Restoring rainforest and bringing back the Southern Pink Underwing Moth
In mid 2021, Barung Landcare was successful in securing a Landcare-led Bushfire Recovery grant to deliver a rainforest resilience and threatened species project as part of the 111 projects funded by the Australian Government under this program.
This funding enabled Barung Landcare to expand its nursery operations and work with the local community, key stakeholders and scientists to increase awareness and participation in restoring and building resilience in rainforest communities on the Sunshine Coast. You can read more about what we achieved here.
The project also focused on extending and improving habitat for the Southern Pink Underwing Moth (Phyllodes imperialis subsp. smithersi) which is an endangered species restricted to subtropical rainforest in Northern New South Wales and South East Queensland. This species is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, invasive species, fragmentation and fire.
The project now continues in collaboration with the scientific team at Natura Pacific and a range of other organisations who aim to roll out citizen science projects, seed collection activities and habitat restoration to help improve the resilience of our rainforests, and the trajectory of the Southern Pink Underwing Moth.
Phyllodes imperialis smithersi larvae – Todd Burrows
Phyllodes imperialis smithersi adult – Mark Graham
Why is this work important?
Prior to European settlement the Sunshine Coast Council area was covered with 225,471 hectares of remnant native vegetation. Today, there remains 92,566 hectares or 41% of what previously occurred in the region. Of that original native vegetation, 39,237 was rainforest. Today there remains 16,759 hectares of rainforest or 43% of what previously occurred.*
Rainforest vegetation communities on the Sunshine Coast remain highly fragmented due to land clearing and land use change which leaves remnant patches of rainforest vegetation vulnerable to the impacts of invasive species, land use impacts, and a changing climate.
Fragmented and isolated remnants of rainforest are more vulnerable to weed invasion from adjacent properties, and prolonged periods of drought and heat can significantly dry out understories and increase the risk of fire and degradation of understorey environments.
With annual average temperatures expected to rise on the Sunshine Coast, our region will experience more days each year over 35°C, and more extreme heat waves and other extreme weather events too.
This presents a challenging environment for the endangered Southern Pink Underwing Moth (Phyllodes imperialis subsp. smithersi) which is at risk of extinction due to its fragmented distribution.
The moth is restricted to subtropical rainforest in Northern New South Wales and South East Queensland, and is dependent on one species of vine for survival – Carronia vine (Carronia multisepalea) which is highly dependent on a healthy closed rainforest canopy and understorey.
Working with private landholders provides an opportunity to work together to diversify rainforest seed collections and plantings, extend the range of habitat for endangered species, and build rainforest resilience through increased weed management and quality revegetation activities.
What our Rainforest Resilience project aims to do
- Increase rainforest vegetation by
- Work with key scientists and researchers on threatened species recovery with a focus on the Southern Pink Underwing Moth
- Support landholders with skills and knowledge to build rainforest resilience on their properties and provide ideal habitat for the Southern Pink Underwing Moth
- Supply landholders with appropriate plants for revegetation activities
- Create an ongoing online community of support for local landholders restoring rainforest vegetation
- Continue to work together as a community to restore and protect rainforest vegetation across the Sunshine Coast Hinterland
How the community can get involved
Landholders who are actively managing or just about to get involved in restoring rainforest remnants on their property across the Sunshine Coast play a vital role in helping to preserve and protect our local rainforests.
Recognising that every property is different and people looking after rainforests will have different needs and different skills and levels of knowledge.
Barung Landcare hosts periodic workshops and capacity-building activities throughout the year to support landholders to better look after their land. These workshops and events are free or discounted for Barung Landcare members.
The general public is invited to participate in education workshops, events and community tree planting activities that help to restore local rainforest ecosystems.
