AMplify episode 36: Live at the AM — 2017 AMRI Lifetime Achievement Awards
On Wednesday 9 August 2017 the Australian Museum held its annual AMRI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, designed to recognise eminent researchers and science communicators who have made outstanding contribution to science and biodiversity conservation.
This year, the 1971 Lord Howe Island Environmental Survey Group led by ex-AM Ecologist, Dr Harry F. Recher has been recognised for its work to ensure the environmental protection of Lord Howe Island.
Islands are often described as 'centres for evolution'...and that's what makes Lord Howe special. It's 70% natural area that remains. Most of its biota is retained. You'll find very few places where that's the situtaion. Dr Harry Recher.
Kim McKay: Welcome to this very special evening at the Australian Museum. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO of the museum, and it's wonderful to see you all tonight. This is one of our most special nights of the year where we recognise outstanding science and scientists at the Australian Museum. I'd like to start tonight by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we are gathered on, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. And also to remind us all that it's incredibly important that we acknowledge the traditional owners here at the Australian Museum as we are the custodians of one of the most significant Indigenous collections in the nation.
There are some special people with us tonight. We are all special actually, but some I just want to call out first to say thanks for coming. The person I picked to thank first because I've decided he's the most wily character I've ever met, that's Professor Frank Talbot, who of course is a former director of the Australian Museum, a former director of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in America, and Cal Academy, many, many great achievements in Frank's life. But the extraordinary thing is that Frank received this award last year for his incredible contribution to museums and museum science and also founding the Australian Museum Lizard Island Research Station up on the top of the Great Barrier Reef back in 1973, and yet he's managed to sneak his way in again as an award recipient this year, which I'm absolutely thrilled about too. And of course Frank is here with Suzette tonight who has done so much of her scientific work alongside Frank over the years too, so welcome to you both.
Also the wonderful Professor Merlin Crossley who is the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Education at the University of New South Wales. He is also a member of the Australian Museum Trust, and as a board member there he is responsible for science of course and our science strategy and many other things, and he's a wonderful encouraging supporter of the museum at all times, so thank you Merlin for making time to come and spend with us again, because he was here yesterday when we were kicking off the Science Festival.
Also I'd really like to acknowledge someone who has become somewhat of a new friend of the museum, US consul general Valerie Fowler and her husband Chip is here tonight as well. Thank you Chip for coming to accompany her, keep her out of trouble. We worked with Valerie on Vice President Pence's visit to the museum earlier this year.
Also I'd like to acknowledge the new Swiss consul general to Sydney, Bernadette Hunkeler Brown. Sorry, I didn't get to meet you…oh, there you are, lovely to meet you Bernadette, we'll talk after. Thank you so much for coming as well, I really appreciate it.
A colleague of mine in this wonderful world of state government institutions is the brilliant Cameron Kerr who is the director and CEO at the Taronga Zoo Conservation Society, welcome Cam, it's good to have you in our house.
And also the wonderful Lord Howe Island board member John King is with us tonight, and also I think Ian Hutton is here too who is of course the curator of the Lord Howe Island Museum, and it's great to have your support and presence this evening.
Alasdair MacLeod, who was a great trustee of our foundation, and of course the foundation played such a special role in supporting our expedition to Lord Howe Island this year that we're going to hear about later tonight. And last but not least, and if I haven't mentioned you it's just because you will be mentioned soon I'm sure, because all of our award recipients, and many of them are here in the room tonight, but Dr Rebecca Johnson, the director of AMRI is here as well, and she's going to talk to you a bit about AMRI's achievements.
And of course lots of our scientists are here, the museum staff, past museum staff, and those who are receiving awards, and their families tonight. So thank you all for coming.
Now, we started presenting this award is just back in 2014 when we first called the Australian Museum Research Institute by that title…
Oh, one person I wanted to acknowledge who I did see walk in, sorry, the Honourable Bob Debus who used to be the Minister for the Environment. There you are Bob, up there. Thank you so much for coming back. Bob of course was instrumental in building the AMRI building. I think it was finished in 2007, and thank you so much for your ongoing support and for coming along still to the museum, we really appreciate it.
So what I was going to say, we started presenting this award in 2014 to a person or a group who had made a significant contribution to museums science and biodiversity conservation. The first recipient was the extraordinary Tim Flannery in 2014. And Tim of course had worked at the Australian Museum for about 10 years as head of mammalian biology here, and then he went on of course to carve out not just a media career in communicating science but also of course advocating for climate change, and then became Australian of the Year. And I was so excited that Tim was getting this award. The next day I got so much hate mail from around the country from very strange individuals, and I responded to it all in a very honest and open way, saying we have awarded this to Tim not because of his beliefs…well, his scientific rigour around climate change, but because of the work he did here at the museum where he discovered so many new species. And do you know, most of the people wrote back to me and said, 'Oh, thank you for explaining that.'
But it did show me that at least people were reading some of the press about what the museum was doing, which is a good thing.
Our second recipient was Dr Robyn Williams, and ABC broadcaster, just a wonderful individual and the former president of the Australian Museum, and he was a very worthwhile recipient and he gave a lovely address about what he'd done to communicate science. And of course then last year, as I mentioned, Frank Talbot for his amazing contributions, especially around the founding of Lizard Island.
So this year is our 190th year at the Australian Museum. We've been on this site I think for about 167 years. So 109 years in Australia, in white settlement terms, is a long time, and not so long in traditional Aboriginal times. But in that 190 years this institution has achieved a great deal. We've been celebrating all year, in the way a museum should celebrate. We kicked off the year with the wonderful Sir David Attenborough who visited us. He remarked on the significance of this institution, and yesterday Melbourne made some remarks about that. You can repeat some of those if you like because having Sir David here was a wonderful way to start this year.
