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Are you brave enough to explore a rainforest at night?

I’m not talking any old rainforest, but the ancient one surviving in Queensland’s Lamington National Park. As one of the last few remaining extensive areas of subtropical Gondwanan rainforest anywhere in the world, Lamington is revered for its rainforest bushwalking experiences. I’ve hiked many trails inside this 21,176ha World Heritage wilderness, but never at night.

But on this chilly Sunday evening in late May I’m waiting at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat – a family-owned ecotourism operation on the western side of Lamington Plateau, in the Green Mountains section of the park. The temperature is hovering around 7°C and the crisp air feels even fresher as the last of the sun’s warmth retreats and night falls. I’m about to take my first nocturnal tour of this place that I know so well by daylight. My guide is wildlife photographer Isaac Wishart, who’s about to lead me into the Wishing Tree Track, one of 16 listed nature trails leaving from O’Reilly’s.

I discovered Isaac’s captivating images on Instagram and was drawn to his photos of a glowing, vibrant emerald fungus with the scientific name of Mycena chlorophos growing on the rainforest floor, the bulbous eyeball of a white-lipped tree frog and dripping luminescent trails of glow-worms. I reached out to Isaac, curious about how he goes about capturing Lamington NP’s extraordinary nocturnal biodiversity. So on this nippy evening I’m accompanying him on one of his night-time expeditions to discover a side of Lamington most people never see.

Oh, and did I mention Isaac goes barefoot?

Isaac grew up on the Gold Coast in Mudgeeraba, a semi-rural neighbourhood surrounded by bush, where Judy Wishart, a single mother, raised him and his three brothers. “Mum would drop me and a mate into the bush and off we’d go barefoot, hiking, fishing, looking for reptiles for hours,” Isaac recalls. “Then she’d come and pick us up again.”

When he was 12, Isaac acquired his first snake, a spotted python he named Grub, which lived in a tank in his bedroom. During Isaac’s teenage years, four more snakes, one monitor lizard and two turtles joined his reptile collection. “While my brothers stayed in their rooms playing games, I looked after my pets,” he says.

This image of Mycena chlorophos fungi taken from below was created using a focus-stacking technique. This involved taking 50 separate photographs at differing depths of field that were then stitched together to create one sharp, clear macro image.

After high school, Isaac volunteered at the Gold Coast hinterland’s Gecko Environment Council, attracted by their ethos of protecting the natural world. “I’d visit state forests and national parks taking photos of wildlife on a Canon 1000 camera Mum gave me,” he says. From that voluntary role Isaac accepted a paid position as a bush regenerator. For the past eight years, Isaac has assisted during the week with the recovery of Gold Coast hinterland ecosystems that have been degraded, damaged or destroyed. But on nights and most weekends he’s outside exploring barefoot and taking photos.

“I love visiting Lamington because of the diversity of the ecosystems, and the array of animals and plants living in them,” he says. “In the protected rainforests of Binna Burra and O’Reilly’s you’ll find species in high abundance you won’t find anywhere else in Australia.”

Lamington’s intactness makes it relatively easy for Isaac to capture subjects such as bioluminescent fungi or glow-worms without having to go for long hikes. I’m hopeful that tonight we’ll see some bioluminescent species.

With daylight fading on the Wishing Tree Track we turn our torches on. Not being as sure-footed as barefooted Isaac, I’m taking my time, trying not to trip over. Isaac is actively looking for critters that I’ve got minimal chance of spotting with my untrained eyes.

He disappears inside a hollowed-out Queensland brush box tree, the exterior of which is charred black, and he soon locates a southern leaf-tailed gecko. Its lichen-like patterns are superb camouflage against the dark bark of the tree trunk. Isaac spots the motionless gecko by using his torch to light-reflect its eyeshine. These nocturnal lizards patiently wait for unsuspecting insects – crickets, cockroaches, moths – or spiders to pass. When they sense movement, they pounce.

The glowing parts of this leaf are made of fungal threads, known as mycelium, of the species Mycena chlorophos.

We veer left and head down a track to Glow Worm Gully. O’Reilly’s discourages people from using this trail by themselves at night. The retreat instead runs a glow-worm tour every night of the year to a safer and more accessible area. But this is Isaac’s home territory and he knows it as well as anyone. We drop our bags and turn off our torches to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Flickering tiny specks of glowing blue-green light appear across the embankment, looking like the inhabitants of a small village switching on their lights for the evening. Despite the common name, they’re the larvae of a small fly known as a fungus gnat. These tiny carnivorous grubs lure prey close with blue-green light, created by a chemical reaction when enzymes and a pigment called Luciferin in their bodies come in contact with oxygen in the air.

