Museum collectors and carers: one collector’s story
Video | Updated 2 years ago
Dr W. H. (Harry) Butler, WA Museum Fellow
Without collectors and carers, there would be no Museum collections or displays. Dr Butler describes some methods he used for field collection and the post collection processes.
As I commented at the time, it’s better to be a living treasure than a dead one. But it’s quite, quite interesting. Today, I want to talk to you about museums but more/ importantly, I want to talk about my personal work as a museum collector. Now each one of you in this room is a collector. Each one of you has been a stamp collector or a coin collector or a car collector or a wife collector or a honey – a money collector or – our lives are made up of collections.
And the ultimate of a collection is a museum because that is the combined collections of many people over many years. So a museum is a place where the collections of the environment are gathered up. And what is the environment? Some people think it’s the tree-huggers. Some – and the gay whales and things like that. But environment, that’s only one part of the environment. Environment is the total surround of humanity. It’s the world we live in. It’s the physical environment – the air, the water, the soil, space, meteorites, heat, light - they’re all part of the physical environment.
And then there’s the biological environment - plants and animals and their ecosystems that lock together and make special places in our world. And then there’s the social environment, an environment of people. People today, people yesterday and people tomorrow. Because of all the living things on earth we are the only ones who deliberately plan or attempt to plan for the future. Many animals and plants think about the – well, they don’t think about it but they care for the future by putting out seeds or young but only humans attempt to plan for the future.
Each category of the museum’s collections has its own specialist people. Now, any collection requires two individuals. One is the collector and the other is the carer, the person who looks after it. It’s one thing to go out and collect the stuff. And think about your kids at home. You know, he’s got a collection of rocks and no-one’s touched them, they’re covered in dust and he’s said, ‘Oh, I’m bored with that stuff, now I’m going to do something else.’
So a field anthropologist, for example, might collect data and material but to have it displayed, there’s got to be other people involved. So the total collation and storage and display and the research and the maintenance involves all sorts of specialists beyond the basic collector. And particular studies may include the intention of international experts.
Now, I’ve got a simple map up here. You can’t get a much more simple map than that. That is the result of 230 years museum research and around about 200 individual anthropologists working on it. Because what it shows are the Aboriginal trade routes that we have now established in Australia. The trade in stone, in feathers and gum, spinifex gum and things like that. And the trade in ideas, the trade in cultural ideas, that has moved from place to place by – among the Aboriginal people.
And if you look closely, because you’re a bright group, you’ll see that the trade routes go up into New Guinea which means that those trade routes were established more than 18,000 years ago. Because 18,000 years ago the sea levels round Australia were about 40 metres lower than they are today and New Guinea was connected directly by land to Australia.
You’ll see that they’ve gone up into Indonesia. Now, Indonesia was never connected by land to Australia but it sure as hell was connected by sea-going people. And so we include that because a lot of trade came in from there. And you’ll notice we’ve dropped Tasmania off the map. Used to be there but it fell off once it got separated. But at one – only, only 8,000 years ago Tasmania was connected to Australia and then the sea levels rose and I’ll come to that a bit later on.
So what I’m trying to say is that in order to get something as simple as that takes a long time and a lot of people. But a museum is more than just the scientists. It’s the museum administrators, the board at the museum, the directors of the museum, the office staff, the cleaners, the education officers, the attendants. All are carers and supporters of the museum. And then you’ve got auxiliary groups like the Young Naturalists and the Friends of the WA Museum and the various associates.
So a museum is not just a collection, it’s a collection of people who all work together to make the museum. But personally I am a collector. I’m very proud of it. I collected mainly in Australia but – next slide please. I also collected in Canada and there a new species of bat that I collected in Canada in a place where every year the scientists of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History used to go to collect. And for 50 years they’d been going there and yet I could go there and collect one species they had never collected before.
This was what made my reputation internationally, the fact that I could find things in places that people said were now – we knew everything about them. And you’ll see that as we go through. I also collected in USA and Indonesia. And this is an American collection of voles. And at the time I made this collection the Americans believed that there were two species, small voles and big voles. But by making what’s called a series collection like this one I was able to demonstrate they were all the same species and so wiped out some scientist’s reputation by taking away a species he’d named in the past. I love doing that.
I’ve also worked in more exotic places like Indonesia and Venezuela. And this was a discovery in Venezuela. It’s a new species of frog and it’s living in fungus up in the top branches of trees. And because there’s rainforest the fungus collects water and the frogs lay their eggs in those and breed and the tadpoles live in the fungus.
But what I found most interesting was the Indians in Venezuela, they knew all about these frogs and they had told people and no-one had believed them. They told them about frogs living up in the trees. Ah yeah. Ha, ha, ha.
And they get these frogs and you see the red colour on them. They have little bows, little bows like – because in the rainforest you can’t use a big bow. They have these little bows and, and arrows about that long. They rub the point of the arrow in the red frog and they shoot Howler monkeys. And the howler monkey is paralysed and it drops to the ground. And it goes into rictus and curls up so they can just loop the tail over their shoulder. And no fridges, no ice boxes, so you carry the living monkey around until you’re ready to eat it. And yeah, go on.