And then the other really big thing we did next was of course mount the Lord Howe Island expedition, where 22 of the Australian Museum's current scientists went up there to take another benchmark study about what is happening on the island, and found some new species, and we're going to hear from some of those people tonight as well. Lord Howe is a place quite dear to my heart, I visited them many, many times, and it's a very special part of Australia. And it's wonderful that this institution has had such a long history there. And of course tonight to we are going to award those people who were involved in the 1971 expedition and who of course did most of the research work to try and acquire that World Heritage listing for Lord Howe Island which has been so important to its future.
We'll soon be hosting the Eureka prizes, the Oscars of science, the end of this month, as we do each year, which has now just grown and grown and is the most incredible awards night. And in November we will be launching another 190th project, a national citizen science project called Frog ID. I'm not going to tell you too much about it yet, but we want to engage people right across Australia, every age group, using that wonderful piece of technology that is in the palm of our hands, to try and monitor frog species across the country. And Jodi Rowley and Paul Flemings are sitting up there, both grinning and looking slightly stressed when I talk about it because they are both behind this project in a great way and it's going to give us some great insight. We've got over, I think Jodi, 260 species of frogs in Australia, and this project hopefully will not just uncover more but tell us what's happening to that indicator species in the future.
The Sydney Science Festival is on now, and this week, next week and this Saturday we will have in total about 10,000 schoolchildren and many parents here at the museum experiencing science at the science fair. And yesterday when we kicked that off, you should have seen all the little faces, so excited, and that was just our scientists. No, the children who were here were just having the most magnificent time.
And of course the other big thing we are doing pretty soon is opening the Long Gallery after a major restoration, and it's opening mid-October and looking absolutely spectacular. So you'll have to wait to see that very soon, but it really is going to I think provide a wonderful new experience for Sydneysiders and visitors to the museum.
We're showcasing 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum in there. 100 are objects chosen by Dr Peter Emmett, the curator, and they are entangled with about 600 other objects. So this gallery will really reveal a lot about our collections. And of course that is why museums do exist. Those collections inform…tell us a lot about what happened in the past and they tell us a lot about what's happening now, but also they help inform the future as well. And I was just at a conference in Hong Kong, and the head of the Smithsonian was saying to me…the head of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Kirk Johnson, was saying that of the 59 great natural science museums in the world, and this museum is ranked 34th on that list, the 59…the northern hemisphere museums believe that they hold over 90% of everything that has been found on Earth. So it's sort of like where the museums become that arc of humanity. And the museums globally, those 59 museums, we are now working on an awareness campaign about that, about the real role for the future of these museums, and not just the stories that can be unfolded in our collections but also the scientific knowledge that can be discovered in them, and that's what happens here every day, and Rebecca is going to talk a little bit about that soon. So I'm really pretty excited about our 190th year and all the things we are trying to achieve, and I know you will be too when you see the Long Gallery very soon.
So, after the presentation of the awards, we are going to have a panel discussion with some of the scientists who participated in this year's Lord Howe Island expedition. And then we all get to go and have wonderful drinks and lots of food outside, so you do get fed. So just to be patient and we will get to that good part soon.
So now it's time though that I introduce Professor Merlin Crossley to announce the winners of the 2017 Lifetime Achievement award for AMRI.
Merlin Crossley: Thank you so much Kim, it's a real thrill to be here tonight, although when I look up there I feel like running away to sea. My grandfather used to say worse things happened at sea, but at the Australian Museum it seems that some of the very best things happen at sea. And the Australian Museum is a living monument to science, but also a guardian of our history, and we make these awards, the Australian Museum Research Institute Lifetime Achievement awards each year to recognise the most seminal contributions to our history and to honour those who have made lasting contributions to Australia and its future.
So, tonight we are honouring members of the 1971 survey team, and members of the 1973 group of marine biologists who went to the island. And the report that they produced, which I was emailed and read last night and it's a wonderfully comprehensive but quite short report actually, but comprehensive, it led to Lord Howe Island being listed as a World Heritage site. It led to a transformation in management of the island, and we owe the people who did the work that has backed up the conservation of the island a huge debt of gratitude.
I'll give a full list of the members of the survey team in a moment, but I'll just mention a few names that I recognised at once. I recognised the name Harry Recher because he is the first name on this report that I have. He was a senior research scientist at the museum at the time.
Then there's Stephen Clark who was assistant curator at the museum, he is the second author. I always recognised a name which will be known to most of you, Pat Hutchings. I find it hard to believe that Pat, who I know has very recently been surveying the marine worms of Lizard Island, I can't believe she was on the 1971 survey team, she must've been a teenager at the time.
And I noticed the wily name of Frank Talbot on the list. As Kim mentioned, Frank has already received one lifetime achievement award, so Frank is a bit like a cat with many lives. I don't know how many more that you will receive, Frank. It's interesting, I know you came to us from Africa, and I was thinking I once read a book about Africa and it talked about how Cecil Rhodes was determined to build a railway from Cairo to the Cape. And he was asked why did he want to build a railway from Cairo to the Cape. He said they both begin with the letter C, it sounds great. And I know that Frank has built a scientific highway from Lizard to Lord Howe, and they both begin with L. And I know that you've also worked at One Tree and also Heron Island and I am sure many other coastal areas in Australia too.
So others who were involved in this important work: Phil Colman, an expert on land snails at the Australian Museum; Mike Gray who worked on spiders at the Australian Museum; Doug Hoese, who is here tonight, an expert on fish from the Australian Museum; David McAlpine, an entomologist from the Australian Museum; John Paxton who is here, another fish expert from the Australian Museum; John Pickard, a plant ecologist from the Royal Botanic Gardens. It's important…AMRI today collaborates with people from the gardens, from CSIRO, from universities, and the history of collaboration between the museum and the gardens has gone on for many years and it's still going strong.