Isaac picks up his Nikon D850 camera and I enquire about lens choices. He explains they vary between a Laowa 100mm for macro subjects, or a Tamron 15–30mm for wide-angle shots. The settings also vary, but are usually a 30-second shutter speed, f-stop or aperture size of 7.1 and an ISO of 640.

Isaac nimbly scrambles onto higher ground and I shine the torch for him to prepare his tripod and camera, careful not to shine light directly on the larvae. An eerie silence hovers in the rainforest while we wait in darkness for the long exposure to finish. My ears tune in to our surroundings. Rushing water babbles in the nearby creek. A gentle breeze shifts the neighbouring trees’ elongated limbs. They rub against each other, creaking and moaning like arthritic old men. I look up and a space between the treetop canopy reveals a dazzling night sky.

Isaac shows me the image on the camera display screen and I’m awestruck by its intimate detail. My naked eye missed the sticky silk threads the larvae create to catch passing invertebrates. But on the screen I see jewelled strands covered in sticky droplets dangling on the surrounding foliage. For about 20 minutes we wait in this quiet haven as Isaac experiments with subjects and camera angles. I observe his calm manner and infinite patience with these constantly moving creatures.

How can you be glum when light shines out of your bum? The beautiful blue-glowing bottoms of Arachnocampa flava glow-worms attract insect prey, which are then caught on sticky threads of silk.

We search for bioluminescent fungi. They’re not always easy to find, and despite an enthusiastic effort, our quest is fruitless. But we have a source of intelligence. Isaac contacts Matt Kelly, a guide who’s worked for nine years at O’Reilly’s. He lives on site, is a rainforest expert and provides us with the location of a patch of ghost fungi that he’d noticed earlier by the roadside near the retreat’s entrance. This common fungus is found up and down Australia’s east coast after good rain, and grows on wood, on trees both alive and dead.

Dr Sapphire McMullan-Fisher is an ecologist with a passion for fungi. Currently based in Victoria, her particular interest in subtropical fungi began when she was living on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She joined the Queensland Mycological Society and learnt about fungi found in south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales. “I’d visit Lamington NP and see the amazing fungi making the most of the moist rainforest conditions to push up their reproductive structures,” she explains.

“The mycelium, the body of the fungus, gathers nutrients to make baby mushroom shapes; they’re preparing to reproduce. They wait for rainfall when the reproductive structures can stretch out like little water balloons. Moisture in the air is usually the trigger for fungi to reproduce by sending out their spores. When you see fungi that’s magically popped up overnight after rainfall, that’s because of all the hard work [that] was done [previously].”

Ghost fungi (Omphalotus nidiformis).

Sapphire says that where the glow occurs depends on both the species and individuals – for some, the mycelium glows, for others, parts of the mushroom glow and in a few the whole mushroom glows, even the spores!

“It’s quite eerie to see, that very nebulous glow. I love to [explain to] people that the fungi actually glow all day and all night,” Sapphire says. Unfortunately, there have been few studies of luminescent mushrooms in Australia.

“There’s been a series of good scientific South American experiments on bioluminescent fungi in Brazilian rainforests,” she says. And so far, the evidence suggests none of the pet theories about the luminescence either attracting insects or defending itself from insects are well supported.

“So I think it’s still a mystery as to why the fungi glows. And I guess that’s the delight of nature that we still don’t know.”

Barry Davies has a degree in terrestrial ecology, but he’s now nearing 70 and admits that was a very long time ago, so he prefers to be called a naturalist. Residing in Beechmont, a rural town close to the boundary of Lamington NP, he regularly drops in for a visit.

For more than 20 years Barry was a guide at Binna Burra Lodge located inside the park. He now conducts specialist wildlife tours through his business, Gondwana Guides, and has led many night tours through Lamington.

“I encourage people to stop, stand still, be quiet and listen,” Barry says. “Once they start listening, the rainforest becomes a whole different world.”

Spiders are easy to find because they’re active at night. “Funnel-web, trapdoor and tube spiders are easily spotted because they are sedentary,” he explains.

Using a red-light torch, Barry regularly shows his groups a particular trapdoor spider with its tunnel entrance open and legs sticking out waiting for something to pass. “I get people to look in and they’re blown away by the engineering and construction skills; that a spider can build a [home] with a door with a hinge and a bevelled edge that plugs up and seals the tunnel is amazing.”

Barry also likes the luminescent fungi and only recently – in early June – has seen some examples of ghost fungus. “It’s surprising to see the fungi now because it’s quite unseasonal,” he observes. “Their season has been much longer than I ever remember – likely because it’s been very wet and mild until recently.”

