New insights revealed on mammal collection from 19th century expedition

1 Mar 2018
The Barque Chevert moored in Elizabeth Bay, 1875, prior to the departure of the New Guinea Expedition. Anonymous, ‘The New Guinea Expedition’, Australasian Sketcher June 12, 1875, 38 & 44.

A University of Queensland study has taken a fresh look at discoveries made in the 19th century by prominent Australian naturalists on board the Chevert expedition, and re-discovered the original collection sites, potentially aiding in future conservation efforts.

UQ School of Biological Sciences PhD student and associate lecturer at Murdoch University Graham Fulton said the French-built tall ship, the Cheverthosted Australia’s first scientific expedition in 1875 to northern Queensland, the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea.

Mr Fulton re-examined and reported on the 15 different mammal species or sub-species collected on the expedition staged 143 years ago.

“They varied from wallabies to bats and bandicoots and included the Bramble Cay Melomys, which recently became the first mammal known to go extinct due to human-induced climate change.”

Mr Fulton clarified missing and confused type localities for some of these mammals. The type locality refers to where an animal was collected, and thereby helps identify its species.

“It’s critical to know what the species you are trying to conserve actually is, while knowing where it comes from is needed, to know where to conserve it,” he said.

“Although this knowledge won’t bring back the Bramble Cay Melomys, it could be important for other species.”

Mr Fulton rediscovered the original specimen collection sites by combing through old newspaper articles and the personal diaries of the expeditioners and crosschecking them with the old scientific literature and museum specimens.

The mammals collected on the Chevert expedition in 1875 are discussed from information in expedition leader William Macleay’s journal, explorer Lawrence Hargrave’s diary and old newspaper articles.

Mr Fulton said expedition member William Petterd’s published reports gave the collection location of the type specimen of a New Guinea bandicoot, Isoodon macrourus moresbyensis.

Other collections are discussed, including kangaroos (Dorcopsis luctuosa and Macropus agilis) specimens of which reside in the Macleay Museum in Sydney, but cannot be confirmed as collected by the ChevertExpedition.

Mr Fulton said rodents, including the Bramble Cay Melomys, Melomys rubicola, had been added to the list of mammals originally reported by Edward Pierson Ramsay, then of the Australian Museum.  

The study is published in The Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales (the first science journal published in Australia and still publishing.)

Media: Mr Graham