beetles, and its relevance for production forestry – a topic relating to work that he had been involved in at Forestry Tasmania prior to his appointment at TMAG earlier this year.

In early December, Simon also attended the biennial conference of the Malacological Society of Australasia (that’s molluscs – snails, clams and squid) in Melbourne. Simon presented on TMAG’s extensive and historically significant marine mollusc collection, outlining the meticulous work program that he is introducing in order to bring the collection up to international standards of curation and to enable the tens of thousands of records of identified specimens to be made available online to the research community and general public, through the Atlas of Living Australia.

Both conferences offered timely reminders of the important role of TMAG’s zoology collections. For instance, one presentation at the entomology conference asked ‘what’s in a label?’. Starting with the faded and almost illegible hand-written text on the label attached to a pinned dung-beetle, the author was able to delve into various contemporary historical archives to eventually piece together an amazing account of the life and times of the nineteenth-century collector of the beetle, including his secret anti-slavery mission in North Africa on behalf of the British Government (during which he couldn’t resist collecting beetles), his untimely demise in the desert (partly attributed to his being better prepared as an entomologist than as a trans-Saharan camel-rider), and the tortuous route by which his insect collection finally ended up in Australia. We can be fairly certain that there are equally interesting stories behind many of the specimens in TMAG’s collections.

Meanwhile, a presentation at the molluscs conference stood out for recognising that well-preserved museum specimens such as those held by TMAG are likely to be at the forefront of molecular systematics research. Whereas previous DNA sequencing techniques needed to source DNA from relatively fresh tissue, it transpires that older, museum-stored samples will be preferred for so-called ‘next-generation’ DNA sequencing – an extremely powerful technique that promises to revolutionise our understanding of phylogenetics (‘the tree of life’).