Month: May 2017

Seashore Critters

The beach may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Windy, hot, dry, barren and occasionally flooded by seawater, it’s a hostile environment for small animals. And yet there are some species that manage to make the beach their home. I spent a day at Mōwhanau recently with children from Brunswick School, turning over driftwood and logs and looking for interesting critters.

1. hopper

A common beach sandhopper (Bellorchestia quoyana), when examined closely, reveals its crustacean nature.

Photo: Crispychipp / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

Sandhoppers are the most abundant denizen of the beach. Under every piece of driftwood or seaweed is a multitude, which spring away or scurry down burrows when disturbed. These little creatures, properly known as amphipods, are actually crustaceans, not insects. They are cousins to crabs, crayfish and even the slaters in your garden. Like all crustaceans, they breathe through gills which they have to keep moist. Most of the roughly 10,000 species live in the sea, but amphipods can be found in any damp environment. Some Southern Hemisphere hoppers even live far from the coast in forest leaf litter.

2. log

A log, like this one found on Mōwhanau Beach, is like a tiny oasis, providing shelter and food for a whole community of invertebrates
Photo: Whanganui Regional Museum

 

On the beach amphipods burrow down to damp sand during the day and come out at night to feed on anything the tide has washed up. Close up, they resemble tiny humpbacked shrimps, ranging in colour from dark grey to pinkish-orange, and have powerful hind legs for jumping. Sandhoppers are an important part of the beach ecosystem, not just as food for larger animals, but as scavengers that break down seaweed and carry those nutrients as deep as 30 cm into the sand.

Another creature found under beach logs is the native seashore earwig (Anisolabis littorea). These are flightless, and much larger than the introduced European earwigs in your garden. Their Māori name, matā, is also the word for obsidian – black volcanic glass – because they’re similarly shiny and black.

Seashore earwigs are omnivores, feeding on seaweed or catching amphipods with their nippers. Unlike most insects, they take good care of their young; after mating, the female drives off the male and guards her clutch of eggs and helpless babies. Once the baby earwigs get large enough to fend for themselves, all bets are off. They can flee the nest, eat each other, or eat their mum (and she’ll happily snack on them if they try). Female matā have long straight nippers while males have curved asymmetrical ones.

3. earwig

The native seashore earwig or matā (Anisolabis littorea) is a beautiful glossy black creature found under beach debris all around Aotearoa
Photo: Lisa Bennett / NatureWatchNZ CC-BY-NC, with permission

Although they look fearsome, curving their pincers over their back like a scorpion, I’ve handled earwigs for years and never been nipped. The kids from Brunswick School were initially cautious, but when I showed them how you can gently let a big coastal earwig crawl from hand to hand, they all wanted to try.

The “ooh yuck!” response when presented with a creepy-crawly is not innate in children, but learned from their parents, peers and authority figures. There are native invertebrate species going extinct right now. Voters don’t care because bugs are “yucky”. Museums like Te Papa and Puke Ariki are putting on insect exhibitions to help fight this perception. If we adults are frightened of harmless little insects, it’s not the insect’s fault. We need to get over our irrational fears, model good behaviour for kids, and, on our next visit the beach, turn over some logs with them and see what we find.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum.

International Museum Day!

IMD 2017 banner

International Museum Day (IMD) is celebrated on 18 May every year. The objective of this day is to raise awareness of the fact that, “Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.” Participation in IMD is growing among museums all over the world. In 2015, more than 35,000 museums participated in the event in some 145 countries.

This year the Whanganui Regional Museum is closed for seismic strengthening and cannot offer an IMD programme. We do urge you, however, to explore the theme for IMD and give some thought to how museums might deliver responsible messages through their exhibitions, education and public programmes and their publications.

The theme for 2017 is:

Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums

We define ourselves through important and fundamental historic events. Contested histories, or historical interpretations of human conflict and war, are not isolated traumatic events. These histories, which are often little known or misunderstood, resonate universally, as they concern and affect us all.

Museum collections offer reflections of memories and representations of history. This day will therefore provide an opportunity to show how museums think about and depict traumatic memories to encourage visitors to think beyond their own individual experiences.

By focusing on the role of museums as hubs for promoting peaceful relationships between people, this theme highlights how the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation.

Acknowledgement and thanks to International Council of Museums for information, text and media support.

Hot Cross Buns

One a penny, two a penny … They may cost a bit more today, but hot cross buns are still eaten as part of many people’s Easter season celebrations. Although supermarkets often have had them on the shelves months before, these treats are traditionally eaten on Good Friday.

2. Nursery rhyme

The traditional poem “Hot Cross Buns” and illustration as appeared in The Old, Old Nursery Rhymes, 1907 (ref:1995.56.4

From a Christian perspective, the buns are eaten to celebrate the end of Lent – the 40 days before Easter that are traditionally a time of fasting or observing other forms of restricted behaviour. The cross on the top is meant to signify the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and the spices represent those used in the embalming processes of the time.

One story of the significance of buns at Easter goes back to a monk from St Albans in England, Father Thomas Rocliffe. In 1361 he made spiced buns marked with a cross for distribution to the poor on Good Friday.

Another goes back even further to the Saxon goddess of light, Ēostre or Ostara, who later gave her name to the Christian Easter. She was celebrated during spring by baking and eating spiced buns which had a cross marked on top to represent the four seasons of the year.

From these mixed origins, the buns became increasingly popular. When Christianity became the dominant religion in the British Isles, the buns were banned, possibly because the Church feared the magical powers of the buns. What powers could a bun have? Well, some people believed the humble hot cross bun was more than just a food. They were believed to ward off evil spirits and they would protect a ship from wrecking if they were carried aboard for the voyage. If they were hung in the kitchen they would prevent any fires from occurring, and would also ensure any bread baked in that kitchen would turn out perfectly.

Some believed if you shared a hot cross bun with a friend it guaranteed your friendship for the following year. And others kept them for medicinal purposes, believing that they would cure a patient of illness. It was also thought that if they were baked on Good Friday they would not spoil or grow mould.

The buns became so popular that Queen Elizabeth I passed a law declaring they could only be sold on Good Friday, at Christmas or for a funeral. To get around this law, people started making them at home and it became too hard to police.

1. Chronicle piece

This article from the Wanganui Chronicle newspaper on 23 April 1892 shows one minister’s displeasure at his congregation eating hot cross buns at the wrong time (ref:1998.41.348)

Soon these buns were welcomed back in the shops and today there are a large variety of hot cross buns available – traditional spicy and fruity, fruitless, chocolate, caramel, apple and cinnamon; and if you make them yourself you can put whatever you like in them.

The oldest known hot cross bun is over 200 years old. A couple in Essex, England, own this bun, accompanied by a letter stating it was made on Good Friday in 1807.  Rather than having the cross on the top made from  flour and water mix, it has been impressed with a blade, and there appears to be considerably less fruit than in today’s varieties. Although it is rock hard, it hasn’t gone mouldy, so maybe there is truth to some of the legends.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.