Winston Ponder, an expert on molluscs from the Australian Museum; Haymo Posamentier, an ecologist from the Australian Museum; Tony Rodd, a botanist from the Botanic Gardens. And then there were four members of the team who are no longer with us, so we should remember John Disney of the Australian Museum, who did vital work on wood hens, those birds which were almost extinct but through careful management and a breeding project are now quite stable; Geoff Holloway, an entomologist from the Australian Museum; Lawrence Johnson, a botanist from the Royal Botanic Gardens; and Courtenay Smithers, an entomologist from the Australian Museum.
Now, as I said, I read this report last night, and I also read a little bit, as one does, I found some more background information on Lord Howe. Some of you will know all this but I found it so fascinating I can't help but go over it. 1788, Governor Phillip sent a boat to Norfolk Island, and they discovered Lord Howe Island on the way. And on the way back they claimed it for the British Empire. That's the way things were done in those days. It was uninhabited.
It was first settled in 1834. The first survey work, any scientific work done on it in 1851, and the papers were lodged in the Australian Museum describing plants and fish and some of those were collected. Then in 1869 there was a report of a murder on the island, and a magistrate was dispatched. And scientists at the Australian Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, as they remain today, always ready for an adventure, took the opportunity to join this punitive expedition or judicial expedition…
We have been in the division of the judiciary I think in the state government at some stage…and they described the plants, animals, geology of the islands, its towering basalts, its sedimentary rocks. And in the rocks they found horned turtle fossils.
There was another combined Museum–Gardens expedition in 1882. By now the museum was clearly addicted to visiting Lord Howe, and there was yet another official expedition in 1887. And then there was the Recher survey of 1971. And what did it tell us? It told us this is a natural history paradise. There should be a reserve, and it did end up being listed as a World Heritage site.
It also told us the usual story of the introduction of exotic animals that had a devastating impact on the ecology the islands. Goats, pigs, cats, mice. In 1919, the SS Makambowas wrecked and rats were taken to the island. So what did people do to eliminate the rats? They introduced Tasmanian owls, and the Tasmanian owls, Harry reported in the report, were now preying on native birds.
By the time the 1971 group arrived, about half of the unique bird species had been wiped out. The wood hen was only surviving in a small region on the top of Mount Gower. And the report recommend studying the life history of wood hens in detail, so that they could be properly…the knowledge would be there to preserve them. And it's fantastic that that was achieved.
Recher's report discussed the opportunity to remove pigs and goats, gave measured advice on the handling of cats, rats, mice, owls and all of the introduced plants.
It explained how cattle grazing was the main factor preventing thatch and curly palm regeneration, and exonerated the mutton birds which had been blamed for the decline of the palm trees. And Harry recommended a large nature reserve on the island and said that camping on the summit should be completely outlawed, except for scientists who should still be allowed to camp up there. I thought that was a very good one. And Harry acknowledged in his report…I even read the acknowledgements, he gave thanks to Judy Recher for contributing to the paperwork. So everyone was included in this.
As has been mentioned, the Australian Museum led another group to Lord Howe Island this year. Now, I haven't read their report. Science is so much part of our everyday life, I haven't read their report yet and it hasn't won a lifetime achievement award yet, but it might. I did hear they discovered some snails which were thought to be extinct, checked on whale skeletons, and they observed the phasmids on Ball's Pyramid. Ball's Pyramid was named after Lieutenant Ball who first discovered the island and claimed it for the Empire.
So, without further ado I want to express my gratitude to the 1971 team that did such a superb job in surveying the island, describing it, and that led to the listing and the preservation of this iconic island for future generations. So congratulations to all the members of the team who are here tonight.
And now Kim will come up and I'll read out the names, and if we could ask each of the people whose names I read out to come out and accept their award in person. So the first person on my list is Doug Hoese.
It's a bit like a graduation now. The second person, John Pickard. And the third, the one and only Frank Talbot. And the fourth, Winston Ponder. And now, Harry Recher himself, come on down Harry. And last but not least, John Paxton, also from the Australian Museum.
Okay, thanks, that's my bit done. Now I hand over to someone else. Rebecca, the director of the Australian Museum Research Institute. Thanks Rebecca.
Rebecca Johnson: Did you know that in 2016 there were 18,000 new species of plants and animals identified as new to science? I couldn't help but show this one. This is the sorting hat spider. I thought this was pretty fantastic. This is described by an Indian group, and obviously not one of ours, but a really fantastic example of first of all something that's quite literal. Even the species name is very humorous. And it's also a great example of the importance of communicating our science and capturing the public's attention through giving something a really cool name, not to mention it really does look like the sorting hat, for those Harry Potter nerds amongst us.
Something that's a little bit closer to home for us was a new species of frog, a very, very beautiful tree frog, in fact so beautiful that Jodi chose to call it that.
Jodi and her colleagues described this species in 2016 as well, something they are very proud of. And Kim mentioned a very exciting frogs project that we have coming up. You will probably see this frog featuring quite a bit.
And something that wasn't done this year but something that will no doubt feature next year as one of the species of 2017, this is the infamous semi-slug that was named after Sir David Attenborough by our scientists here, Frank Köhler and Isabel Hyman. And in fact it's such a momentous day, today's the day that the records of the Australian Museum came out that actually names this species, which is pretty exciting. And it was quite a special moment earlier this year when Sir David Attenborough visited us. He was genuinely enraptured to speak to Frank and Isabel and learn about this slug, and he was so excited to have a slug named after him. And we were very excited to do it, weren't we Frank and Isabel?
So the Australian Museum in 2016 named 199 new species with our research associates, of which we have 70. And this actually contributed 1% of all of the new species that were described to science in 2016, and we only do animals. Brett Summerall who is here today, his group do plants. So Kim, imagine if we had more scientists, imagine how much more we could do. But I think it's pretty fantastic that are fairly small institution like ourselves, very eminent, but we've contributed 1% of the new known biodiversity to the world in the last 12 months, which is something that we are so incredibly proud of.
