Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 1)

To paraphrase Orson Welles, I don’t know much about insects, but I know what I like. If I knew more, I suspect I would like them even more. Both massively useful and massively destructive, they fascinate me with their different body forms. We couldn’t live without them as they pollinate our crops and provide chocolate, too. Yes, really.

The Australian Museum says:

It is estimated that Australia has over 300,000 insect species, but only 160,000 have been named or described.

Museum Victoria says:

Insect species make up … the largest of all animal groups. Of all the animal species on Earth that scientists have named and described, 75% are insects. … The number of individual insects estimated to be alive in the world at any one time is 10 quintillion, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. It is figured that for every human being on the planet there are about 200 million insects.

Sometimes it seems they are all in my backyard at once. 🙂

So when the Australian Geographic Society announced a citizen science project to Lord Howe Island with the Australian Museum, looking at insects, I jumped at the chance. I initially missed out on the 2016 trip as it was already fully booked, but asked to be notified if anyone dropped out. A couple did, and I took over their room at the last minute. The Australian Museum also dropped out and was replaced by three of CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection scientists. You can read an overview of the week by trip coordinator Luke Hanson here.

I’d been to Lord Howe Island three times before (click on ‘Lord Howe Island’ in the word cloud on the right for my other posts on the place) and didn’t think I’d go again, but this project was too enticing to ignore. The island is visually stunning with its mountains, lagoon, forests and tropical lagoon. It may be one of the most studied islands in the world from a natural history perspective, as a World Heritage Marine Park should be.

Mt Lidgbird (left) and Mt Gower (right); you can go with a guide to the top of Mt Gower to see the unique cloud forest and providence petrel breeding area

Mt Lidgbird (left) and Mt Gower (right); you can go (only with a guide as it’s not a good place to get lost) to the top of Mt Gower to see the unique cloud forest and providence petrel breeding area

Day 1

The two-hour flight from Brisbane was uneventful, unlike one other time when our 10-seater (I think – it was tiny) plane flew through a massive storm. That was in the days when cabin service was a biscuit tin and thermos passed round. The turbulence, thunder, lightning and hailstones beating on the windscreen were terrifying. I thought I was doing OK, but when I got off the plane at the other end, I couldn’t unclench my fists for several minutes! Fortunately, it was perfect flying weather this time, and remained so every day except the last one. Weather on the island is volatile, so we were fortunate to have a run of good days with max. temps in the early 20s (Celsius). Perfect for walking.

It’s always a thrill to see the island from the air, and the pilots kindly do a circuit before landing. Ball’s Pyramid was especially clear that day so we got a good view.

Ball's Pyramid; photo by National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Ball’s Pyramid; photo by National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Wikimedia Commons

The geology of Lord Howe is most interesting; it and Ball’s are remnants of a massive volcanic explosion six million-ish years ago. There’s more on the geology later in this post.

I’d arrived in mid-afternoon so there were a couple of hours to kill before the meeting at 6 pm. I arranged my gear in my room at Pinetrees and walked to the museum. (You either walk or ride a bike on the island as most things are close. There’s a couple of cars for hire, but you only need them if you can’t walk, ride or hitch a lift with the lodge staff.) It’s a compact but well-presented museum, with a room for natural history and one for social history, a meeting room, a café and an entrance room with the usual souvenirs for sale.

I walked back along the beach, looking at what was washed up and soaking in the atmosphere. You could take photos of the mountains every half hour and find the clouds on their tops changing shape. Heart urchins, a type of sea urchin, are very common in the lagoon and their tests often wash up. When alive, they have short brown spines.

Heart urchin, Breynia australasiae

Heart urchin, Breynia australasiae

heart-urchin-breynia-australasiae-2

The meeting was a get-to-know-you affair, where we each said who we were and what our interests were, and Luke Hanson, trip coordinator and Pinetrees owner/manager, laid out the approximate plan for the week. Weather always dictates what to do (or not do, if you want to go up Mt Gower on the eight-hour guided walk) so we had to be flexible. There were 20 participants and three scientists, quite a large ‘expedition’. Bry the Fly Guy (Dr Bryan Lessard) hadn’t arrived yet, but Dr Andreas Zwick and his co-moth-er Glenn Cocking had brought masses of equipment from the mainland. (They obviously didn’t have the 14 kg weight limit we ordinary folk had to adhere to, but how else are you going to get a couple of generators, lights, traps, a zillion plastic specimen bottles and alcohol – no, not the drinking sort but the preserving sort – onto the island?)

Last thing on the day’s agenda was the evening meal, which was full-on, three-course restaurant service. The food was delicious and healthy, and beautifully plated up, but the noise level was quite high because about 70 people were being served that night. There was another tour group of about 20 and miscellaneous other guests for the week. It was difficult to hold a conversation, and this was the case every night. We were certainly well fed throughout the trip, though, and the staff were all friendly, professional and courteous. Well done, Pinetrees, for your choice of staff.

After dinner I walked along the lagoon beach again, with the full moon shining on the lagoon and the mutton birds calling from their burrows – stunning stuff, the sort that brings tears of joy to your eyes.

Day 2

After brekky, we headed off through the forest to Soldier Creeks and along the Rocky Run Creek track to the ocean on the other side of the island. Andreas led the charge with insect net and stopped to tell us about anything insectival we found. This was also a reconnaisance mission to find areas suitable for putting up UV light traps at night to catch moths (Andreas’s main interest, although he’s also into intertidal crustaceans – a man after my own heart).