Now, here’s one of those monkeys come down, been shot and immediately two peccaries, two wild pigs, have turned up. And they said, ‘Shoot the pig!’ ‘No, no.’ They said, ‘Why?’ ‘You got to have a blue frog to shoot pigs.’ Red frogs only kill or paralyse monkeys. You’ve got to get a different frog that lives in a different place. And this is the sort of data that collectors collect. It’s not just animals, it’s the stories around the animals, it’s the pattern of the animals.
So down there in Venezuela I found some marvellous animals. And I think the most wonderful animal I found was not the frog but this one. This is an iguana. And despite the fact that people have been catching and eating iguanas down there for hundreds if not thousands of years, scientists only knew two species. This is the third species from down there. So again, the record was, ‘Yeah, Harry Butler’s done it again, he’s found a new species in a place that many people have worked in.’
The prime collections that I made were mammals and birds and reptiles and fish and amphibians. In other words I worked on animals with backbones mostly. And in those days, and this is – I’m talking about 60 years ago. In those days it was necessary to make collections. We didn’t have DNA, we didn’t have blood sampling, we didn’t have any of that sort of thing to make the difference. We had to actually physically have a specimen in our hand to determine the science of it.
Now, I was a very good collector and I made good specimens. And this is a three day collection of lemmings. You’ve probably all heard about lemmings. They’re the animals that are supposed to go and jump over cliffs when they’ve had enough of life which is not true but it’s a story that makes good telling. What happens is you get an eruption of lemmings. That is, they just breed up. They have 12 young at a time. And so when you get a big mob of them they eat themselves out and then they start moving. And as they move, of course, they pick up the next ones. And so the whole wave of living animals move across the country and when they reach a cliff top the ones behind push the ones in front over. And that’s why the legend has come about.
But don’t think it sticks with lemmings, it does with kangaroos too. In Queensland four years ago just before those heavy rains came through, the cyclones, Yani and those cyclones came through, there was a drought in the Jackson Field in South-East Queensland. And I was out there looking at pipelines for the oil and gas industry. And I drove out this morning and all along the road there were hundreds if not thousands of kangaroos all hopping east.
And what had happened was the drought in the desert was such that the vegetation had died up and the kangaroos had moved out of the desert. And they put pressure on the ones on the pasture land and they’d eaten themselves out. And now this whole wavefront of kangaroos. There were probably 12 million kangaroos on that wave of invasion going across the country.
That was the same year that the Americans said, ‘We will not buy kangaroo – we will not allow kangaroo meat or kangaroo skin to be sold in America because they’re a rare and endangered animal.’ And do you know why? Because the scientist they sent down to find out was not a scientist. He was a bureaucrat who landed in Sydney, he flew to Canberra, he flew to Melbourne, he flew back to Sydney and said, ‘I saw no kangaroos.’ No, this is real. This is the sort of mentality that we have. Never mind, don’t start me on.
Okay, some of the animals and series like that give you a fair indication that not all the animals are small or big but there’s a size range, there’s a colour range and so on. And this is the sort of thing you do to determine whether there’s a lot of species or just one species.
Other things though, the things that museums love are new species. And there’s a new species. That’s Notoscincus butleri named after a friend of mine, me. And I collected that in the Pilbara, WA. I got 12 specimens. They went to the museum. My friend identified it, named it after me. And about 10 years later the museum discovered that they only had the 12 specimens that I had collected. So they said to their collecting unit, ‘Go out and get some more of them.’
The team came back and said, ‘There are no more. Harry Butler killed the last of the animals. We are the specialists, we’ve been out there and there aren’t any more.’ Oh, come on guys. So I went up there and I got another dozen specimens, came back and said, ‘Is this what you’ve been looking for?’ ‘Oh.’ Back they went. Couldn’t find them.
And so we had a big sessions and they said, ‘Why can’t we find them? We’ve read your diaries.’ And I said, ‘Because you haven’t read my diaries. You’ve read the labels on the specimen which tells me where I collected them, latitude and longitude. You’ve been there, you’ve searched.’ ‘Yes, we’ve searched.’ They raked the ground, they – I said, ‘But you didn’t look up in the trees. This animal only lives in wedge-tailed eagles’ nests on the debris and the beetles that live on the debris in an eagle’s nest. And unless you climb a tree and look in an eagle’s nest you’re not going to find that lizard.’ And these guys, they didn’t climb trees, no, no, no. So there you go.
Other things aren’t new species but they’re new species to Western Australia. And this is one. Took eight days to net this animal. This is a pintail snipe. They occur on the eastern seaboard. And all of the bird books, at that stage anyway, would say, ‘It only occurs in Eastern Australia.’ Well, this gave it the lie because having collected one specimen then ornithologists all over Western Australia found that these were coming through and being confused with Japanese snipe. But until they collected the first specimen people did not believe that there was a difference. Because they look almost identical in the field. Very hard to tell apart.
