Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Sea Urchin Science Centre & Gallery

Angela Heathcote, Ashley Miskelly was given a sea urchin by his mother as a child. It sparked a lifelong passion, ABC News, 1 Aug 2023

The weird world of sea urchins hooked Ashley as a kid. Now, he’s the expert (ABC News: Angela Heathcote and Patrick Wiecks).

The small Blue Mountains town of Kurrajong seems an odd place for a sea urchin museum — being almost 80 kilometres from any Sydney beach.

But at the end of an unassuming cul-de-sac you’ll find a collection of over 20,000 expertly-curated specimens painstakingly prepared and displayed by local sea urchin expert Ashley Miskelly.

“This is a spectacular specimen,” Mr Miskelly said, holding up an extraordinarily large pencil urchin.

“It looks a little bit like a landmine. In fact, some years ago there was a report of somebody finding some stranded specimens [on the beach] and they thought they actually were landmines and called the police.”

Next, Mr Miskelly gravitates towards a dainty-looking urchin he’s nicknamed the “snowflake urchin”.

This pencil urchin (left) and “snowflake” urchin, as Ashley calls it, are among some of his favourites in the collection.(Supplied: Patrick Wiecks).

“The spines have evolved into these structures so they look like tree branches. The overall effect really does look more like a snowflake. So, no two are alike,” he said.

Mr Miskelly’s most prized urchin, however, is tucked away out of sight.

From a large draw, he rummages around to find a plain-looking heart urchin.

“I think this has to be my favourite,” Mr Miskelly said.

“You can see these amazingly symmetrical patterns and all sorts of crazy designs. It really got me in.”

Ashley says the patterns, symmetry, and colour of sea urchins fascinated him as a child.(Supplied: Patrick Wiecks).

That was back in 1982 when Mr Miskelly received the urchin from his mother following a trip to Lord Howe Island.

Since then, he has become an international expert on sea urchins, discovering new species, publishing books and contributing to scientific papers, while running one of the world’s only dedicated sea urchin museums.

All without ever undertaking any formal study of the spiny creatures.

Expert without a degree

As a talented naturalist with an extremely good eye for differentiating between sea urchin species, academia seemed like the obvious path for Mr Miskelly.

But he decided to take a different approach.

“A lot of people who wrote papers back in the 1800s describing new species were often people who didn’t necessarily have degrees or anything like that … but they were very naturally gifted to do that work through being observant,” he said.

“A lot of the things that you learn as a taxonomist [are] not in books.”

He said it wasn’t always necessary to learn through university.

Ashley Miskelly has been diving in Sydney Harbour for 30 years. Scientists say he’s made an invaluable contribution.(Supplied: Ashley Miskelly).

Not being tied to an academic institution has given Mr Miskelly the freedom to mix his scientific work with adventure.

He can become fixated on a particular question, such as how far up into Sydney Harbour, towards the fresher water, can sea urchins be found.

“I asked a scientist at the Australian Museum and they said they didn’t know, probably because it’s too dangerous,” Mr Miskelly said.

“Bull sharks, time of year, and low visibility or boat traffic. But that spurred me on to wanting to find out for myself.

Learning to scuba dive at a young age changed Ashley Miskelly’s life and made it easier to study sea urchins.(Supplied: Ashley Miskelly)

“It was evident that there was a lot more diversity down there in not just sea urchins, but molluscs, and everything else.

“It’s good to find out things for yourself.”

Like a ‘breath of fresh air’

Maria Byrne, an echinoderm expert and professor of marine biology at the University of Sydney, has regularly crossed paths with Mr Miskelly.

She has taken her students to the museum in Kurrajong, and Mr Miskelly contributed to the sea urchin chapter of her book on the echinoderms of Australia — the group sea urchins belong to.

“I recognise that these citizens, when they have a passion for something, can outstrip the academics with respect to knowledge,” Professor Byrne said.

“When someone like me, who has the ability to write and publish scientific papers, values someone like Ashley, who has such great data and great insight, then it’s a perfect match.”

Ashley Miskelly looks for urchin samples with the Sydney skline lighting the sky.(Supplied: Patrick Wiecks).

According to Professor Byrne, Mr Miskelly’s most important contributions to the science of sea urchins is his outreach through the museum and his generosity.

“Ashley gets people interested and passionate. A lot of people wouldn’t realise how beautiful sea urchins are. They think they’re spiny things off shore,” she said.

“Ashley’s got such great knowledge and he’s passionate about sharing that knowledge and sometimes academics are just so busy, you’re so stretched all the time.

“To have someone come in that’s so passionate about the creatures I work on is a breath of fresh air. He gives me a boost.

“He reminds me of why I think my animals are so cool.”

See also: Sea Urchin Science Centre and Gallery

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