Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Freaky Giant Shark! Tasmanian Tigers! Drag Queens! To Singapore!


Lyn had decided to throw a dinner party for me prior to my departure to Singapore. Mexican food is the cuisine most shamelessly and egregiously butchered in Asia, so we decided to introduce our Australian friends to the wonders of chili, cornbread, taco dip and guacamole. We are kind, kind souls. I got the chili burbling merrily away, shed a single tear at the thought of what passes for "Mexican" food in Asia, and departed with Mike for downtown. The Western Australian Museum awaited.

I'm a total museum nut. Wherever there is one, I'm there. Double plus points are added if the museum is old and has a large collection of stuffed, mounted, or otherwise preserved Dead Critters. The Perth Museum, to my immense personal satisfaction, happens to contain all these happy things and more. It is one of the most enjoyable natural history museums I've seen - they manage to do a lot of interesting things with a not so-huge space. As a North American, it's especially fascinating to see a European or American style museum done up with Australia's pertinent wildlife, historical artifacts, and art. The large and aggressively colonial building also has an air about it that simply screams "IMPORTANT ACTS OF NATURALISM OCCUR HERE," which pleases me inordinately. You simply shouldn't miss it if you're in Perth.

I started with the Room of Bones. As previously mentioned, my lovely cousin Laura is a paleontologist in training, with a particular focus on, well, dead stuff. The girl has a serious and life long affection for bones. I also see the inherent charm and pleasing aspects of Dead Stuff, so was inordinately thrilled with this exhibit. How often do you get to see marsupial bones? And stuffed, mounted marsupials with staring little button eyes, begging you from beyond the grave to please please please don't exterminate my species I will be very sad? Not often, that's what. (And too bad about your species, little furry marsupial thing. Terribly sorry).

I had never seen a Koala skeleton before, and I am willing to place bets that you haven't either (unless you're Australian, which is cheating). It is extremely funny looking and a bit unnerving. Just like koalas.

God, screw koalas.

The museum had a superb butterfly exhibit, which I stared at in complete kaleidoscopic awe for a good long while.

I am usually politely ambivalent to butterflies, but an entire wall of the things - and Australia does some funny looking specimens - was completely striking.

I could photograph these all day.

This is a Tasmanian Tiger, which I am entirely certain none of you have ever seen before. This is because, of course, they are almost certainly extinct. The Thylacine was once Australia's biggest surviving marsupial predator, and, prior to the arrival of humanity about 60,000 years ago, ranged all over the continent. Aboriginal people and their dingos eventually pushed them back onto the island of Tasmania, where they lived in relative prosperity and comfort (for a carnivorous marsupial).

This all went straight to hell when European settlers arrived in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The Thylacine was regarded as a nuisance predator and a menace to sheep (and made for a lovely rug), and was wiped out with remarkable speed and efficiency by modern weaponry. Some were kept and bred successfully in zoos, but the species's downfall occurred rapidly and in a time not particularly moved by conservationist concerns: they were extinct by 1936.

In the 1930s, video footage was taken of the last Thylacine, which provides us with an eery and almost unbearably poignant window into the past. The final one died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. Among the animal's interesting adapations was a backwards facing pouch (like the wombat) and a remarkably widely opening jaw, as can be seen in the video. They also possessed the ability to perform a bipedal "hop" in the manner of the kangaroo, and could stand on two legs for a long period of time. They often communicated in reasonably dog-like barks or yips, and possessed a much more mild and retiring attitude then its bad-ass cousin, the Tasmanian Devil.

Some vague hope remains that the Thylacine may still be slinking around remote bits of Tasmania. It's not entirely impossible - if there's anywhere where things can go undiscovered for a terrifically long time, it's Australia - but it's definitely unlikely. Sightings are registered on a quite regular basis, and are written up at this vastly interesting website. I myself am trying hard to keep the dream alive.

I read that comparative anatomy professors enjoy tossing in a thylacine skull with a dog skull in exams, just to catch people. There are minor differences. Laura could probably tell. I sure as hell could not.

The Perth Museum possesses, to my extreme nerdy delight, a mummified Thylacine body. It was found in a cave on the mainland in WA and is thus over 3,000 (4,700 is probable) years old - that's the date when the species was pushed back to Tasmania by introduced dogs. It's a fascinating thing to look at. That is perhaps the greatest appeal of Australia to me and to other zoology inclined minds. Nowhere else provides so many fantastic windows into the past.

HOLY CRAP IT'S A CARNOTAURUS. This was a fantastic display, especially because it made extremely loud roaring and stomping sounds, scaring the ever loving crap out of any nearby children. Note the highly realistic ribbon of drool.

The Murchison Meteorite. Does not derive, sadly, from Western Australia's Smallest Meteroite Crater, which we almost decided to drive out to see, but then suddenly regained our sanity. Meteorites please me, especially the notion that they ever so occasionally whang innocent old ladies upside the head.

Here, have a sign. It'll interpret shit.

There was a great display of traditional Aboriginal foods. Here's a tasty repast. Wichetty grubs, local fruits, and some delicious, juicy Quokka. Actually, I am willing to bet that quokka tastes awesome. Adorable fluffy things almost always do.

