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Review of the 2016 Australian Geographic Expedition

30-Oct-2016

Catching insects below Goat House on Lord Howe Island

We just finished our inaugural Australian Geographic Expedition to Lord Howe Island and our guests returned to their distant homes with a mix of sunburn, salty eyes, scratches, bruises, sore muscles and blisters, along with amazing photos, new friends and a good dose of fulfilment. After all, we discovered some new species – but more about that soon.

The Expedition was hosted by the Chair of the Australian Geographic Society, Jo Runciman, and CSIRO scientists Andreas Zwick and Bryan Lessard (aka Bryan the Fly Guy). Together with 20 ‘citizen scientists’, many of whom were real scientists on holiday, Jo, Andreas and Bryan set forth to better understand Lord Howe Island’s insect diversity. You see, it’s kind of old school to discover new mammals – sadly we’re losing more than we’re finding around the world – but insects are the great, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, “known unknown”. It turns out that insects are everywhere – in the forest, creek, sand and soil, plus a particularly nasty one in my brown rice jar, and most are still undiscovered or undescribed.

Andreas and Bryan work for the CSIRO Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra, and their job is to discover, describe and classify new insects. They even get to name them. Bryan recently named a new species of horse fly after the American pop star Beyonce (Plinthina beyonceae), because they both have attractive abdomens (and you thought entomologists had no sense of humour). Meanwhile, Andreas, who’s less interested in the overlap of culture and science, spends his time mapping and sequencing insect genomes to better understand evolutionary processes (or something like that). Every insect that goes through his molecular blender stands to contribute something to us – a cure for cancer, a pest resistant wheat crop, or a biological control of feral cats – so our taxes are very well spent on Andreas and his team.

Their visit to Lord Howe as part of the Expedition was less grand in its purpose, but equally rewarding because they got to hang out with an amazing bunch of people on a kind-of working holiday, and teach them a thing or two about insects. Our guests were from all over Australia. There was a sculptor, Army Captain, pharmacist, writer, statistician, publisher, retired zoologist, ecologist and a number of high school science teachers (on an excursion for adults). Two of our guests finished 9th in the World Rogaining Championships, and they were very useful when we had to carry loads of gear to remote parts of the island.

The first day of the Expedition had a reconnaissance walk from Soldiers Creek to Mutton Bird Point. The 5km track winds through distinct forest types and the CSIRO guys were keen to find some good locations for daytime and night time trapping. We were met by ex-ranger and ecologist, Dean Hiscox, along the way who explained Lord Howe’s volcanic origins over 6 million years ago. Dean led the climb that rediscovered the Phasmid on Balls Pyramid, so his help with our insect oriented expedition was a perfect fit. After lunch, we took the opportunity to explore the exposed rock pools and coral reef at Middle Beach, and were lucky to see Sooty tern chicks just hours after hatching. In the evening, we helped Andreas and his volunteer assistant from CSIRO, Glenn Cocking, set up their moth trapping stations in Stevens Reserve, and after dinner, we applied sunscreen, caps and lab glasses and helped to collect moth species under bright UV lights.

Speaking of moths, and as a hotel owner, I never really got what all the fuss was about. Generally, moths in our food store, linen cupboard or market garden were a bit of a problem that needed, well, treatment with extreme prejudice. But that first night in Stevens Reserve was a revelation. We caught more than 50 different species, and some were multi-coloured, some were translucent, and some looked like they’d been draped in gold leaf. It was incredible.

The next morning, the group split in two with some of the guests working in the lab with Andreas and his microscope to classify, sort and preserve the specimens for their trip to Canberra, while the more adventurous guests climbed with their insect nets high on Mt Lidgbird to the Goat House cave. Along the way, Bryan the Fly Guy established malaise traps to catch passing insects over the next few days. Fortuitously, after taking the wrong turn and ending up somewhere between a cliff and rock slide, Bryan started mumbling about “his soldier fly” in amongst other indecipherable scientific jargon. He then yelped and announced that he’d found the undescribed species he was looking for. Thank goodness for the detour. Bryan kept his silly grin all day as he no doubt thought about his next most favourite pop star to name the new soldier fly after.

In the afternoon, we ventured through an ancient Jurassic Park style forest of banyans and Kentia palms to Little Island – one of our favourite places below the dramatic cliffs of Mt Lidgbird – and explored the coastal boulders and intertidal zone. Jo’s boys, Tom and Jack, and my girls, Elsie and Pixie were busy catching each other in their insect nets, and apart from a few finger nails and bits of grass, we didn’t find anything unexpected.

Wednesday brought clear skies and a light sea breeze, so we boarded a local glass-bottom boat and headed to North Bay to do a seabird survey with Darcie Bellanto, a ranger with the Lord Howe Island Board. The Sooty tern colony on the beach at North Bay has been growing over the last few years, and we only had a guestimate of the number of breeding pairs. Without funding or available field staff, the Board designed a useful survey for our citizen scientists and we counted an average of 90 nests in each 45 metre survey plot. That’s a lot of birds.

After a BBQ lunch, we had a snorkel on the wreck of the MV Favourite and then walked around the rocks from the Old Gulch to the Herring Pools – a series of coral lined rock pools nestled among red basalt dykes. We had clearly become friends by this stage because I’d never seen so many people simultaneously remove their clothes and start frolicking around. They were swimming, jumping, running, slipping and generally having the kind of fun that kids have at rock pools. High above, on the cliffs of Kims and Malabar, thousands of Sooty terns, Red-tailed tropic birds and Brown noddies did their thing, and those guests who weren’t swimming, stood, partially mesmerised, and watched the bird show through their binoculars.