So all of those things are very important. But in the process of collecting you look at country and something that Albany people know well are fish traps. And we find them all over the country. And I licked this, I found this one. This is my wife Maggie incidentally who was my assistant on all of my trips. And we found this one and had a look at it. And I said, ‘I can’t see how that fish trap works. There’s nothing there to stop the fish swimming out if they swim in on the tide.’
And then I talked to an old Aboriginal person. And he said, ‘No, no, Butler.’ He said, ‘No, no.’ He said, ‘No. We don’t use them rocks. Them rocks are just the anchors. He said, ‘When we want to make fish trap we go and we pick lots of bushes. And we put the bushes so that the bushy part is inland and the stick part is between the sticks. And as the tide comes in the fish push between the bushes and get in there. But when they try and come out they’re up against the leaves, they can’t get out again. And then when we finish we take the sticks away.’
And all the early people thought it was just rock fish traps. They don’t realise that there was a whole lot of cultural work went into building a fish trap until we made this discovery at Bidyadanga. And then their observations.
Then other things are interesting. What does an animal eat? And here’s a goanna’s gut. That’s the gut up there. And these spiders are his main tucker but he’s eaten a cricket and a lizard. But very, very interesting thing is that on this particular field trip – it’s sitting on top of a horse skull, this one. On this particular field trip I had a spider man with me. And this spider was a new species to science. The lizard was eating a species that the scientists could not collect. And having – knowing that, then we went out and collected it. But this is what we do, we share.
So – and sometimes you find things that are so unusual, so different, so strange, you just have to collect it. And when you get something like that you freak out. Now, that is a male ogre spider. His jaws are here and these are his palps. And these two round things are sperm packages. And spiders don’t make love like mammals do. Spider male has to come in between the jaws of a female spider and whack those sperm packages onto her palps. And she gets so excited. Chonk! And yes, no future in being a male spider, I tell you. There’s no future in it. Okay.
Now, if you’re going to accurately collect you need to know something about the country. It’s a bit like being a farmer. You go out and you buy a block of land and you look at your land. And you’re sure as hell not going to make a paddock up on that hillside. And you know – because you know if you clear that hillside it’s going to wash away into the creek. So your paddocks will be down on the bottom and you leave the hillsides intact to make this water catchment. You might put the dam up on the creek. You probably will put the dam up on the creek so it’ll feed down and irrigate your lower paddocks.
And that’s because a farmer understands the different ecosystems on his property. And that’s what a naturalist has to do, a collector, is to go out and look at the different soils and the different slopes and the different vegetations that will grow in any given area.
Now, what happens with today’s collectors, they go out in the field and they run their traps down the creek line because that’s the lushest and best looking place. And all they’re going to catch is bush rats and Rattus rattus and probably a rabbit or two and a cat. And they’ll come away and say, ‘That’s all there is.’ But the other animals are not living down there because that’s where the vermin are. They’re living up on these dry hill slopes where things are – quite aren’t – they’re living on the edge of the environment, in other words, because of the pressure of the invaders.
And this is what allows us to target a collection. If I were to collect a certain number of things down there I would decide there was no point in trying to collect any more. Or I would decide I’m missing some animals.
Now, what happens is that as we change the environment and the invaders move in, animals, native animals, move out. And we get a situation like this. This is sitting in the Land Rover up against a waterhole and probably four million rabbits were drilling – drinking on that waterhole. And they’re not afraid of the vehicle. You can see they’ve come in between me and the vehicle. They’re not afraid because if they don’t get a drink they’re going to die.
So survival. But see how bad the ground is. They’ve eaten everything out. They have to go ... each one of those rabbits has to travel at least three mile to get the first bit of food. They’ve eaten the ground bare. Now, where that was, was not far from here, was out just north of the big reserve we’ve got out here towards Hopetoun. Fitzgerald Reserve. There’s rabbit-proof fence run through and I hit the fence up by the banded ironstone areas. And as I drove down the road I was driving, rabbits in front of me, and they were piling up against the fence, running over the piled up bodies and dropping onto the other side of the fence.
That’s called a, a, an eruption or a plague. And we get it with mice, we get it with rabbits. What they do to the environment is unbelievable. They just wipe out virtually everything and make just a barren landscape.
So to collect, if you see something like that there’s not going to be much native life left so you’d prefer to go to a place where you don’t see things like that. But any habitat change, land clearing or fire change or land-use change or introduced diseases or plants or animals, any of those modern localised effects, can change the fauna and flora of an area.
But then in addition to that you’ve got these global effects, climate change, sea level change, tectonic activity with earthquakes and things like that. These are changes we have no control over. These are changes that affect us quite well. And my place of work, most of my work is on a place called Barrow Island for Chevron. And I’m not going to talk too much about that. I have talked about it before. But what I’m showing you here is simply the amount of change in sea level over the last 8,000 years. I’m not talking about millions of years. I’m talking about 8,000 years.
