Set adrift in the South Pacific, there lies an island so beautiful and serene that the word paradise holds meaning. Born of volcanic origin, and eroded over time to perfection–leaving towering mountains above a crystal-clear lagoon, lined with swaying palm trees. Visually, this island could be the work of an artist, a painter or God himself. But peek beyond the canvas, into the forest and under the sea, and you will find an ecosystem rich with biodiversity and life; a land time has nearly forgotten, and the reason for my visits.
Lord Howe Island, 600 km (370 miles) off the east coast of Australia, was first spotted by Lt. Henry Lidgbird Ball in 1788, while commanding the HMS Supply on a run between Port Jackson (Sydney) and the penal colony at Norfolk Island. It would be another half century before humans settled the island, making it one of the last untouched places on earth. This isolation, and minimal human interference, has led to an environment that’s remained nearly intact.
Approximately 75 percent of the original forest still stands, just as it has for countless millennia. Today, the same 500+ species of fish continue to inhabit the waters around the island, and coral reefs fringing the lagoon. Stands of kentia palms, banyans and sallywoods create a natural patchwork of vegetation that blankets the slopes leading up to the cloud forests of the twin mountains Lidgbird and Gower. It’s easy to see how special this place is, and why there is such a desire to protect it’s future.
It was September 2012 when I first spotted Lord Howe Island, touching down after a two-hour flight from Sydney, thanks to a modern-day ship of the sky. I had come to the island to photograph a native species of Ficus (fig) tree for a field guide on the Ficus trees of Australia I have been working on. As part of my research permit authorized by the Lord Howe Island Board (LHIB), I was asked to advise them on nonnative species of fig trees planted on the island. The LHIB is the government agency tasked with overseeing most aspects of the island. Their tireless work is aimed at protecting this incredible island through such measures as limiting visitors, quarantine protocols, noxious weed eradication, management plans, etc. Their stewardship is unquestionably the reason that the island is still so pristine.
Late one afternoon, well past when Mt. Gower and Mt. Lidgbird were cloaked in clouds, I was brought to two large fig trees that had been planted in the settlement area years ago. This species of fig, Ficus macrophylla, is found on Lord Howe Island and the eastern mainland of Australia, and is confined to humid coastal regions. On Lord Howe Island, this tree takes on a much different look and has been taxonomically refined to Ficus macrophylla F. columnaris. This ‘form’ is characterized by the many aerial prop-roots, that create a mass of a tree, sometimes covering up to two hectares (4.9 acres), with little indication of a main trunk.
Fig trees of this character are commonly known as banyans. The trees planted at the settlement had a distinct trunk and lacked the banyan roots of the figs on the island. The planted trees were of great concern as they possibly share the same pollinating wasp and are likely cross-pollinating with the existing native trees or producing seeds themselves. This opens up the very real possibility of new seedlings currently sprouting on the island, having a portion of their genetic makeup from the mainland form or being an exotic tree altogether. What this potentially means is that the next generation of figs to grow on Lord Howe Island might lose their aerial roots and distinct banyan-form, becoming more like a single-trunked tree, or a whole new invasive species altogether.
As I prepared to leave the island, we concluded that the best course of action was to research this issue more, and conduct a study. I spent the next couple years forming a plan.
Fast forward to 2015. I had a plan, permits and other required documents needed to conduct the study. My plan was simple. I would traverse the island and collect leaf samples on all the fig seedlings I could find. I would then mark their location with GPS and photograph them. The leaf samples would be dried, labeled and later used for DNA barcoding. By comparing the genetics of planted trees, the existing native trees and the seedlings, we could tell if they are a native, an exotic or a hybrid of the two. If the juvenile plants prove to be exotics or hybrids, the LHIB can use the GPS locations and photographs to go back and remove them, thus ensuring the banyans of Lord Howe Island will remain banyans.
Finally arriving back on Lord Howe Island in February 2015, to conduct the field work, fellow fig researcher David Dewsnap and I set out across the island collecting samples. We spent the next week trekking up and down hills and trails, sometimes hiking up to 20km (12.5 miles) a day. On one occasion, we were able to join Ranger Christo Haselden to a very remote area on the flanks of the southern mountains. All the locations were marked, seedlings photographed and samples shipped home to our lab in San Diego.
The next step will be using the science to unlock the secrets of these trees. As with any research, the results may show no clear answer or they could be dramatic as the prominence of Mt. Gower and Mt. Lidgbird on a clear day. Time will tell.
Departing the island on the 2:10 flight to Sydney into a strong headwind, the plane lifted quickly and banked sharply to the port side. From my window, I could look down and see the distinct scarlet-red flush of new growth on the banyan trees. The canopies of the trees formed a quilted mosaic of perfection across the island. As the plane leveled out, setting a course for the hustle and bustle of modern-day Australia, the last few shades of blue in the lagoon went from dark to light until it blended in with the clouds as we moved farther and farther away. I knew this time was coming, the time when I reflect on how fortunate I am to have visited such a place. I came to the conclusion that Lord Howe Island was Mother Nature’s work of art, her Mona Lisa, her Starry Night, her Last Supper, her masterpiece. She owns it, she created it, but as inhabitants of this land it’s our job to preserve it.