Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mammals and Insects and Birds. Oh My!

March 18 – 20, 2014

By Katherine Jernigan

Our group’s return to the Australian bush was as refreshing as it was educational. There was a perfect balance of good food, card playing, and smelliness to bring the group a bit closer together while enjoying the beauty of the Australian rainforest and learning about the ecology of the area. 

Tuesday morning, half of us woke up early to hike out and check the bird nets that our fearless avian studies tutor, Stephen, had set up. We were lucky enough to find three birds caught in the nets: one logrunner and two yellow-throated scrub wrens. Stephen showed us how to gently hold the birds, giving us a chance to examine their weight and appearance before setting them free. After taking down the nets, we headed back to camp for a wonderful hot breakfast made by our beloved cook, Ulla.
Strangler Fig in Lamington National Park

After breakfast and a quick equipment cleanup, we split off into small groups to plan our rainforest studies projects. We were encouraged to examine the question, “does competition occur in rainforests?” The question seems simple enough, yet as many of our groups realized, competition is harder to prove than one might think. My group decided to look at epiphytes, which are amazing plants that live on the branches and trunks of trees and are found throughout the rainforest. My trio spent the afternoon counting and identifying epiphytes to test our hypothesis, that there would be interspecific competition for space at different heights in the rainforest. After estimating the heights of numerous orchids, staghorns, ferns, and other beautiful epiphytes, and processing our data, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t conclude anything at all about competition. Other groups couldn’t say much for competition either, despite the diverse range of projects examining things like the population density of brush turkeys and forest growth after disturbance. As it turns out, most groups weren’t able to prove that competition exists in rainforests and agreed that future in-depth studies would be needed.
Sierra on the Canopy Tree Walk

The Most Magnificent Epiphyte I've Ever Seen

After presenting our findings to each other the next morning, we had a bit of free time to explore the forest without our lab gear in our hands. A group of us decided to hike down to a beautiful waterfall with a view. I know our professors keep telling us that Australia is flat in geological terms, but I’ve got to tell you, it has some beautiful mountains.
The Waterfall Hike

View of the Waterfall

After our hike, or “walk” as Australians call it, we met up with Kathy, an entomologist who introduced us to the wonderful world of Australian invertebrates. We headed back into the forest to gather insects. Gathering involved shaking branches onto white sheets, strategically swooping brush with large nets, laying out pitfall traps, and overturning rotting logs to pick out cockroaches with forceps. All in all, we had a grand old time channeling our inner 9-year-old bug-hunting selves.

Later that night, Kathy showed us something really special. The conditions were perfect for hiking out and looking at glow worms. The bioluminescent worms, which are actually maggots, emit a bluish glow that attracts insects, which then get stuck in silk snares that the maggot has expertly hung like fishing line. These glow worms are unique to Australia and New Zealand and it was amazing to get the opportunity to see them. The numerous glowing lights along the bank looked like fallen stars. We all sat quietly staring as if we were looking up at the night sky.

We spent the next morning examining our invertebrate findings under microscopes in a makeshift lab with the guidance of the highly knowledgeable, Kathy. We saw everything from spiders to beetles to bees and learned all about what makes those creatures tick. My favorite finding was a giant moth larva the size of my finger that Ian and I agreed we would eat for no less than $3000. American dollars, of course. Lucky for us, no one had that kind of cash on them, so the ethanol-soaked larva was returned safely to its designated vial. All of us learned a lot from classifying our invertebrate findings, although it was a bit disconcerting to see all of the insects, particularly the large ones, that are cohabitating this beautiful continent with us. As we nestled in our tents that night, we dreamt of ticks, leeches, and giant worms, all of which we had the pleasure of interacting with that day. Our experience with the flora and fauna at Lamington was definitely an unforgettable one.



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