IT'S STROMATOLITES! BACK AND BETTER THEN EVER! Well, not doing much at all really.

Yes, it's another Eurypterid. They make my heart go pitter-pat. I think I would probably marry a guy who just presented me with a slab with one of these puppies in it instead of a ring.

Might be hard to wear, though.

The museum has a fantastic Aboriginal gallery, which pays due (and longly awaited) attention to the horrifying treatment Australia's natives recieved at the hands of European interlopers. It's also a great introduction to the incredible continuity of culture the Aborigines enjoy (or, uh, enjoyed). The Aborigines have been in Australia for upwards of 60,000 years and can boast the oldest continuous culture on earth. Some speculate that their religion, art, and beliefs is indicative of what all of our ancestors believed at the very beginning of things. Pleasant to think about, innit it?

I was particularly drawn to these "cave" Wandjina paintings, which illustrate ancestral beings of the Western Kimberley. The eyes are eery. These images now crop up occasionally in graffiti all over Australia. Avid conspiracy theorists (like our friend from Cervantes) may note they look a lot like the "Grey" aliens that so dearly love to probe retired desert dwellers. Far out, man.

Here, have a sign.

The crown jewel of the museum is definitely what I casually refer to as the Freaky Giant Shark. Which is an entirely accurate moniker for the thing. It is in fact a Megamouth shark specimen preserved in some sort of formaldyhyde compound. For reasons presumably known only to the museum, it has thoughtfully been plonked down in a tank outside.

There aren't any signs pointing this out.. To actually see it you must be 1. the type of person who is exceedingly committed to seeing a freaky giant shark and will do research and ask around, or 2. the type of person who will wander with a cup of coffee through the grounds, poke your head into a small outbuiliding, look down, and go, "Christ, look at that giant freaky shark!". It was a very satisfying experience, I must say. The Megamouth is one of only a few specimens preserved for human viewing, and it's a rare freaky giant shark indeed. There's a leaky looking crack in the glass that covers it, but this does not seem to concern anyone much. They'll be sorry when the shark comes back to life and devours half the city, won't they be?

These deeply offputting critters were only discovered in 1976, and have occasionally shown up on beaches since. They also show up occasionally in Asian fisherman's nets, leading to comical situations wherein scientists desperately attempt to photograph or preserve the specimen, while aforementioned fishermen calmly hack the flesh up and sell it for the stock pot. (Presumably megamouth tastes at least decent.) They're completely harmless to humans, surviving entirely on plankton and jellyfish. They are also among the planet's laziest feeders, preferring to float along in the deep ocean with their mouth open, hoping stuff will swim in. I wish I could do that.

After the museum, Mike and I decided to make like a Megamouth and acquire some food, preferably in as lazy a fashion as possible. We finally settled on a sushi place and tucked into some sashimi. The restaurant's outside eating area just so happened to be a front row seat to the Australian Sex Party rally occurring in the downtown square. The rally was helpfully supplied with a lip-syncing drag queen in a flamenco dress and a profusion of people in bondage pants, mohawks, and other "punk" clothing items that are just a few years past uncool in the USA. Bless their hearts.

Aussie elections are going on right now, you see, and they are entirely too complex for me to even attempt to explain (nor, I suspect, would anyone care). Apparently everyone is compelled by law to vote, and also gets TWO votes - first choice, second choice. This allows room for things like the Sex Party. The rally particularly addressed the issue of same sex marriage, which seems to be up for the voters this go round. I do hope it passes. Us dysfunctional Californians finally did it after much sturm und drang, after all. Aussies better step up. The rally did perfectly illustrate what is so pleasant about Perth. It is safe, clean, attractive, and functional, and it is also perfectly willing to host Sex Party rallys, drag queen shows, and all matter of tomfoolery in its public civic areas. How decent. How lovely. It's almost enough to make you want to spit.

I headed back to the apartment for a nap, figuring that it would do to get all the sleep I possibly could prior to touching down in Singapore. Furthermore, I wanted to be on my game for the dinner party. I had lots of guacamole to make.

Lyn's lovely friends came over soon enough, and we dished out guacamole, chili, and incredibly delicious New Zealand wine. My flight left at 12:00 midnight, so I attempted to fortify myself with spicy food. I can think of few nicer ways to say goodbye to an entire continent then with copious amounts of tasty food and wine. There were even mini ice cream cones. My God.

Lyn makes a startlingly good (and bad for you) corn pudding.

We toddled off to the airport (to use an Aussieism Lyn has ferociously adopted) and sat around in the airport for a while, marveling over the remarkable price of Australian books. I finally said a tearful (not really) goodbye to Lyn, shouldered my bag and accompanying whaleshark/pillow, and headed off to Singapore. After being forced to go through security three different times due to offending gel products (which I had packed according to American standards, although THIS IS NOT AMERICA the ever so pleased security guard informed me), I got on the plane. Which no one was on. Economy first class it was, with an entire row to myself. Slept the sleep of death.

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