Workshops and events are aimed at supporting the community to:
- look after and restore rainforest vegetation across the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, which will continue to support the survival of a diversity of species
- help to build resilience in rainforest ecosystems
- increase the extent of rainforest on the Sunshine Coast
- contribute to threatened species recovery efforts focusing on the Southern Pink Underwing Moth
Opportunities to participate include
Field days, workshops and training for landholders
Rainforest resilience field days – Learn about basic rainforest ecology, bushfire management and restoration practices
Regeneration in action field days – Learn about a variety of bush regeneration and restoration techniques with a focus on rainforest remnant management
Seed collection, native plant ID and propagation workshops – Learn about basic rainforest plant identification, seed collection and propagation techniques with our native nursery staff
Restoration and revegetation planning workshops – Learn about how to plan your restoration and revegetation activities with our experienced staff
Bush regeneration, rainforest restoration
Your restoration efforts are critical for the survival and resilience of rainforest ecosystems across the Sunshine Coast Hinterland
At your own pace, apply a diversity of appropriate approaches to looking after remnant rainforest on your property
Environmental film nights, talks with key researchers
Environmental film evening featuring details of the Southern Pink Underwing Moth conservation efforts across South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Including Q&A with key scientists
Southern Pink Underwing Moth recovery activities
Combined with the outcomes of your restoration efforts and having ideal conditions, your property could be ideal habitat for the Southern Pink Underwing Moth
Working with the team at Natural Pacific, local landholders can help the team by allowing access to Carronia vine for cuttings and seed collections on their property (if it is already present), and planting more Carronia vine through a coordinated citizen science project
More details on how to get involved in this aspect of the project are below
Free rainforest plants for participating landholders
As part of this project, our nursery expansion is allowing us to propagate and distribute more native rainforest plants (including the Carronia vine) to local landholders.
As part of our fundraising strategy, free plants will be offered to landholders annually as part of this project.
Expressions of Interest for 2022 are closed.
To get involved in any of the above events, workshops and offerings keep an eye on our calendar of events
For any other questions about this project contact Megan Lee email@example.com
Why is the Southern Pink Underwing Moth Endangered?
The Southern Pink Underwing Moth (Phyllodes imperialis subsp. smithersi) is listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) status as Endangered.
It lands this status under the Act due to its distribution being limited to old growth rainforest, which is highly fragmented and exists in small, isolated pockets throughout South East QLD and Northern NSW.
Logging and land clearing for agriculture and development have been the main causes of fragmentation, and a number of these land use pressures remain today. Of the remaining pockets of rainforest, many remnants suffer high levels of disturbance from invasive weeds, and historical grazing which has an impact on the suitability of habitat for the moth. Enduring periods of drought and heat also increase the risk of bushfire, and increased pressure from tourism and high volumes of recreational use compromise the quality of rainforest environments, particularly for this sensitive moth species.
Further to these impacts and ongoing risks, breeding sites for the Southern Pink Underwing Moth are not widely known, and the very few known breeding sites are isolated remnants of rainforest. The concern here is that inbreeding may be occurring and could effect the long-term viability of this moth.
What are the key threats to its survival today?
The main threats to the Southern Pink Underwing Moth include:
- Loss of its rainforest habitat
- Tourism disturbance in areas where it is known to occur and breed
- Habitat degradation through disturbance and weed invasion
- Adult moths may be displaced through attraction to artificial light sources
- Climate change and enduring periods of heat and drought affecting suitable habitat
How do I identify the Southern Pink Underwing Moth and larvae?
The Southern Pink Underwing Moth grows up to 16 cm across from wingtip to wingtip and so is, in comparison, roughly the same size as a fully-grown female Richmond Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia).
As well as its size, the moth has another striking feature, its colouring. The front-wings are broad and deep brown with incredible markings and venation that make the wings appear like a dead leaf. It even has a small white ‘leaf miner’ marking in the centre which makes it even more camouflaged when it sits motionless, wings closed, during the daylight hours. If the moth gets startled however by a passer-by or a potential predator, it flashes its big leaf-like wings to reveal the hind-wings which are blotched with fluorescent pink, a warning to stay away!
The pupal stage is a bronze-coloured 5 cm case consisting of silk and leaves surrounded by metallic brown bands, and the moth larvae is a beautiful and exotic-looking specimen which grows to an impressive size of about 10-12 cm long. It is marked all down its flanks with opalescent brown, beige, aqua and pink. Like most caterpillars, this one has a relatively small and indistinct head and set of eyes, however, right behind the head are a couple of segments of the fleshy body that are covered in white ‘tooth-like’ markings and atop those, two huge blue false eyes with piercing black pupils. When given a fright, the larva lunges forward folding its real head inside the fleshy upper segments, and instead exposing the false teeth and eyes so that it appears as a threatening predator itself.