Once we navigated back around the rocks to North Bay, injury free, we remembered Andreas and his moths and ventured down into a nearby cave to catch some large brown specimens that shelter on the cave roof during the day. Sadly our initiative and success was later deflated when our catch was described as an “outdoor dunny moth” and offered nothing more to science than its namesake.

The final part of an already exhausting day was a cruise with Lord Howe’s turtle whisperer, Pete Busteed, to find Green and Hawksbill turtles in the North Passage, and true to form, Pete found eight large turtles. With all of the excitement, acceleration, and twists and turns in the boat, it may have been the same turtle eight times, but we were assured that probably six of the turtles were unique. Some were the biggest I’ve ever seen in the Lord Howe Lagoon, and triggered many comments from our guests along the lines of “wow”, “best day ever”, and something about “cold beer”.

The problem with a really good day is that you have to follow it up with a better day, and Thursday posed a bit of a problem because Andreas needed people for lab work. Not that sorting moths isn’t rewarding, or even enjoyable, but it’s hard to compare it to discovering coral lined rock pools, thousands of seabirds, deep dark caves and enormous turtles. You know what I mean? Still, we managed to get half of our group along the ridgeline between Kims and Malabar, in perfect walking conditions, before we went into true expedition mode. Late in the day, a smaller group – assisted by some young fit Pinetees staff – carried generators, fuel, lights, traps, camping equipment and provisions (two ham sandwiches and two cans of coke) over to Rocky Run for Andreas and Glenn to continue their moth survey in the endemic Melaleuca forest. 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.

After many days of insect sampling, our final contribution to conservation on Lord Howe was in the Lagoon with Dean Hiscox. Over the last decade, Dean has been surveying Lord Howe’s endemic McCulloch's clownfish as an indicator of reef health, and most of our wetsuit-clad guests applied their masks, snorkels and flippers and counted clownfish over several reefs. It’s not as easy as you think because the little buggers all look the same and swim around a lot – sometimes into and out of your carefully calibrated survey zone. The results reflected the tricky conditions with counts ranging from 8 to 45 on some bombies. Luckily, there’s this thing called a median (not a mean) which ignores the ‘outliers’ and the final figure for each reef was consistent with previous surveys. Good news indeed – our reef continues to be one of the most pristine in the world. Being 700km from the Australian mainland, and outside of the vast coral bleaching zone in the Coral Sea, certainly helps.

Our last day was all about consolidation. Some guests went back to Goat House with Bryan to collect his malaise traps, others stayed with Andreas and his microscope, while others snuck away for some walking, kayaking and golf. Late in the day, we met on the Pinetrees verandah and were stunned to see the size and beauty of the moth collection we had accumulated from 5 days of sampling. Andreas thought that we had about 150 species, plus or minus, and Bryan had two new species of soldier fly – the second one was found in the Pinetrees organic garden. Imagine his smile.

All up, it was an excellent week. Our informal motto was ‘expect the unexpected’ and, like any genuine expedition, we took each day as it came. We tried to find a balance between hard science (for the more nerdy types), soft science and holiday adventure, and hopefully there was something for everyone at most times of the day.

Jo Runciman and John Pickrell from Australian Geographic were fantastic to work with – the magazine and society are still the real deal, when other magazines have become slaves to quick and easy content. If you don’t subscribe to Australian Geographic Magazine, you should, because it’s one of the last properly researched, written and edited magazines in Australia. They still have cartographers who publish maps! Meanwhile, the guys from CSIRO are also the real deal. Every time they spoke about their areas of expertise, you can understand why it takes multiple degrees, a PhD, a low income post doc, and years of academic slog to become the best of the best. Whenever you hear about governments wanting to rationalise the CSIRO, or make its research more practical, then remember the guys from Charles Darwin through to Bryan the Fly Guy who made the basic discoveries. It’s hard to apply, and benefit from, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, unless we know them, and that’s why discovery is so important. Now I’m confused because maybe Donald Rumsfeld made sense after all.

A big thanks to Hank Bower and Penny Holloway at the Lord Howe Island Board for designing and approving the research proposal, and for understanding the importance of citizen science. See you next October for the 2017 Australian Geographic Expedition to Lord Howe Island.

Climbing Mt Lidgbird with nets on Lord Howe IslandBryan Lessard with his new species of soldier flyA true expedition for insect collectorsBird watching from Goat House on Lord Howe IslandExpeditioners in the kentia forest on Lord Howe islandSetting up a Malaise Trap in Soldiers Creek on Lord Howe IslandLittle Island on Lord Howe IslandAG expeditioners en route to North BaySurveying Sooty tern populations of Lord Howe IslandEven dead birds reveal new insectsSnorkelling at North BayCatching insects at North BayNavigating the rocks to the Herrings Pools on Lord Howe IslandSwimming in the Herring PoolsThe jump pool on Lord Howe IslandWatching birds on the Malabar cliffsThere's no need for swimming pools on Lord Howe IslandA photographer's playground on Lord Howe IslandInspecting the cliffs below MalabarCatching insects on the south ridge of Malabar on Lord Howe IslandRed-tailed tropic birds below MalabarOne of the best snorkelling spots on Lord Howe IslandTalking insects with CSISO scientists on Lord Howe IslandThe 2016 AG expeditioners on Lord Howe IslandInspecting our moth collectionThe microscope makes all the differencePinetrees' chefs discover some new moths from Lord Howe IslandMoths of all shapes, sizes and colours from Lord Howe Island

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