Eight thousand years ago the sea level is out where that red line is. Barrow Island was part of the mainland. By 7,000 years Barrow Island was two small islands and the rest of it was sea, right in to this yellow line over here. And then it stayed like that for a couple of thousand years and it went up and down like that.
Today it is going up. The sea level is rising at about 20 mm a year on Barrow Island. Not because the sea level is necessarily rising but because the island and the whole northern part of Australia is slowly dipping down under the sea. Because the weight of the Himalaya Mountains in India is pushing the front end of the tectonic block that Australia floats on and the molten core of the earth is being pushed down. We’re pushing the Himalayas higher, Australia is sinking.
These are real things. People never think – we think we’re stable, solid as a rock. Hey, come on. Rock’s not terribly solid. Might only last a few million years. By our standard it’s solid but by geological standards, hey, come on.
Okay. So when these changes take place, animal changes take place too. And, as you know, farming and pastoral practices in Australia change the environment dramatically. Sheep, cattle, goats, donkeys, horses, whatever. And the native animals, well, some, some of the native animals moved away. But others were really advantaged. I just spoke about the kangaroos. And this is my front garden in Busselton. And they’re not pets, these are coming in out of the adjacent forest. And you can see all my trees ringed with netting because they’ll eat the lot. They think my garden’s a marvellous place because it’s got water, it’s got food. More so than in the surrounding forest. And they know I’m a sucker for wildlife anyway.
So – but their niche has changed. When Captain Cook and the first scientists came here and the first settlers came here, the first estimate of kangaroos was supposed to be an estimated 140 million kangaroos in Australia. The last CSIRO estimate was 240 million kangaroos in Australia. There’s an animal that’s been totally advantaged by the introduction of bores, the introduction of dams, the availability of water, the changing in pasture, the availability of buffel grass and foods like that, that last all the year round. Competing with stock.
Some animals however, some other kangaroos, the smaller kangaroos, were not advantaged. And here’s an example. This is a marsupial called the boodie which is somewhat like the woilie that you get close to here or the potoroo you get out in Two People Bay. And the yellow mark shows where it lived 200 years ago. And the two purple marks show where it lives today, on two islands, Bernier & Dorre and Barrow.
Barrow has a population of 16,000 bettongs and as a result each year I take off around about a thousand animals, tag them, put radio trackers in them and move them into safe places like Glen Helen, like Scotia, zoos, Monarto Zoo and places like that. Each animal is tagged, is on a stud book. So we’re farming these animals now back into where they used to live before we destroyed their habitats.
And there are many other examples. Don’t ever go up to Barrow Island to see that. Go up to Stirlings. You’ve got a marvellous example of what happens when you get these isolations. Just while I’m on Barrow though, this is an example of what happens on the isolation. The bird you get down here is blue and white. The bird you get all around Australia is blue and white. But on Barrow Island it’s black and white. This is a recessive characteristic because the population became so small the recessives built up and you get a subspecies developing.
As I say you don’t have to go to Barrow to see this, you go to Stirlings. Some years ago, probably 120 million years ago, maybe, maybe a bit less, Plantagenet times, the sea came right in over Albany right up the Stirling Ranges. And each Stirling peak was a separate island for about a thousand years.
And the Darwinias, like this one, this one, developed so that each peak has got its own species of this plant. There are 14 different species in the Stirling Ranges. Same as there is with snails and spiders that are found on each peak. Even though they’re related to the ones that live on the next peak, they’re a different species.
So these are all changes that take place. And some of the ones are not very easy to pick. This is a, a, a leopard skink that occurs all over desert Australia. But when we look at them closely we find the ones that live on Barrow Island are different to the ones that live in Karratha which are different to the ones that lived on Airlie Island which are different to the ones that live on Dirk Hartog Island. Because the island populations have developed into subspecies. And you don’t find that out until you start making collections.
So the landscape is very important. One of my jobs was to be the chairman of the National Parks and Conservation Service of the Northern Territory. The Minister of the Northern Territory came to Barrow Island and asked me could I do something for his state, his territory. And I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ In 1980 we set up the Conservation Commission and I went up to take it over. And I found that they had plenty of national parks but they were all up around Darwin or down around Alice Springs which is great. I love national parks. But when I did the biodiversity of the Northern Territory there were whole areas of animals and plants which were not protected in any way at all.
Today we have parks and reserves in every one of those different coloured blocks because every one of those different coloured blocks is a different biogeographic zone with different animals and different plants. Now, I think you’d all agree that’s a pretty obvious thing to do if you’re going to really care about environmental care. Is the West Australian Government thinking about it? Forget it. They don’t want to know.
They will give you eight new national parks in the south-west two years ago and take 300 million dollars off deck for running them. You cannot have reserves and national parks unless you manage them. There is no protection unless you manage them. But I’m not going to start on the stupidity of bureaucracy. It’s, it’s self-evident.
Okay. How do I do all this? First is select your collecting sites based on geography and landscape. And you particularly find out about current and past human utilisation. In other words, did Aboriginal people use it? Are farmers or pastoralists using it today?
