It's alive!

Not all animals in the Museum are stuffed or pickled, as intern Nadiye Cicek discovers.

Goliath Stick Insect

Goliath Stick Insect
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

Don’t expect live tigers anytime soon, but the Australian Museum has quite a collection of live animals on display – if you know where to look.

‘Surprisingly, museums have been keeping live animals for a long time’, says Chris Hosking, one of the Museum’s interpretative officers. ‘Some of the information we have about egg-laying and other biological processes was discovered by scientists keeping animals in the Museum.’

For some, the idea of live animals in a museum may seem odd, but the Museum’s collection has grown to more than 50 species, thanks to the efforts of the Museum's resident naturalist, Martyn Robinson, and others over the years. With a passion for things that creep and crawl, Chris was more than happy to show me around the live collection in the Museum.

On display

The Museum has three areas where visitors can see live animals on display. ‘Surviving Australia is where we have the majority of them’, said Chris. ‘They include freshwater crocodiles, lizards, frogs, marine invertebrates and a python!

‘Also on Level 2 is Search & Discover where you can interact with stick insects (and maybe take a selfie or two!) and Kidspace, where the kids can interact with green tree frogs and hermit crabs.’

Chris is at pains to point out that the Museum still needs to collect ‘dead things’.

‘Sometimes people discount the Museum as a place of dead things. They forget that we’re not collecting them because we like dead things but because we need a record of what’s out there so we can help conserve it. Where it is relevant, we can use live animals to create those lasting memories and get a message across.’

Some of the creatures in the Museum’s care are quite rare. ‘One of my favourite animals that we have at the moment is the Crucifix Frog, Notaden bennetti, and these are kept in captivity in only a few places!’

Behind the scenes

The Museum recently established a new behind-the-scenes room for its expanding live collection, with areas for housing the animals when they’re not on display, preparing food, a workbench and all the other bits and pieces for developing displays.

‘The area is as natural as possible’, said Chris. ‘It has fluctuating temperatures and natural lighting as well as the background noise of chirping crickets, which we breed as live reptile food.’

The off-exhibit collection at the Museum began humbly, with just a cage or two on Chris’s desk. From there, a small office became home to the live collection and with further expansions the move to a new facility was needed.

Chris works hard to make sure that all the animals’ needs are met, and he enthusiastically describes the collection as ‘what gets me up in the morning’.

‘In designing the new animal room, we had to look critically at the needs of the animals and ensure it met all requirements for workplace health and safety, and animal ethics.’

The new room is a step in the right direction for Chris who dreams of developing the area into a self-sufficient and accommodating space for possible future exhibitions.


Chris said that most people get a small shock when they see live animals in the Museum setting. ‘People are surprised to see them. This is a powerful mechanism [for educating visitors] and people are more likely to remember things with surprise rather than something that fulfils an existing template.

‘Some don’t believe that the creatures on display are real and are left wondering. A typical comment from visitors meeting a freshwater crocodile in Surviving Australia is, “It’s a museum – they wouldn’t have a real one … would they?”’

If you haven’t seen the live animal displays make sure to pop into the Museum with the family and take a look. You never know what you might find!

Chris’s tips for buying a reptile

Licensed pet shops in New South Wales can now sell certain lizards, snakes and turtles. But before you buy a scaly pet, do your research!

Why choose a reptile? Reptiles are amazing animals, but think about it – they make very different pets to cats or dogs!

What’s your commitment? Any pet needs your commitment to care for them, and some reptiles can live for decades.

Where will you keep it? Reptiles need proper housing, heating and lighting. How much space will it need? How big will it grow?

What does it eat? Where will you get a continuous supply of live crickets, mealworms or frozen rats?

Where’s the vet? Reptile vets are not common and can cost more than other vets. Where can you take your reptile if it becomes sick or injured?

What to look for Only buy from a licensed supplier, not online. Does it (the animal, not the supplier) have all its toes (unless it’s a snake!), an intact tail and a generally healthy look?

You need a licence! For details, visit wildlifelicences/ReptileKeepersLicence

Nadiye Cicek, Intern, Science Communication

First published in Explore 35(2), Spring edition, 2013. 

Nadiye Cicek
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