And one of the things that is of note is that in so many cases, these species existed in museums already. They had been sitting there for decades in some cases, just waiting for a scientist with the right skills and with the right eye to discover them and give them a new name. And even more exciting and something that is very relevant to what we are here to support and to honour tonight is that in many cases once these things were described, they then went on to receive the conservation attention that they deserved. And so genuine outcomes and contributions to improving our world come from this kind of science.
Of course describing new species is not all that we do at the Australian Museum, but it is a very tangible and quite special way of describing the work that we do and the significance that it holds. And in addition to that, it is Science Month, so we are celebrating education, and many of the scientists in the room tonight are also contributing to that education and the important aspect of science communication where we are communicating to the next generation why it is so cool to be able to find a slug in our collection, decide it's different and name it after David Attenborough, that is pretty fantastic.
In addition to that tonight we are celebrating collaboration, and if you are not a scientist in the room from the Australian Museum you are very likely to be a collaborator with us at the Australian Museum Research Institute. It is not possible to do what we do without collaborations. We've already heard about the incredibly long and enduring collaboration we've had with the Botanic Gardens, pretty much since we were established. We've seen the results of the wonderful collaboration that led to the World Heritage listing of Lord Howe Island. In addition to that we've got some really exciting new collaborations that we have started this year, including the Oz Mammals Genome Project, where us, along with many other partners, are involved in sequencing representatives of every single species of Australian mammal so that we can understand them and then we can conserve them. And this is a very exciting project for museums because we hold all of that biodiversity.
In addition to that we are very honoured to be part of the Centre of Excellence that was just announced that is led by the University of Wollongong, and this is something that helps us understand when humans arrived, how they arrived in Australia, and the very long continuous and enduring history that we have, because this deep understanding is a very important thing for our country, and particularly for the Aboriginal Australians who have been here for many, many tens of thousands of years.
And finally we are really excited to establish some new imaging partnerships. The Australian government has invested a huge amount into imaging in Australia, and this is super exciting for museums because we get to image things and see them from the inside out without having to dissect them. This is particularly exciting when you are not wanting to dissect something that is a type specimen, something that is scientifically very valuable. But also we get to look through them, we get to see their skeletal structure, we get to rotate them, we get to 3-D print them. And these are some of the really exciting partnerships that we have established this year, and we look forward to expanding them as the years go on.
But tonight we are here to celebrate the collaboration that is Lord Howe Island, and it's my duty now to introduce the panel that are going to participate tonight. I'd also like to acknowledge all of the scientists that are in the room tonight who have contributed to the current expedition that we are going to hear a lot about and also the past expeditions. I'd also like to acknowledge Paul Flemons and his team for coordinating the expedition from this year. It is no small feat to coordinate an expedition of many teams, and we very much appreciate the work of his team. I'd also like to acknowledge Alex Nuttall who's done a wonderful job of putting tonight together, thanks Alex.
So now I'm going to welcome the panel to come and sit down as I call your name. Firstly, I would like to call Dr Frank Köhler, our land snail specialist who was part of the Lord Howe Island expedition, and he also went to Ball's Pyramid, and I've seen some photos and I'm very much looking forward to hearing what Frank has to say about that, thanks Frank.
Next I'd like to welcome Dr Sandy Ingleby. She's the manager of the terrestrial vertebrates collections. Sandy has been to Lord Howe Island a couple of times, she is a mammal expert, and she was also a very important part of the team that went to this year's expedition.
I would now like to ask Dr Harry Recher, the author of the Recher Report, to come up to the stage. Harry is not only a retired ecologist and museum scientist, but he is always full of interesting stories. He is often controversial, and he has the honour of leading this very important report that directly contributed to the World Heritage listing of Lord Howe Island.
And of course the panel is going to be mediated by our very own CEO, Kim McKay. Please welcome Kim to the stage. And I can't really introduce myself, but I promise that I didn't wear these shoes when I was on Lord Howe Island.
Kim McKay: Well, thank you Rebecca. Come and take your seat. Thank you so much, and thank you to our wonderful panel tonight because I was very jealous, I didn't get to go to Lord Howe Island this time.
The team did an amazing job up there, it was a beautifully planned expedition. I think you had to fill in about 40 risk management reports. Poor Paul. But it was really well planned and the results are proving to be very interesting. So I'm going to start with you Rebecca, because the Australian Museum and museums in general have a tradition of field expeditions. Of course this very institution was founded around the idea of that. Some of our first directors had some quite big mishaps on early expeditions. I think one shot himself in the foot and then died as a result of that. So that's how collections were made, through field expeditions. So we've started them back up again at the museum, to get our scientists back in the field. What value do you place on that for AMRI?
Rebecca Johnson: I think it's very special to have a genuine expedition because it's multidisciplinary, and listening to Merlin talk about the impact of that report and all of the different findings from that work, you don't get that unless you have all of the different disciplines, and in this particular case of the Botanic Gardens and also the museum together, so that you can see things in an entire ecosystem context. What's also really special is that Lord Howe Island is the first…I guess technically the first expedition we ever went on. I don't think we actually…
Kim McKay: Back in the 1860s.
Rebecca Johnson: I think we would technically consider the 1880s as our first one, but it was critical that we decided to go along when a murder was being investigated, it's very opportunistic. So the fact that it was our first expedition means that we have this incredibly deep time series of records, of diversity of species, diversity of specimens that we can compare across time.
Kim McKay: And in fact some of our scientists just came back last night from the South Pacific and another group have gone out. Do you want to just mention about that expedition?
Yes, so they are going on a cruise, which sounds far more glamorous that it actually is, led by the Auckland Museum, into some areas of the south-west Pacific that are quite a remote, very under-surveyed. And this is also something that gets museum people very excited, going into areas that haven't really been surveyed particularly thoroughly or, in many cases if not at all because we do love to fill gaps in museums and collect things, that we don't already have because they become very valuable later on.
Kim McKay: And so what's in the pipeline, do you think?
Rebecca Johnson: Expedition wise? Solomon Islands. That's where we will be spending a bit of time next year.