This all of this of course, is a show, set about by a remarkable evolutionary arms race of predator versus prey, where the caterpillar has evolved such markings to keep its otherwise fleshy, protein-rich body safe from birds and mammals that it shares the rainforest with.
How do I identify the Carronia Vine?
In our region, there is only one species of Carronia vine, Carronia multisepalea. Another two species, C. pedicellata and C. protensa occur in North East Queensland and Cape York, and a fourth, C. thyrsiflora, occurs only in Papua New Guinea. The genus Carronia is part of the Menispermaceae family, an interesting group of vines that includes some of the most poisonous plants in the world. The source of curare, the topical poison extracted from Menispermaceae vines in South America and coated onto arrows as poison-darts, is part of this intriguing family! So when handling vines in the field, it’s always best to wear gardening gloves to protect yourself.
When looking for characteristic feature of these vines, a good start is their rather straggly nature. They grow from a woody root stock that is often quite firmly fixed into the rainforest substrate. From this they grow woody stems that lead by loosely curling tendrils that sneak up on neighbouring vegetation and use it for a “shoulder-up”.
The leaves are narrow-elliptic in shape, usually 6-20 cm in length, and is mostly hairless (sometimes finely-appressed woolly hairs are present on the lower surface). The upper surface of the leaf is dark shiny green and the lower surface paler. The most important feature is the twisted pulvinus that joins the leaf to the vine stem. This resembles a small elbow shape and can be felt with the thumb and fore finger feeling like a pronounced lump above the surrounding stem and leaf.
Flowers are tiny, born in clusters and differ depending on the plant as they are dioicous (separate male and female plants). Male flowers are tiny and dominated by grey-brown hairs, with female flowers usually solitary along the axis. Male plants have been observed to also have more crowded stems with smaller leaves, while female plants have larger gaps between leaves (less crowded) and larger individual leaves.
Finally, the fruits, are a slightly furry drupe (fleshy fruit with a central stone – like a plum) and coloured a rich red-pink.
Image: Carronia vine showing pulvinus – Luis Weber
Image: Carronia multisepalea fruits – Plant.Nerd
How are the Carronia Vine and the Southern Pink Underwing moth related?
Like many moth and butterfly caterpillars, the Southern Pink Underwing moth larva is fussy when it comes to food. Most moths and butterflies have specific tolerances that their caterpillars have developed over millennia that give them the ability to overcome the cocktail of poisons and deterrents that plants use to protect themselves from attack. This tolerance allows the caterpillars to find the nutrition they need in those plants.
The Southern Pink Underwing moth has developed a special relationship with the Carronia Vine, which is the only plant species that its larvae can eat. So what does this mean for the survival of the Southern Pink Underwing moth? The outlook is pretty simple, no vine = no moth.
As our native rainforests have been systematically cut down and replaced by farming and then urban and city landscapes, the Carronia Vine has retreated, and taken the moth with it. And as more and more of our dark, cool rainforest remnants are removed or compromised by threatening processes such as the invasion of weeds and the impacts of drought and fire, the less chance the species that depend on them will survive.
What is being done to save this species?
As part of the ‘Back from the Brink’ docu-series, Natura Pacific is working with Native Plants Queensland’s Dr Bonni Yee and retired honorary CSIRO fellow Dr Don Sands, to propagate up to 10,000 young Carronia vines using seed collections along with tried and tested cutting propagation techniques in a Sunshine Coast laboratory.
By working with local land holders through Sunshine Coast Council’s Land for Wildlife and Barung Landcare, Natura Pacific has been collecting from a number of private sites at varying locations around the Sunshine Coast and South East Queensland, collecting stem cuttings and seeds of Carronia vine. The collections are then taken to the nursery beds and lab and placed into special growing media and grown in perfect conditions allowing new vines to establish.
To further enhance the diversity of plants being propagated, Barung Landcare will coordinate a collaborative seasonal seed collection process with local landholders, and also grow the plants in its local native plant nursery. The Barung Native Plant Nursery has already had some success with growing the vines from seed and now is ready to scale collections and production so that these plants can go to more people in the community with suitable habitat.
Seed collections are the preferred method for the project as they contain a more varied genetic make-up than cuttings (which are essentially clones of the parent plants).
