Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 4)

Day 5

Even after a full day yesterday, half the group were up for more walking and went with Bryan up Malabar and Kim’s Lookout to catch flies.

Hail, mountains! We who are about to 'fly' salute you!

Hail, mountains! We who are about to ‘fly’ salute you! (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Yep, it's a long way from the top

Yep, it’s a looong way to the bottom. (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Meanwhile back at the lodge, it was time for more lab work with moths. Andreas had us sorting the previous night’s catch by gross morphology – colour, shape, wing pattern, labial palp structure, and whether the wings are spread or not. Microscopes and hand lenses were essential. This was what I enjoyed the most.

Classifying moths

Roughly classifying moths

Moth morphology

Moth morphology; the labial palp is under the eye

After lunch was a trip to Ned’s Beach, and more snorkelling for many. The fish there are used to being fed and more or less demand it of anyone venturing into the water. The rock platforms on the northerly point of the beach are splendid at low tide for critters.

Ned's Beach. Sooty terns nest along the edge of the beach and on the Admiralty Islands (rear right)

Ned’s Beach – Malabar and Kim’s Lookout are over the central hill. Sooty terns nest along the edge of the sand below the cliffs. The Admiralty Islands are rear right.

I’d been nipped by enthusiastic fish while snorkelling at Ned’s before, so thought I’d instead walk casually back to the lodge just seeing what I would see. One sight was the white terns (Gyris alba), which come to LHI to breed from October to April, and are very cute. I had a lazy afternoon meandering around the place on my own.

White terns nest in their hundreds on LHI.

White terns nest in their hundreds on LHI.


Later in the afternoon some in the group (including some keen Pinetrees staff) helped shift the generators, fuel, light, traps, camping equipment and evening snacks from the Goat House to a flat area at Rocky Run so that Andreas and Glenn could have a night out in the melaleuca forest (they had spent the previous two nights up at the Goat House). Luke described it thus:

Apparently they had a productive night, while we slept comfortably in mozzie free conditions after a 4 course dinner, good bottle of wine and pre-bedtime hot shower. The next morning, the same band of Lord Howe sherpas started with a 5.45am espresso followed by a quick charge back to Rocky Run to collect Andreas, Glenn and the gear. Somehow it got heavier.

Day 6

With a weather bureau forecast of snow for the next few days (what were they thinking? although there can be fierce storms, it never snows on subtropical LHI), we took a softer approach to the day. 🙂


Luke and staff are setting up an organic garden at Pinetrees. Since supplies come over from the mainland by ship only every fortnight, it’s great for slightly fresher veggies and herbs. He was keen to see what sorts of flies and other insects might be there, and gave us a run-down of the composting and soil improvement processes (planting lucerne and barley). Luke wrote:

Insect sampling in Pinetrees organic garden

Insect sampling in Pinetrees organic garden

After gambolling in the garden, there was more moth ID-ing (goody!) by those not volunteering to find Nemo. For over 10 years, Dean Hiscox has been surveying the endemic (to Lord Howe and Norfolk islands) McCulloch’s clownfish (Amphiprion mccullochi) as an indicator of reef health. McCulloch’s is black and white rather than orange and white. The clownfish were counted by the snorkellers over several reefs in certain survey zones in the lagoon, ranging from 8 to 45 on some bommies. The final figure for each reef was consistent with previous surveys, indicating that conditions have been fairly stable over time.

After a BBQ lunch at the lagoon, some of us walked with Andreas to Settlement Beach, where he snorkelled with a net to bring back seagrass so we minions could sort for isopods, amphipods, copepods and suchlike. I enjoyed this – it took me back to my old job in the marine invertebrates department of the South Australian Museum.

Sorting the 'pods' at Settlement Beach

Sorting the ‘pods’ at Settlement Beach


What Andreas was looking for

Day 7

There were few moths to sort from last night, so some of us went for a walk through the Valley of the Shadows to the Clear Place. The air was indeed clear and we were able to see Ball’s Pyramid peeking around the corner of the land to the north. Others went back to Goat House with Bryan to collect his malaise traps. We heard that there were no planes coming to or from Sydney today because of inclement weather in Sydney, so some folks could not get off the island, messing up their plans. (This also happened the next day so I couldn’t leave, but that is another story. It’s something to be aware of when planning a trip to LHI.)

Balls Pyramid in the distance

Balls Pyramid in the distance

After lunch, we helped sort Brian’s flies. Then it was time for a wrap-up of what had been achieved during the week. Andreas thought that we had about 150 species of moths and Bryan had two new species of soldier fly – the second one was found in the Pinetrees organic garden. He was thrilled!

Fly sorting with Bryan

Fly sorting with Bryan


Andreas gave us a talk about moths in general. He described the different taxonomic divisions and told us some fun facts about moths:

  • They have a short adult life. Most adults don’t feed (they leave that to their caterpillars). The females stay where they are and emit a pheromone to attract males.
  • Moths that are preyed on by bats fly have evolved ultrasound detection and sonar-jamming. They emit clicks that confuse the echoes of the bat’s own ultrasonic clicks. The tympanic (hearing) organs are on the moth’s chest, or at the dorsal (underneath) base of the abdomen, or on the ventral (top) side, or in the proboscis – one of these but not all together on the same moth!
  • Some poisonous moths (because their caterpillars eat plants with toxins in them and store those toxins in their flesh) give off warning ultrasonic clicks that they are poisonous. This, naturally, is mimicked by some other non-poisonous moths.
  • Other defences are caterpillar camouflage; startle displays; repellant secretions or cyanide droplets; warning colouration; hairs (protection against wasp and fly larval parasites); and irritating hairs (causing rash in humans).
  • If you watch David Attenborough’s programs, you’ll know that, in Madagascar, Darwin’s moth has the longest proboscis in the world – 40 cm, to sip from a particularly long-trumpeted orchid.
  • Moth caterpillars are parasitic on cicadas and leafhoppers.
  • There is a vampire moth, which drinks tears and pierces the flesh of fruit and elephants, drinking their blood (!).
  • Some moth larvae live in fresh water, feeding on plants or on snails that they capture with silk).
Andreas gives a general presentation on moths

Andreas gives a general presentation on moths. (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Photo by Luke Hanson

Photo by Luke Hanson

Staff were also entranced by the moths.

Pinetrees staff were entranced by the display.

Finally, at dusk we all went to Ned’s Beach to see the flesh-footed shearwaters come in from their rafts in the ocean. They literally drop out of the sky, recover quickly and dash to their own burrows to feed their chicks on regurgitated fish they caught that day. It is quite an experience.

Here are the intrepid citizen scientists. If anyone wants to go on the trip next year, contact Pinetrees directly to secure a place. If you’ve never been to Lord Howe or want to do something different while there, it’s worth it.

From back left: Luke, Andreas (photo by the chief Pinetrees chef)

Back left to right: Luke (Pinetrees manager/owner), Andreas, Glenn (both CSIRO); far right back Bryan; and a bunch of keen citizen scientists. (Photo by Pinetrees’ restaurant manager)

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