Then you make sure all your collecting gear is in good shape and your consumables. Like ammunition, like nets, like formalin, like arsenics poisoning, whatever you’re using, is sufficient to see you through whatever length of trip. They’re usually three month trips, two to three month trips.
Then the next thing is your personal survival gear, your food, your vehicle, your fuel, your spares, your tools, your housing for field comfort. All those things.
Then you make sure that your regulators, the government permit people, know what you’re going to do and you get your permits. That your landholders and other stakeholders in the area that you’re going to are advised you’re going there so there’s no mystery about what you’re doing. And I make sure all the locals are told and invited to my camp. Bring your kids. Come down and see what I’m doing. Come and see the collection. Come and have a cuppa. And they do, they enjoy it.
And finally, most important before you go in the bush, check the weather pattern. Two or three times now I’ve been out in the desert during the summer and had a cyclonic storm come through and drop three to four hundred millimetres of rain which has bound us in an area for up to two months. We couldn’t move because it’s quite impassable. There’s just no way of getting in or out. Check your weather patterns first.
You might have read recently of two young environmentalists who died because they did not pay attention to their safety devices. They abandoned their vehicle after it got bogged and died of thirst. Now – only one died, that’s right, the other one got very sick. But the point is you don’t die of thirst if you’re bogged because there’s water where you got bogged. They knew nothing about the bush. They knew nothing about it. They just walked away from it. And they walked away in the day time and the temperature was 42 degrees. I won’t say they deserved to die but Darwin has a thought about this that’s self-selective.
Okay, this is how we travel, my wife and I. That’s our full kit. That’s three months’ equipment on there. You can see the billy cans and the camp oven and the nets and the boats, the oars and the radio and the poles for the mist nets and the big jack to get out of trouble. It’s all there. And it doesn’t look much but it’s good enough to get you through. The grey ghost, it was called, even though it was green.
And this is the camp, quite a simple camp. No, no, don’t be fooled. This is Bill Peach caught – you remember Bill Peach? Bill Peach caught up with me, or not him but his camera crew. And that’s his vehicle and that’s his tent and that’s his directors, the director didn’t want to be where the snakes were so he got his tent up on top. This is my camp, this is me and this is his, his mob tucking into my food and that’s my sleeping gear at the back.
No, they’re, they’re great, great hanger-ons, these people. It’s, it’s a pitch fly like this roof and it just sheds the water on the downhill side. Downhill is that way into the gorge so when it rains the water flows off. And you see with a ditch dug around here, it’ll divert the water around the camp so it doesn’t run through my camp.
The floor of the camp is treated hessian, you see it there. And then hanging down there’s the sleeping equipment, there’s the skinning equipment and there’s a kitchen area. The three areas in there. Quite enough for two people but a bit hard when a camera crew drops in on you.
The camp fire as you see there is very, very useful and you can see my water. I’m not close to water. I’m camped. The water is down here in the gorge and I bring the water up in drums. If you camp on the water you scare off the stock, you scare off the wildlife. So you never make camp actually on the water. I know it’s very scenically attractive but it’s quite lethal too.
And then, so okay, we start collecting. And there I am hard at work collecting. There’s my wife over here taking the notes as I’m making the specimens. This is drum of formalin down here, there’s the scales and she’s working the diary now. And it was pretty primitive but it works. It worked for us anyway.
When it rained we had a bit of a problem and so we got a – picked up a 44 gallon drum and put our fire in that. And you can see the amount of water that’s lying around. You can see that I’m actually catching the water off the fly to save me going down the creek to get my water.
And my visitors are still here because the rain has come and they can’t get out. And so yeah, they went through three months rations in about four days. But I stopped them because I said, ‘We’re out of any tucker.’ So I went and shot a donkey and they said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re eating.’ ‘Well, we’ll get out of here.’ And they got out of there. It was good.
And out the back of the camp, around that corner, I’ve got the drying tree, my skeletal tree. And there it is. That’s, that’s the drying tree there and this one, these are skeletons. That’s a bundled up skeleton. And these are skulls up there. Sometimes you just collect skulls. There’s a kangaroo waiting to be done. This one I’m just checking out the gut content at the moment and not just the gut content but the intermuscular, the parasites that are in the muscles of the animal as well.
So now I’ve got my first specimens, I’ve shot these on the way in, and I skinned them. There’s a lot of hard work skinning them so I want a break. So off we go and do a local patrol. Go around. Where can we take the vehicle? Where can we put trap lines? Where can we make pit traps?
Now trap lines are box traps called Elliots and they are live traps. I don’t kill animals unnecessarily. I trap the animal, I check it, and if it is one that I’ve already got or it’s one that I’ve got in sufficient representation of I let it go, that’s it. But I clip a little fur off or whatever or paint a bit of colour on it if it’s a lizard so that I know if it’s the same animal coming back in the traps. I keep a record that way.
The only thing that I do differently to other people is that I use what I call track patches. And – yes please, this is a track patch. This is a mud track patch. And what I’ve done when I’ve arrived, I’ve taken a big stick, a big flat board that I have in my car, and I’ve smoothed the mud over. And in the morning I’ve come down and it’s quite clear I’ve got a bloody big crocodile next to my camp. There’s the pad there. That’s what that is. That is a big crocodile. That’s about a, a three and a half metre crocodile. Saltwater crocodile.