Kim McKay: So we've been going up to the Solomon Islands, we went first last year. Tim Flannery has led this expedition with the support of the museum, looking for the monkey faced bat and giant rat up there. In fact the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands is coming here next week to look at those specimens that we hold in the collection and understand the expedition a bit further.
Rebecca Johnson: And I guess that's a really exciting aspect of expeditions, to see behaviour changes that happen after the deep knowledge that is gathered from these expeditions, and very much so, the Solomon Islands is a great example of that, in addition to obviously Lord Howe Island being World Heritage listed on the back of all these results, the Solomon Islands is…there are genuine conservation zones being set up as a result of the work that we are involved in as collaborators there.
Kim McKay: Harry, you are I think the keeper of a lot of knowledge on Lord Howe Island historically, from your report and also just your general understanding. Do you want to tell us all why you think Lord Howe Island is so special and unique?
Harry Recher: I don't know that Lord Howe Island is any more special or unique than any other remnant of natural vegetation and flora, fauna on the Australian continent.
We've reached a stage where so little of this continent remains in its natural state, and what remains is extraordinarily difficult to protect, to keep, to maintain. And islands like Lord Howe are living museums, if I can use that word. They are the places where we can save some biodiversity, where it's easier to protect that biodiversity. Islands are often described as centres of evolution. They have special attraction to biologists, they have special attraction to humanity. For some reason people like islands. Maybe because they are small and you can feel secure and you can find the boundaries. But that's what makes Lord Howe special, it's 70% natural area that remains. Most of its biota is retained. You'll find very, very few places that that's the situation.
I currently work in the Greater Western Woodland in Western Australia, an area vastly larger, 21,000 square hectares of land, much, much larger than Lord Howe, the largest remaining temperate woodland in the world. The biodiversity in the Great Western Woodland would dwarf anything on Lord Howe Island, but we have no chance of saving it because it's rich with minerals, so it becomes a mining area. It's the goldfields of Western Australia. The only way we can save biodiversity is by choosing those areas like Lord Howe where we have some chance of keeping something for future generations, otherwise we're going to lose it all. That's what makes Lord Howe important and why it's important for the museum to continue to work there.
Kim McKay: So, from your…you've been back I'm assuming…?
Harry Recher: No, I have not been back to Lord Howe since 1972.
Kim McKay: Oh really?
Harry Recher: Really.
Kim McKay: Maybe we have to get you up there.
Harry Recher: No, it's unlikely.
Kim McKay: I didn't say I'd go with you or anything.
Harry Recher: I've got to interject here, because why didn't I go back to Lord Howe Island? And why would it be difficult to get me to go back? Writing that survey in '71 was not so much running an environmental survey, it was an exercise in politics. Why was a survey commissioned by the Lord Howe Island board? It says because the board has responsibilities for the flora and fauna of Lord Howe Island and it needed to know more about Lord Howe Island in order to manage it properly. You talk to other people, and the reason they wanted to do an environmental survey of Lord Howe Island was because…and think back, when was the Wrest Point Casino built in Hobart? 1971, '70, somewhere around there. And there was a lot of talk about putting a casino on Lord Howe Island. For New South Wales, it would have been an ideal place. All the riffraff could go to Lord Howe Island, they could riot and you wouldn't offend anybody. Now we've got them in Sydney.
The survey at Lord Howe, when I say it was a political exercise, while the board didn't quite tell me what recommendations it wanted, it was very clear when the report was submitted it didn't like the recommendations. And when I agreed to do the survey, to coordinate the survey, I put some conditions on it.
I would select the survey team, and the report had to be published. In those days, the museum staff, scientists regularly involved the public and were encouraged by people like Frank Talbot and the board to communicate widely with the public. And I like to talk to people and communicate. So the report had to be public because I had been in Australia long enough and at the museum long enough to realise that if I did a report on Lord Howe Island advising things that the board might not like, that the report would never see the light of day. And of course that's exactly what happened. And to get the report published, which the board did eventually, I had to threaten to resign, return to the United States (which I guess some people probably would have been happy about), and publish the report myself.
The man we were negotiating with from Lord Howe Island, the representative of the board, was dumbfounded when I told him, 'You think I gave you the only copy of the report? You've got to be joking.' But the whole survey, you think about things, and I've been thinking about this since I was asked to participate in this evening. I really need to write all this up because the survey, the '70, '71 survey of Lord Howe Island would make a great episode in Yes Ministeror in this Australia Broadcasting…
Kim McKay: Utopia?
Harry Recher: Utopia, Canberra bureaucrats. It had everything; me threatening to resign to get the report published, the board refusing to accept my recommendation that the State Planning Authority be involved from the beginning. And then when they got the report and didn't like it, they commissioned one, two, three, a succession of reports until they got one they did like.
The first people they asked to do a new report was the State Planning Authority, who simply came out, went to Lord Howe Island, looked at everything and said, 'The museum report is correct, that's what you should do.' And they got six or seven or eight reports in succession which did the same thing.
Other things that would make great television was one of the members of the team smuggling, illegally, guns on to Lord Howe Island and illegally collecting birds. Well, whatever it was, a gun, a pistol, I never saw it and I never knew it was there until I was told by John Disney that he had seized the specimens of the Australian Museum as they were being loaded onto the plane or on Lord Howe to be taken back to Australia. Events like that made the survey political and interesting and would make great television.
Kim McKay: And a starring role.
Harry Recher: No, too old, you'd have to get someone young and vigorous.
Kim McKay: Fantastic. Well, speaking of young and vigorous, Frank…
Frank Köhler: Thank you, thank you.
Kim McKay: So Frank Köhler of course who was part of this expedition most recently. And Frank, you climbed Ball's Pyramid.
Frank Köhler: I did not climb Ball's Pyramid.
Kim McKay: Well, you were at Ball's Pyramid, the base camp.