Andreas explaining about leaf miners

Andreas explains what leaf miners do; note the tall roots of the pandanus – much taller than those on the mainland – behind us

Abdreas checking for insects under a rotting log; Dean Hiscox (back) fills us in on various aspects of LHI ecology

Andreas checks for insects under a rotting log; Dean Hiscox, LHI environmental guide (back), fills us in on various aspects of LHI ecology. The log was carefully replaced in its original spot afterwards.

The kentia palm, a popular house plant since Victorian times and an important part of the LHI economy until recently (owing to overseas kentia-growing industries starting up), is endemic to Lord Howe. Some parts of the forest are pure kentias, with the occasional banyan.

Endemic kentia palm - note the red seeds

Endemic kentia palm – note the red seeds

Banyans (Ficus macrophylla) grow huge on LHI. These figs grow fibrous aerial prop roots that eventually reach the ground and thicken up to provide support for the vertical limbs, allowing a single tree to cover a large area, the largest one estimated to cover five acres. National Geographic published an article on research into the LHI banyans here.

The aerial roots eventually look like the main trunk

The fibrous aerial roots eventually look like the main trunk and support the spreading ‘arms’ of the fig.

When we got to where Rocky Run Creek meets the sea, Dean Hiscox described the geology of the region. The Lord Howe Island website says the old shield volcano:

has been eroded to one-fortieth its original size. Lord Howe’s crescent shape embraces a sheltered lagoon and the southernmost coral reef on the planet.

Balls Pyramid, Lord Howe and its islets form part of a chain of seamounts that extend north for 1,000km and are thought to be the result of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate moving northward over a stationary hotspot. The chain forms part of the undersea plateau known as the Lord Howe Rise.

The island itself is dominated by the basalt peaks of Mt Lidgbird, 777m and Mt Gower, 875m, at the southern end of the island – virtually all that remains of 6.4 million-year-old lava flows that filled a large volcanic caldera.

From the south, the island slopes more gently towards the north, with beautiful sandy beaches on the eastern and western sides, and a large portion of the island covered in dense forests. Spectacular cliffs buttress the eastern side, which offers dramatic views of the offshore rocks, islands and along the spine of the island south to Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower.

Dean Hiscox tells the geological history of LHI

Dean Hiscox tells the geological history of LHI while we sit on some volcanic remnants.

Then it was back through the forest via Mutton Bird Point to the lodge for lunch. Our postprandial walk was to the Middle Beach rock pools at, coincidentally, the lowest tide of the year.

Middle Beach rock pools

Middle Beach rock pools; Admiralty Islands, bird-breeding islands, on the back left horizon

This imperial hermit crab (Calcinus imperialis) had taken a shell of the endangered land snail, the Lord Howe flax snail (Placostylus bivaricosus). Apparently it is rare to see this land snail alive, although there are plenty of their empty shells about. You can read more about LHI’s endangered land snails here. (I’m taking my IDs primarily from Neville Coleman’s Lord Howe Island Marine Park Wildlife Guide and some internet sites; all mistakes are entirely mine.)

Calcinus imperialis (hermit crab) in shell of Placostylus bivaricosus

Calcinus imperialis (hermit crab) in shell of endangered land snail Placostylus bivaricosus

Only one species of turban shell (Turbo cepoides) has been found on LHI, unlike the three (T. undulatus, torquatus and imperialis) in Australia.

Turbo cepoides

Turbo cepoides

Turbo cepoides, showing operculum

Turbo cepoides, showing its thick operculum

Waiting for the tide to come in: possibly the rug anemone Stichodactyla tapetum

Waiting for the tide to come in: I’m guessing (red, left) tuberculate sea urchin (Heliocidaris tuberculata) and (blue) the rug anemone (Stichodactyla tapetum)

Hermann's sea cucumber (Stichopus hermanni)

Hermann’s sea cucumber (Stichopus hermanni)

black-fringed-sea-cucumber (covered in sand, Holothuria leucospilots)

Black sea cucumber (covered in sand, Holothuria atra)

I'm not sure of the species of this cone

I’m not sure of the species of this cone – Conus lividus?

Elongate giant clam, Tridacna maxima - this one was less than a foot long

Elongate giant clam, Tridacna maxima – this one was less than a foot long

Sea hare, Aplysia dactylomela

Sea hare, Aplysia dactylomela

Ivory cone, Conus-eburneus

Ivory cone, Conus eburneus

The ivory cone doesn’t look ivory-coloured when alive, but when dead the thin yellow periostracum (organic coat) rots off, leaving the black and white pattern.

White-spined sea urchin and bluebottle

White-spined sea urchin and bluebottle

Beautiful pattern inside this crab shell

Beautiful pattern inside this crab shell (probably the common box crab, Calapa hepatica)

Sooty terns were incubating chicks on the ledges above the rock platforms, and some young chicks were evident. There must  have been thousands of them on the island, each nesting just out of pecking range of another bird.

Sooty terns and chicks, Middle Beach

Sooty terns and chicks, Middle Beach

After dinner, Andreas took some volunteers to set up some UV light traps and catch anything that turned up in a couple of hours. Andreas and Glen would go out to the trap sites at night and catch the moths on the sheet, snatching sleep where they could until dawn. Then it was back to the research station to store the specimens and do some pinning and DNA sampling during the day.

Light trap for capturing moths and other night-flying insects, set up in Stephens Reserve

UV light trap for attracting and capturing moths, beetles and other night-flying insects, one of two set up in Stevens Reserve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll continue the trip report in the next post.

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3 Responses to Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 1)

  1. janebeau says:

    Fascinating stuff, Joy, and some lovely pics! Granddaughter will be salivating 🙂

  2. Kath says:

    Lovely photos! Thank you.

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