There’s another animal up there and there’s kangaroo tracks here. The crocodile is obviously hunting on these animals that are coming in. And the animals are drinking this sort of water rather than down on the main billabong because at the main billabong this croc is obviously in charge. So by reading those tracks I’m able to get some idea of what birds and animals are around in the muddy areas and make my collections accordingly or set up my collections accordingly.
And then the other thing I need to do is note any strange places. And there’s a strange place. There’s this pile of gravel that looks like someone’s dumped half a yard of gravel but it’s a mouse’s nest, a pebble mound mouse. And it’s a mouse as big as an ordinary mouse. And they carry those pebbles between their chin and their chest. And they carry them for quite a few yards to make these mounds.
And the reason they make them is so that when they’re underground – this is desert, desert country. When, when they urinate or when they breathe out and lose moisture, the moisture condenses on the pebbles and runs back down into the mound, and so it keeps the humidity and moisture down in the burrows. Long before we ever invented air conditioning these fellas were hard at it.
And then sometimes you find things that you don’t expect to find. This is the other sort of track patch. This is a sand track patch. And this is on the edge of the road and all I’ve done is to use my board to level the edge of the road completely so no tracks are showing. In the morning I come down and this time I have found a track that I do not recognise. Now, I don’t say that lightly. I was brought up with Aboriginal people who taught me how to read tracks properly and if I can’t recognise a track it’s most unusual. And here was a track I had never seen before.
The size of it can be seen. That’s a .22 shot cartridge. And you – it’s a bird, unquestionably it’s a bird. And it’s a parrot by the toes but the toes are wrong because the toes shouldn’t be like that. They shouldn’t be splayed out like that. Parrot walk with two toes forward and you’ve seen parrot feet. So yeah, it’s got me ruined.
I spent eight days. No success at all. I’ve got the tracks in four of my sand patches but every one I had a mist net on did not get a result. So we went into Mount Isa to pick up supplies and as we drove into Isa a big Mac truck was coming up from Boulia behind me. And my vehicle was really … so he tooted me. And I pulled in and he pulled over. And I got out of the Land Rover to go back and talk to him. And there on the front of his radiator was the bird that made the tracks. And the night parrot. The extinct parrot of Australia. Well, that’s pretty extinct. That’s dead.
I went back, tracked him back, got his log. He didn’t know he’d hit it. But that’s the, that’s the thing because the night parrot’s feet walk with the front toes separated. In fact it almost looks like it’s three-toed. It’s a different track to any other parrot. And that place is now a reserve not managed by government, I won’t allow government on it. It’s managed by private enterprise, Birds Australia. And we won’t allow government for the simple reason, they want to collect the parrots. And the Birds Australia don’t allow collection. They want the parrots to breed up. If they get outside the boundaries, yeah, okay. So there we are. There’s – for those who’ve never seen an, an extinct species, there it is. Next please.
Okay, now we’ve got back to Perth to the museum and my specimens which have been skinned or preserved or skeletonised are now being placed in the museum for fumigation, quarantine and entry into the museum system so that everybody in the museum knows what I have collected. And it’s on permanent record. A copy of that diary goes to the regulators DEC because they are the licensee and any other people with particular interest. Sometimes a station owner would be interested to know what was on his property and I’d send him a copy of that part of the diary.
A week at home and during that week service and repair the vehicle, replace all the spares and supplies and stores. But perhaps the most important part of that – Maggie took care of all that stuff – was going into the museum and arguing with the museum specialists on what I had collected. Because in my diaries I say, ‘This, I think is a new species, this is different, this is worth looking at.’ And they will be verifying and telling me yes, no or maybe. And this is this actually taking – this is me in universal museum gear.
And then we’re off for a new trip and there’s Maggie with our first specimen of our new trip which is a bilby that had been run over on the road. And a road casualty is just as important as anything else because you can get a lot of information, particularly on rare and endangered animals. So it’s collected.
In this three year period my wife and I collected – it was 1963 to 1966, over 2,000 mammals of which 42 were new species. Two thousand reptiles of which 140 were new species. Two hundred fish of which an unknown number were new species but at least 25 were new species. This is animals that have never been scientifically collected before. And 200 birds of which one was a new species because birdoes are everywhere, ornithologists were everywhere. So there were no mysteries in the bird side of the collections. And 500 frogs of which 18 were new species.
In addition there were parasites and gut samples and skeletons and other things I found interesting. I want to share some of those other things with you. Let’s have a look. First of all Aboriginal paintings. These are the Lightning Brothers. And under Aboriginal mythology or Aboriginal religion, call it what you will, these are the creators of earth. The elder brother is the big fellow, the younger brother is the small fellow. And all Aboriginal people are directly related to one of those two ancestors.