Frank Köhler: I climbed Mt Gower and I got up to Gannet Green and I am probably one of very few people who had the chance to climb up there. And I have to say, just listening to your story makes me appreciate much more what you have achieved at the time.
And that even though we all tend to be a little bit pessimistic about the prospects for many species in terms of conservation, obviously the example of Lord Howe Island actually shows that you have achieved something and that the degradation of the island could be stopped and halted to a large degree. And thanks to people like you, I was able to go back to that island 46 years later or so and find almost everything that was there at the time when I was born in that year, 1971. And yes, it doesn't happen too often to me anymore that I can get cocky about my youth.
Kim McKay: So Frank, you were part of the team though that identified that the phasmid was still alive on Ball's Pyramid, and that is a collaboration with the Melbourne Zoo.
Frank Köhler: Yes, so we spent almost a week on Ball's Pyramid. We were allowed to go there, which to get permission is often not easy because it is a World Heritage area and it's basically off-limits. And the reason for us to go to Ball's Pyramid is to find out how the population of the endemic phasmid are doing. There hasn't been much data accumulated in the past, I don't know, 10, 20 years or so. And it was also important for the captive population to potentially get some genetic refreshment. So I think we were…how many people were there? Eight or nine of us?
So we were there with a team of semi-professional climbers who basically made it all the way up and helped us to lift our bodies to at least to Gannet Green looking for the phasmid. And they needed…because we had a lot of equipment that we had to get on that island, they needed quite a number of days to actually prepare all the ropes going up and drag all the supplies up there. And we searched every accessible part of Ball's Pyramid and we found…I don't remember how many specimens were there…20? 17, yes. So 17 is not a lot, but given that how inaccessible most parts of Ball's Pyramid are and how difficult it is to get around there, I think our findings suggest that at least there is still a native population out there which is probably hopefully healthy, and gives hope for the future for that species.
And we were also interested to find out whether there might be other species that have gone missing or been lost on the main island due to rat predation and have survived on Ball's Pyramid.
Kim McKay: So the other thing I know, that a new species of beetle was identified.
Frank Köhler: Yes, so we found not only one new species but we found one new beetle species on Ball's Pyramid. We also found other new species on Lord Howe Island.
Kim McKay: What's that moment like, Frank?
Frank Köhler: Well, I was with our beetle expert on Lord Howe Island, Chris Reid who is not here today.
He always collects snails for me, so when I see a beetle every now and then I pick one up and give it to him. So I found one which looked particularly pretty, I thought, oh, I'll keep that. But it was pretty large, so I didn't expect it to be anything special. And when I gave it, 'By the way, Chris, I found a beetle, do you know what it is?' And he looked at it and he said, 'Well, the last time that was found was 1888, and since then it was considered extinct.' So there you go. And he went back to the same place and tried to find another specimen, but you have to have special skills to find them.
Kim McKay: Yes, you have to have that special skill.
Frank Köhler: Yes, he didn't pay me enough to get him another one.
Kim McKay: So from your own personal perspective, being a scientist you've spent a great amount of time in the lab here, as well as in the field, what was so special about being part of that expedition to Lord Howe this year?
Frank Köhler: Well, knowing about the history of the place made it very special. Initially when people told me how Lord Howe Island is a magic place, it's magnificent, you will like it, it basically raised the stakes for me, I thought, oh come on, I'm not that easily excited, I've seen other cool places. But this island has something to it which…I don't know, what you said about how we humans like islands, probably the secluded place which is largely intact…I mean, obviously there is a settlement and you can see the impact of human inhabitation, but there are large parts which are nearly pristine. And to see something, to be able to go there and study these areas is special for me. I don't know, I was always a nature nerd, and I feel so privileged that I am able to do these things and go to these places.
And I want to try to help preserve them. And I think good public relation work is part of conservation. It can't replace conservation but it can support efforts in conservation.
Kim McKay: That's right, and we did have a couple of journalists along at different times on the expedition as well to report on it. Some very good drone footage was acquired from that too I think, of you particularly.
Frank Köhler: Don't tell anyone.
Kim McKay: We're not showing it tonight, don't worry.
Sandy, I kept seeing photographs of you digging on Lord Howe Island. You're digging up the bones, the skeletons of three whales. Do you want to tell us about that?
Sandy Ingleby: I feel a little bit of a ring-in here because mammals at Lord Howe Island…it's actually not known for its mammal diversity, there's only one terrestrial mammal that occurs on the island. In fact the natives are actually outweighed by the feral terrestrial mammals. But there are quite a diversity of marine mammals that pass by and occasionally strand on Lord Howe Island. And fortunate for us in August 2011, three beaked whales, they were dense-beaked whales or Blainville's beaked whales, they were stranded on the northern part of the island.
Kim McKay: And they are quite rare whales, aren't they.
Sandy Ingleby: Beaked whales are generally, they are very poorly known. There are around 22 species worldwide, of which about half occur in Australian waters. But because they are deep ocean species, they are rarely seen. So when something strands it's one of the few opportunities scientists get to actually study them. And so these three passed by. Blainville's are probably one of the more common in the area, but even so they are still rare. But beaked whales in general account for something like a quarter of all cetacean species but they are one of the least studied groups of mammals. So these three stranded on the north of the island, and they were thought to be three females, and we always intended to go back and dig them up. But when we heard about the expedition, this was a perfect opportunity to go and retrieve them.
So we did, they were buried in a paddock, and we're talking about the scenic beauty of Lord Howe Island, I think our study site, it's so beautiful that they actually make placemats and you can buy a placemat in the local shop that has our study site on it. So these were buried in a farmer's paddock. When I say buried I mean really buried, and Rebecca was with us, they were buried three metres down in a very large pit, just at the base of the mountains, and there they stayed since 2011. So we were hoping that we'd be able to find them and that there'd be something left of them.
