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Louise Ashton: Moths and the Rainforest Canopy

Louise is a rainforest ecologist studying the distributions of insect herbivores in Lamington National Park, subtropical rainforest located in south-east Queensland, Australia, and Mt Lewis National Park, in the Wet Tropics of north Queensland.

Name: Louise Ashton

Species: Canopy Moths

Location: Queensland, Australia

Twitter: @

Bio: Louise is a rainforest ecologist studying the distributions of insect herbivores in Lamington National Park, subtropical rainforest located in south-east Queensland, Australia, and Mt Lewis National Park, in the Wet Tropics of north Queensland. She also loves teaching undergraduate students ecology, biology and field ecology techniques.

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Research Site:

During my field work, I set up base in a field station, so that I have somewhere dry to process samples, and somewhere with power to charge batteries for the light traps.

I get volunteers to help me in the field, as each trap needs a fresh 12 volt battery every day, and they are very heavy. Where possible, I do field work with other researchers, which means we can help each other. I have been involved in several rapid biodiversity assessment projects, where many taxonomic groups are targeted at the same sites, to produce powerful results in a short time period.

Target Species:

Rainforest moths are sensitive indicator species and can be monitored through time to track shifts in distributions driven by climate change. Tropical mountains are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which is predicted to drive species upwards, and raise the average level of cloud caps, dramatically changing these sensitive ecosystems.

I use a modified compound bow to shoot canopy lines, which I then use to haul light traps into the upper canopy. I have found distinct assemblages in the canopy layer at all of my sites, which illustrates the importance of including canopy species in ecological studies. If you only sample at the ground level, you may only be getting half the picture of the rainforest ecosystem.


ABOVE: Lamington National Park, Queensland, Australia (creative commons).
"Rainforest ecology can seem glamorous and intrepid, but the day to day hard slog and repetition is what real science is made of."
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Highlights:

If you love natural history, working in the rainforest is a daily pleasure and privilege. I have been so fortunate to work rainforests of Borneo, China and Australia. Some of my favorite field work perks include: birding, spot lighting, dips in cold streams, working hard all day and then cracking a cold beer and playing cards with the locals.

Challenges:

Working on tropical mountains can be very up and down. My field work is usually in the wet season, as this is when insect activity is highest, but also when field work is most difficult. Luckily, moths are attracted to my UV traps even in a downpour, so it’s just a matter of having a good rain coat.

The hardest part of studying rainforest moths is that they need to be processed and pinned quickly or they begin to decompose. Often this has meant field work in the day and sorting moths until bedtime, often for months at a time. Rainforest ecology can seem glamorous and intrepid, but the day to day hard slog and repetition is what real science is made of.

TOP: Louise firing a line into the canopy.  BOTTOM LEFT: Light trap suspended in the rainforest canopy. BOTTOM RIGHT: Night image of a light trap, showing UV light.
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Top Tips for research in this environment:

1) A good raincoat and good boots are paramount if you are doing field work in tropical rainforest. I also like having a hat in the rainforest to keep rain out of my eyes.

2) Leech socks really work. The trick is to have the socks over your pants, and fold them over at the top. The leeches tend to go up into the fold, which is where you want them. Without the fold they just keep going up until they find a good spot like your belly, armpit or eyeballs!

3) Working with light traps can be challenging, often they need ad hoc repairs in the field. A leatherman multi-tool is invaluable.

4) It is so easy to get lost in the rainforest, even if it’s a site that you know really well you can get turned around. Always have your GPS (with spare batteries) and compass even if you think the site is just in off a track and impossible to get lost on. It’s always possible to get lost!

5) Take extra water and food in your vehicle and in your pack, in case you get stranded. Sometimes roads collapse and you often get big tree falls across roads. Do not assume you will be able to get home.

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