Daintree Canopy Crane at JCU’s DRO and Cairns Birdwing Butterfly Mating Dance

by Geoff Thompson, Queensland Museum, Collection Imager

In August last year, I was a very lucky to be invited to present at Les Walking’s Daintree 2019 Photography Workshop.

The workshop was photographic heaven, held at James Cook University’s Daintree Research Observatory (DRO). One morning I took the opportunity to shoot from the canopy crane situated in the adjacent tropical rainforest.

This was an astounding experience, starting with a smooth ascent through the complex of tall trees festooned with vines and epiphytes. Most noticeable was the Native Monstera, Epipremnum pinnatum. We emerged to a fabulous view across the rainforest canopy, north to Mt Sorrow and east to the sea.

Panoramic view across the Daintree rainforest canopy towards Mt Sorrow and east to the sea, QMDIU_03080. © Qld Museum, Geoff Thompson.

 Looking down on the canopy, the woody fruits of the Northern Silky Oak, Cardwellia sublimis, were conspicuous, as were the nests of Green Tree Ants, Oecophylla smaragdina and the ants themselves. Several species of palm were also very noticeable, among them lawyer canes, Calamus spp., climbing palms with vicious spines and whips, much nicer to view from above than to cut your way through.

Then I saw a pair of Cairns Birdwing Butterflies, Ornithoptera euphorion, performing a mating dance. The female is the largest butterfly in Australia. She is a dull brown with patches of brilliant red and yellow. The male is predominantly a brilliant iridescent green and black. He also sports patches of brilliant red and a brighter yellow than the female.

Native Monstera,, Epipremnum pinnatum. Fan Palm, Licuala ramsayi, leaves visible in lower right corner. QMDIU_03109. Pods of a Northern Silky Oak, Cardwellia sublimis from the canopy crane and a split pod showing the winged seeds. QMDIU_03110 and QMDIU_03111. © Qld Museum, Geoff Thompson.

Cairns Birdwings, Ornithoptera euphorion, flying above the canopy, QMDIU_03075 and a later shot of the male fluttering above the female. She has alighted on a leaf directly below him, with her wings folded. QMDIU_03079 © Qld Museum, Geoff Thompson.

Green tree ants, Oecophylla smaragdina, on a large leaf and a nest in the crown of a tree. QMDIU_03082 and QMDIU_03112. © Qld Museum, Geoff Thompson.

Our informative crane pilot told us that this was the first pair he had observed from the crane that season.

The female alighted on a leaf while the male was fluttering his wings above her. Presumably, he was wafting pheromones downwards to encourage her to mate. They made a fabulous sight in the bright sunlight above the canopy.

I first climbed Mt Sorrow back in 1982, on a Queensland Museum field trip with Geoff Monteith and the Queensland Naturalists’ Club. We put in the walking track, now wide and clear. Back then, we had to cut our way with secateurs and mark the way with tape and string. I was a lot younger and fitter then and we climbed it three times that week.

Ancient plants and creatures survive in the cool, wet climate on top of our rainforest mountains. Just over the ridge to the north-west of the DRO is the enchanting valley of the Upper Roaring Meg Creek. It is lined with Gymnostoma australianum, a living fossil known as the Daintree Pine. It is actually an angiosperm (a flowering plant) related to Casuarina, found only in upland rainforest in the Daintree region.

Living Daintree Pine, Gymnostoma australianum, growing on granite at Upper Roaring Meg Creek, 1982. QMDIU_03083 and QMDIU_03085. © Queensland Museum, Geoff Thompson.

Living Gymnostoma fruit, © Geoff Thompson, compared with fossil fruit from Makowata, via Lowmead, Lowmead Formation, Eocene.QMDIU_03064.© Queensland Museum, Geoff Thompson.