I think Blainville's is particularly interesting for us at the museum because the species was described in 1916, thereabouts, based on a specimen in the Paris Museum, and the locality was unknown, so there's no type locality for it. And the second individual was found in the Seychelles. And the third individual of the species ever recorded was here at the Australian Museum and it was the first full skeleton of that species ever discovered. And that was in 1870. So it was particularly relevant that we'd go back and get three more. And that's what we did.
Kim McKay: And have you had a chance to study them yet?
Sandy Ingleby: We've spent lots of time…the team are smiling up there, Mark Eldridge, Anja Divljan, and Rebecca, and also Richard Major helped as well. We spent a lot of time cleaning them to get them back to the mainland, and we have now registered them and included it in the collection, and they will become part of the museum's station collection.
We did make a few discoveries. One was that it wasn't in fact three females. The first one we started to dig up we noticed was a male, and you can tell because the males have a very distinct tooth or tusk on each side of the jaw which actually projects above the head.
They are very unusual species, the beaked whales, because they are suction feeders. So they no longer have functional teeth, they just have these tusks that the males use in male interactions, and they feed by suction, they have the plates in the throat, so when they open their mouth it creates a suction, so they actually suck in squid. So we could see from this tooth that we dug up, one of the first things that we saw, that it was clearly a male, so we figured out it was a male and two females in fact in the pit.
Rebecca Johnson: Buried in a loving embrace is how they were described to us.
Sandy Ingleby: They were literally dropped from a great height.
Kim McKay: So just for those who aren't scientists in the room, not many of you, so they understand, when you are researching this you've got the skeleton back here at the museum, you've cleaned it, you are analysing DNA?
Sandy Ingleby: You can do. We actually did do some gender testing, exactly, because when specimens are first collected, some tissue samples were taken but we didn't know which tissue samples belonged to which individual, so we could figure out we knew which one was the male and we knew that one of the females was smaller than the other and we had body measurements. So we actually used gender testing, used the DNA to figure out which tissue sample belongs to which individual.
But the bones are particularly useful. Beaked whales, for a long time it was thought there were only 10 species worldwide, and then about 20 years ago a molecular study was done using museum specimens, and the person was Meryl Dalebout, so she basically doubled the number of the big whale species around the world based on DNA extracted from museum specimens. So it's probably not the end of the story there, there are probably more species out there, and these specimens will be useful in studies of that nature.
Kim McKay: So the report on the Lord Howe Island expedition, how is it coming along?
Frank Köhler: Some pressure here! No pressure, no.
But that's an important aspect that I wanted to raise anyway. Expeditions are an important part of our work, and I think they help also to tie in the public in what we are doing. However, the actual research takes a long time. So we are looking at…give me another year or so and then please remind me. But I think you told me that your report was also published three years after your expedition, is that correct? So that would relieve me of some pressure, if you could confirm that!
Harry Recher: It was only 18 months.
Frank Köhler: Oh…
Kim McKay: 18 months Frank!
Harry Recher: That was due to delays in the government printing office.
Frank Köhler: I was going to say, that was in '71, time now progresses much faster, so what you did in 18 months, we would probably need 24 months at least.
Rebecca Johnson: Isn't it the opposite Frank?
Frank Köhler: No, no, no…
Harry Recher: Look, in fairness to Frank, our report consisted of two parts. A series of recommendations based upon the environmental survey which I wrote was fairly quick and easy, got to the point. And then a series of reports on some of the biota that people had worked on. I wouldn't be surprised if some of that material still required further work. It does take a long time.
Frank Köhler: It does, it does. So we have…I can only tell you something about land snails, which is the most significant part of biodiversity, if you ask me. And there are certainly…there are very likely still undescribed species in the collection. At least there's material, preliminarily identified as undescribed. So part of our work that we are currently conducting is to find out whether there are indeed undescribed species on Lord Howe Island, and if that is the case also to describe them. That is important to underpin future conservation management.
With your report, which was basically the foundation to the heritage listing, it was very important to get out recommendations quickly. As you said, it was a political exercise. We are now living in a different environment I think in regards to that. There is an understanding what the conservation requirements are and there are actually a lot of…I mean, they are not undebated and there are people…but it is known what is required to be done and the debate is more about whether or not it should be implemented.
Harry Recher: Keep in mind as you write up your report that the recommendations that we made have still not been fully implemented. There are still some critical parts of the reserve that we recommended that are not in the reserve.
Frank Köhler: Absolutely.
Harry Recher: And there are other things like buffer zones which…I don't know what National Parks is doing but I can't read about buffer zones in the plan of management for the Lord Howe Island reserve. So there's still lots to be done. And there's lots of things to be done with managing the biota. Because I haven't been back there since '71, '72…anybody that has been there recently? Are there still Norfolk Island pines on the island?
Frank Köhler: There are, yes.
Harry Recher: Well, one of the things we strongly recommended, John Pickard…
Audience member 1: [inaudible]
Harry Recher: All right, he wanted to retain them, I wanted to get rid of them. Why did I want to get rid of them? Because ecologically they pose as great a threat to the integrity of the environment of Lord Howe Island as do rats and as did pigs and goats.
Audience member 1: [inaudible]
Kim McKay: We like to see the conflicts occurring here, it's great. Now, I know some of you might have some questions you'd like to ask of our panel before we break and go and have a refreshment. Do I have a great question?
Audience member 2: A self-interested question; did anyone in the Ball's Pyramid group see either or both of the endemic lizards, and if so how abundant were they?
Frank Köhler: I remember to have seen plenty of geckos, and I'm not quite sure about…Paul, do you remember the other lizard? Sorry, I only look for snails, but there were plenty of lizards.
Audience member 2: One is a gecko, one is a skink. You saw both?
Frank Köhler: The skinks, yes, we have seen skinks.
Audience member 2: Were they very abundant?
Paul: I think they were, yes.
Audience member 2: Okay, thanks very much.
Frank Köhler: Yeah, they are.
Kim McKay: Abundant skinks and geckos, excellent. Another question? Alasdair MacLeod?