And so you have the day people and the night people. The day people are the elder brother, the night people are the younger brother. And that is one of the reasons why Aboriginal politics are so complicated. Because although the day people will say to you in a site, ‘Go ahead and do things,’ the night people will say, ‘Hang on, that’s nothing to do with you. That’s my business.’ And so there’s changes.
Then we have petroglyphs. These are carvings, peckings in rock. They’re not paintings, they’re actually pecked in the rock. And this is a charming creature called Dogai. Dogai is a woman who was barren to her husband. She was then given to her brother-in-law and she was barren to him. And barren women have no place in the Aboriginal world. So the Maban, the witch doctor, broke her arms at the wrists so she could not use her hands and she was rejected from the tribe.
She lived for a long time by sucking the bone marrow and blood that came from her broken bones. And she grew very, very skinny and her ears grew very, very long. And there you see her sitting down with her legs very skinny, with her broken arms and her long ears. But she – and she’s talking to her familiar there like a witch. But she has one skill that they couldn’t take – they can’t take away from her. At the time of day when it’s not quite dark she can briefly regain that, mm, mm, mm, figure. And some warrior or hunter coming back sees this woman, ‘Mmm!’ And she wraps her ears around his neck, chokes him and devours him completely.
So any hunter who never returns has been taken by Dogai. And so therefore no-one is to blame for that man because there’s nobody, there’s no evidence of him dying for any other reason. So Dogai’s very important in Aboriginal culture. Next please.
Then there were things like stone arrangements. These are found all over Australia. They’re mostly initiation grounds. And this particular one is out at – in the Great Victoria Desert. And young men or young boys, older boys, have to stand down here and then run down – pick up a stone, run down to this stone pile, put it down there, take one from there, run back and down to that one, change them over, run down to that one, change them over and down to that one. Sounds easy? Sure. Excepting all of those fingers are lined with fellows with clubs. Wadis. And as you run along the track you’re walloped. And if people don’t like you they wallop you harder and they can actually kill you.
So we don’t get unpleasant people getting through initiation unless they’re very, very tough indeed. This is part of what initiation is about. It’s not just, can you grow up, can you survive, it’s can you get on with other people. Will the people with wadis let you get through? I think we could use a bit of it in our society myself but still. Next please.
Down here in Albany and in other parts of the south-west coast every now and again you find a patch of red sand. This is quite old. This is probably 18,000 years old. And if you’re getting into [00:50:46] like you see here we find these middens, these fireplaces and shell tools and things like that coming out of it. I record them wherever I see them because they’re very important to try and get some of the prehistory of Aboriginal people in this country.
And then you find things that have no explanation. And I mean no explanation. This is down at Cowaramup. And you can see a pair of sunglasses there and these grooves are cut in the rock. Now, it’s not natural. It’s – but no Aboriginal person can tell me, no geologist can tell me, nobody can give me an answer to what that is. And I tell the kids when I lecture to them, one of you may find out because sooner or later we’re going to find out the answer to this. I’ve found three sites like this is Australia. One in South Australia. One at Sturt Creek and one at Cowaramup. And again, we have no explanation for what they are and yet they’re unquestionably made by man.
And then you get places who have got no obvious evidence but stand out. And this place just stands out in the middle of the desert, single rock. And I went all over it looking for petroglyphs, looking for paintings, looking for Aboriginal tools. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And then an old Aboriginal said to me, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where the younger brother left his firestick.’
And then I realised what this is. This is one of the marker points of the story trails, the dreaming trails, that go across the country. And this particular man, his dreaming trail ended there because his story was about where the younger brother left the firestick. But the man over there has got the story about where he went from there and where he went to from there. And another man over there has got the story where he came back to find his firestick. And so we get these dreaming trails. The whole of Australia is locked by dreaming trails, trails from the dreamtime when these two brothers were creating the world we live in today. And that is part of a collector’s job, is to try and comprehend the reality of other people’s cultures.
Then there is things that we have. The – this is back in the days when we didn’t have satellites in space, Sputnik hadn’t flown and Telecom asked me could I take a group of their people out because they couldn’t find a telegraph station. They knew where it was they could see it from an aeroplane but they couldn’t find it. They couldn’t find it on the ground because they weren’t bushmen.
So I took them out and when I got there from the top of the hill where the shed is I could see this structure. I came out. It’s a camel yard, probably 150 years old. Big stones to stop the camels going off. It had sliprails and some of you would remember sliprails. You see the slots in the post over there. And a gate up here too small for a camel to get through but a man could slip through it. Beautifully built. And when I mentioned it to people in South Australia they said, ‘Oh great, we’ll send a truck out and pick the rock up.’ We have Goths.
Then you find things that are ascribed to being Aboriginal work. Now, here’s a stone wall which the locals assured me was built by local Aboriginals. And it’s so good that you can’t get a knife blade between the bricks. Brilliant. Is it York? But it’s nothing to do with Aboriginal people only in the sense that they acknowledge it as part of their dreaming. It’s a dyke. It’s earthquake cracking and the molten core of the earth has come up through the split granite. And because it’s come up that wide it’s cooled very quickly and made these hard rocks that split quickly but don’t erode quickly. So the ground around it has eroded.