With the fungi come the snails. “Suddenly there are snails everywhere,” Barry says. One snail species that is easy to see because its shell can be almost as large as a tennis ball is the giant panda snail. This rainforest specialist is attracted to the ghost fungus.

Fungi expert Sapphire explains that the snail’s size “is because they have such a fabulous damp fungifilled spot to live in”. Fungi in rainforests are an important food source for invertebrates such as insects and snails. “They eat both the mycelia and reproductive parts of the fungi. These invertebrates are then eaten by insect-eating birds and frogs,” Sapphire says. “But there’s cause for concern with bird populations crashing for decades and then the so-called Insect Armageddon [dramatic global decline of insects] five years ago.

“With all the invertebrates disappearing, we need to look at the bottom of the food chain, which is the fungi and bacteria and other microbes that actually feed on the microfauna the bigger animals eat.” Sapphire says that researchers of birds, frogs and other higher animals have not looked closely enough at their food sources.

“And, more importantly, their food’s food!” she adds. “Threatened birds have been singing their hearts out to warn us that their whole ecosystem is in trouble. We haven’t learnt enough about the bird’s food chain, which is scary. There are also frogs and dead trees we know are in trouble. And we probably have fungi that are in trouble too, but we just don’t have the data to prove it.”

Barry Davies is fascinated by strangler figs. On night tours he asks everyone to turn off their lights, then he shines a torch inside the hollowed-out section of one specimen, where its host tree has died. “Once the host tree has rotted away, there is a lattice work of aerial fig roots that have grown down from the trunk of the fig, which is growing up to the canopy,” he says. “You can see the light shining out of the lattice all the way up to the start of the trunk. Everyone is suitably wowed.”

One story he loves to share is the role a tiny wasp plays in pollinating the strangler figs. When they are ready to be pollinated, the female flowers inside the fruit of the fig emit a scent that attracts the winged females of the fig wasp. They arrive carrying fertilised eggs and burrow into the fig via an opening so small that they lose their wings in the process. These female wasps then wriggle around within the fig, pollinating its flowers and laying their eggs within them.

Wasp pupae hatch from the eggs and develop into mature wasps entirely within the fruits. The males, which never develop wings, fertilise the females then crawl up and bore a hole to the outside of the fig before dying – completing their entire life cycle within the fruit of the fig. The fertilised females then crawl up through the flowers, picking up pollen on the way. They only have a few days to fly to find another fig, where they dig a hole, crawl in, lay their eggs and the cycle begins all over again. “The little grubs feed, pupate, hatch and the process continues, never stopping, which means there are always ripe fig fruits in the forests all year round,” Barry says. 

This means fruit-eating animals such as bowerbirds, rifle birds, pigeons and flying foxes, which are important dispersers of seeds in the rainforest, can live in the forests throughout the year.  “Those huge fig trees are critical to the long-term survival of the forest. Therefore, remarkably, the forest’s long-term survival is dependent on a wasp only 2–3mm long!” Barry says.

Despite the dampness of the rain-soaked earth and the rapidly dropping temperature, Isaac is at his happiest without shoes. “Everyone looks at me, wondering who is that barefoot man picking up rainbow fruits?” he says. “People ask if I’m trying to get grounded, or if I have forgotten my shoes. I just like going barefoot. I get plenty of funny looks and a lot of high fives too.” 

His work as a bush regenerator means he must wear work boots during the week, so he loves nothing more than going without them on the weekends. “There are many pluses to going barefoot,” he says. “I can find leeches a lot faster than most, and I can feel the snakes under my feet.”

I’m not a snake fan like Isaac. My love affair with Lamington has been about the rainforest mosaic. You can start your journey of discovery in the warmer subtropical rainforest around O’Reilly’s with the strangler figs and booyong trees, then climb Mt Bithongabel (1195m) into the cool temperate rainforest where the coachwoods and – my favourite – the Antarctic beech trees reside. 

These rainforest patriarchs – with their shamrock green, moss-coated limbs – are estimated to be more than 2000 years old and are our present-day links with ancient Gondwana. Near Binna Burra, as the elevation drops into the warm subtropical rainforests, there are wet sclerophyll forests with awe-inspiring giant New England ash and tallowwood. 

But exploring Lamington NP at night is like stepping into a new world. As the sun disappears, the bush wakes up species that you don’t see during the day. 

“You can go to the same location on different nights and see something new each time, which is a drawcard – and fun,” Isaac explains. “And a lot of the nocturnal species are reptiles.”

I’ve been on bushwalks during the day where trails are busy with other bushwalkers. At night you rarely see another soul. And if you go with someone who knows where to look, you will see a whole lot more.

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