Once a sizable number of plants are available to be distributed to the community, Natura Pacific’s Dr Mark Nadir Runkovski will work with Dr Yee and Barung Landcare to provide batches of male and female Carronia vine along with Syzygium species (native lillipillis) to landholders, who will be able to plant these on their property. The vines will provide the foodplants for the caterpillars and the lillipilli, the food for the adults which like to suck the sugars from already damaged and decaying rainforest fruit trees.
Barung Landcare is also significantly increasing its rainforest plant production as part of this project so it can make available an additional 10,000 native rainforest plant species to local landholders actively engaging in rainforest restoration on their property. These plants will be available to participating landholders free of charge as part of this project.
The aim of these plantings is to increase the quality of rainforest habitat for the Carronia vine and the Southern Pink Underwing Moth, and increase the availability of potential breeding sites for the moth so that this species has a fighting chance of survival.
Ultimately, the success of this project is dependent on the collaboration of the scientific community with landholders, local community organisations, local government and others involved in looking after our local rainforests. With this level of collaboration in our community, we hope to replicate the huge success Dr Sand’s original work has had over the past 20 years in supporting the recovery of the similarly rare and beautiful Richmond Birdwing Butterfly. A species that locals now report as being one of the most common butterfly species they see on their properties each spring. We are capable of that kind of change again.
Image: Dr Bonni Yee in typical Carronia habitat – Mark Nadir Runkovski
Image: In the plant lab – James Wills
Image: Discussing the project with Dr Sands – Mark Nadir Runkovski
back from the brink
Watch Natura Pacific’s Back From the Brink Docuseries to learn more about how they are working to recover the Southern Pink Underwing Moth with a range of organisations
Season 3, Episode 5: The Southern Pink Underwing Moth
what can you do to help?
Landholders are a vital part of the restoration and recovery of rainforest and threatened species in our region. Below you will find a range of ways you can take part in this project
Natura Pacific is still seeking as many separate locations to collect samples and the seed of Carronia vines in the region as possible. You can contact Dr Mark Runkovski to arrange a site visit at firstname.lastname@example.org
The more we know about the distribution of this species and its preferred habitat, the more we can build our knowledge around how to protect and ensure its survival into the future.
Email Megan Lee email@example.com or Dr Mark Runkovski firstname.lastname@example.org
Be sure to take clear photos (if you can) and take note of where your sighting occurred.
You can also log your sightings on the Atlas of Living Australia which is a national database that helps collect data about Australia’s unique species and where they occur.
Collecting fruit from the Carronia vine has been one of the challenges of this project to date. Given the fruit is often consumed before it is even found makes collecting seed for ongoing propagation a challenge.
If you know you have Carronia vine on your property, we will be calling on people when the time is right, to let us know when the vine is flowering and then fruiting and seeking properties for our team to access so we can collect seed and propagate more vines to go out into the community.
Join our online community or email list to be part of coordinated seed collections. More info is below.
Similarly you can register your interest in being a recipient of the batches of Carronia vine once they are ready to distribute. The vines aren’t quite ready to go out to the community yet, but as soon as they are, we will be notifying landholders on our database as well as putting a call out to the broader community to get involved.
Contact Dr Mark Runkovski at email@example.com
Looking after existing rainforest on your property by addressing key threats such as invasive weeds is one of the best things you can do to enhance the survival of this species (and other native species which rely on rainforests to survive). By carrying out bush regeneration and restoration activities you are making a huge difference in our landscape.
If you are new to rainforest restoration, contact Barung Landcare for some guidance, access to resources (we have a range of great books for sale), or participate in our regular landholder workshops and training events to learn about a range of techniques and practices you can take on as a carer of your land.
If you have cattle or other animals that access rainforest on your property regularly, consider fencing them out to help protect the rainforest. This will help the understorey to recover, which is important for the survival of the Carronia vine and other understorey species.
Over-loving our rainforests and natural areas is a very real threat to biodiversity and the occurrence and survival of many local and delicate species in our region. The Southern Pink Underwing Moth is one such species. Stick to trails and tourist boardwalks when you visit local natural areas, and if it’s peak time, perhaps choosing an alternative adventure might be a good move to help take pressure off these special places.
The Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery project has been supported by the Australian Government’s
Bushfire Recovery Program for Wildlife and their Habitat