See, there’s a parallel one on either side of it because of the split coming up. And you find them all over Western Australia but particularly down the Darling Scarp, which is a big fault line, and anywhere where there’s volcanic activity you find them.
And then there are things which – you can’t believe this, can you? Who ever heard of water flowing over hills? Who ever heard of water flowing up hill? And look at it! Here it goes. Down the valley, over the hill, down the next valley, over the hill. Oh, come on. How can it be? And yet there it is. It’s a glorious optical illusion because the canal is not straight. The canal bends out here and then goes back that way. So it looks like it’s dipping down. But I have shown that photograph to some pretty serious people and watched them flounder and splutter to explain the gravity waves vary in that part of the world. Oh, come on.
Sometimes when you’re out to get caught in, as I said, a thunderstorm. And when that happens lightning comes around and it gets a bit frightening. But after lightning’s past you may find something like this. This is called a fulgurite. And it’s where lightning has hit a plant that was growing here and the heat of it has gone down the plant roots and fused it so what you’ve got is a collection of sand with a tube of almost opal inside. Fairly common but most people don’t know what they are.
And then at night time you can see things in the sky that you never see in the city. That’s a comet, I don’t know which one, because you see a lot of comets in the bush, but – or shooting stars or asteroids or things like that.
Any idea when the next asteroid is coming closer to earth than the satellites we have up in space? No? 15th February, 2013. Yeah, three months away. How’d that grab you? I’ll bet you it’s in the headlines because it’s going to be the closest spatial thing coming to earth for the last 60 years. But remember what happened the last time a decent comet hit earth? The dinosaurs died out, 80 per cent of the life on earth died out. Australia, South Africa, South America and Antarctica became separate continents instead of being one. All because of one single impact. Yeah. And we’ve got something coming in three weeks ... three, three months time. Hang onto your hat.
Then we’ve got things that when you look at them they don’t mean much unless you’re an anthropologist or a scientist or a palaeontologist or something beyond. And you look at that and when – I’ve only the wrong one, oh, got one there but there’s a line of them going across this old clay – this old lake, clay pan. And it’s a footprint of a thing called a diprotodont which was a big wombat. And its weight was enough to compress the mud. And this is the compressed mud. This is the toes pointing out, this is the heel back here. And the sand and the soft mud around has eroded away as the lake has dried up and we’ve got this line of tracks going across.
So all of these things are the things you find. But if you’re don’t – not interested in diprotodonts, which is a marsupial, then perhaps you worry about dinosaurs. And there’s a dinosaur’s track at Broome. Now, there’s 1,400 of them and they’re all heading north. And they go for about 55 miles at least and there is not one track turning and going south. And these are animals, well, from here to that beam at least in size. That footprint is about that long. Something scared the hell out of all of those dinosaurs and they all ran in the same direction across the wet clay at the time. Some day someone will find out what it was.
Sometimes we have things we can get answers to. And these occur all over Western Australia including down here at Albany only down here they’re white not red. Now, this is a beetle and you’ve seen them all in your garden, that curly grub with the black tail. And what the black tail is, it’s constipated. It never goes. Its whole lifetime as a feeding grub it never goes to the toilet. It’s all stored up inside.
And when it’s ready to pupate it curls up, digs a bit of a hole in the sand and oh, the relief, lets it out. And then rolls around in that mess which dissolves, because it’s highly acid, of course. It dissolves the sand around and it then redeposits and forms a pupal case of rock. Either limestone or gravel. And it’s called a gravel weevil. And these are off, Bill, these are off your farm and you might remember when we collected them. So I do have friends in the audience.
So there we have some of the things that I do as a collector. Now, if you are inspired to go and do some collecting, I have to tell you, don’t get enthusiastic. It takes time. If you find something, someone familiar who’s knocking about and say, ‘You’ve found a lost cause.’ It’s not going to happen. They’ll say thank you and put it in the museum and it may wait. Like, in 1964 I collected a fossil kangaroo jaw and it wasn’t until 2004 that it was correctly identified as an extinct new species of kangaroo. And there are many of those.
And it is interesting to note that because people have failed to collect many of the new species that I have collected, despite very experts searching in the field, some of the individuals say, ‘Oh, you collected the last ones.’ I can’t believe it because every time I go back I find more of them. It’s a different way of collecting.
But what those two facts illustrate more than anything else is the need that Western Australia has for a full museum. You have a beautiful museum here in Albany, you have another one in Geraldton, you have another one in Fremantle. But the Perth Museum has been shut down virtually for – and it’s worse than an iceberg. An iceberg has only got 90 per cent of its bulk under the sea. The museum’s got something like 99 per cent of its collections out of sight and only 1 per cent is on display and in use.
We’ve got some money. We’ve got $540 million or something like that to plan the new museum. And the first stages of planning are underway and I’m hoping to see the new museum before I get collected.
Thank you very much.
Chevron is a presenting partner of In the Wild West lecture series.