Audience member 3: So various people have referred to the population of ferals on the island. My question really is around what's been done to control the feral population and what effect that's having on the indigenous life there.
Frank Köhler: The big elephant in the room here is rodents, so mice and rats. And goats have been eradicated and cats, pigs, but the rodents are the big problem. The owls are still there.
So the rodents…there is a post rodent eradication project which has been worked at I think on and off for 10 years and there have been multiple reports on that, feasibility studies, and I'm not sure that I know the current state of affairs but it's basically still debated whether it's going to go ahead or not because some people are concerned about the broadcasting of rat bait on the island.
I personally think it would be a great opportunity to this particular project to hopefully get rid of the rodents. Similar projects have been successful in other islands in New Zealand and in the Seychelles and have been shown to have relatively limited impact on the native species. And the alternative is to continuously bait on the island, only to control the population, and we know that many rodent species develop resistances against…use toxins, and so the outcome of the current status quo would be very critical, and in the long run probably unsustainable.
Harry Recher: Given the rugged typography of Lord Howe, it's very, very difficult, it would be very, very difficult to eradicate Rattus rattus.
Frank Köhler: And another problem is even if you are successful with the rats, mice are another problem for many species as well. But I guess it's worth a shot, and there have been equally geographically complex islands have been successfully eradicated from rats. So I think there is a good chance, it's not a 100% chance but it's probably more in the 70%, 80%, 90% chance to get rid at least of one of the two species.
Audience member 4: Perhaps I might be able to help little bit there. My name is Barney Nichols, I've been on the board for 12 years. The rodent eradication decision, no go or go, will be made at the board meeting on the 11th and 12th of September. Currently we are waiting on three approvals from various government agencies which because the proposed eradication was such a debated and divisive topic on the island, we took as many steps as we could to try and garner as much support from the population as possible. And one of those was that we would keep them informed of everything that we did and we would address every one of their concerns. It now boils down basically to three. We got the go-ahead the other day from the office of the chief scientist and engineer regarding human health. The two that we are waiting on now, the two main ones, are one from the EPBC, which we feel quietly confident about.
The third one is from the APVMA, and that hit a snag called Barnaby Joyce when they moved the APVMA from Canberra to Armadale just recently, and they sent…a few of the staff resigned and there is some doubt as to whether we'll get it in time. I can't speak on behalf of the entire board but I believe if we get these sign-offs and these approvals it will go ahead. Planning of course is going ahead on the basis that it may happen, and we've had the helicopter people over there the week before last. Your comments regarding the terrain, these helicopter pilots were quite adamant that they could manage that terrain.
Their biggest concern I think is if we get our normal windy July and August. And just another comment you made about getting rid of the pines, I totally agree, and our biggest ally there at the moment is CASA because every time pines grow into the obstacle limitation, approach the airstrip, we have to get rid of them. Unfortunately the obvious solution—to build airstrips everywhere—is not quite going to work. But that's the updates I can give you on both the rodent eradication and the pine trees.
Kim McKay: Thank you so much Barney, that's very appreciated indeed. One last question? Yes?
Audience member 5: This is not a question so much as a confession. I've been a scientist for a long time. I'm not as old as I look, I dye my hair to make me look mature and I'll grow up one day. And that's actually quite relevant because I wasn't there on an expedition, I was there as an ecologist because my boss said to me one day, 'Do you want to go to Lord Howe Island?' So I thought about it and thought about it and said yes. And I was basically there to look at the vegetation, map the vegetation, which I did, but I was being paid to have fun. And any scientist that does fieldwork knows what I mean. It's not frivolous, it's creative fun, you do good science and you don't care about what the bastard politicians are doing because you know they're going to shaft you anyway. But you go ahead and you do the science the best you can, you put in your report, and you think to yourself, damn, we did a good job there, and you move on. And then 40 years later…are you sure it's 40 years? 46 years? Geez we were young then Harry. 46 years later I get an award.
When I first heard about this I was a bit embarrassed because why would I get an award for having fun? The poor taxpayer has paid me through my entire career to have fun as a scientist. Have we done good? Yes, we did good science, yes, we did things on Lord Howe Island, ended up with a World Heritage area. Some of my reports have led to national parks. So if there's anybody who is under the age of 25…
Kim McKay: There's one.
Audience member 5: There's one!
Kim McKay: We see a couple, there are a couple.
Audience member 5: You won't make much money as a scientist but damn you'll have a lot of fun, go for it, and you can change things. And who knows, in 45 years' time you'll get a lifetime achievement award. So thank you very much.
Kim McKay: I think we should invite you back to talk at Science Week to inspire all those young kids who are here at the museum at the moment. It's exactly what they need to hear.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking Frank Köhler, Sandy Ingleby, Harry Recher and Rebecca Johnson. And also thank you Merlin Crossley, and congratulations to our wonderful lifetime achievement award winners. It's a great honour to have you still associated, some of you very closely, as Fellows with the Australian Museum. And I know that we've got a lot to learn still from all of you. And I was watching…I don't know if anyone else saw it last night on the ABC there was a program about the Voyager space mission, which is still going, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. And I had the privilege when I worked at National Geographic to spend a few months at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I had an insight into that mission, as well as the Mars Rover ones.
But those people who worked on that Voyager mission back in the early '70s and who are quite elderly today but carried with them such a knowledge and were inspiring to listen to, and I think that's a great thing if we can tap into previous scientists at the museum as well as our current ones, but some of the elders who have a lot to offer. So thank you all very much. And please come and have a drink. Everyone is looking at Mark Eldridge and Rebecca…I don't know if they think they're going to feed the fish…I don't know if we're looking at Mark's knees or yours Rebecca, but anyway. But I want to thank you for coming tonight and I would like to ask you to stay and chat to people. We've got some wonderful food outside and drink, and thank you to the team here at the museum for organising this evening, thanks Alex, and come back again soon, thank you.