Reflecting on “Walks and Talks” – an engagement project

In late 2021 I organised a series of public events titled “Walks and Talks“. I was inspired by many of the guided nature walks I’ve been on as either a participant or host, particularly those in Hong Kong at the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre. In my events, I wanted to feature early career researchers as presenters, so that attendees can directly interact with people who are doing the research. I organised these events with support from a grant from the Ecology and Evolution division at the Australian National University.

I thought it’d be nice to write about my experience organising “Walks and Talks” and how it went. I hope it inspires others to organise similar events too.

Audrey Prasetya giving her talk

Each event consisted of three parts. It started with (1) an indoor talk by a presenter, (2) followed by a guided nature walk, (3) ending with a session back at the indoor venue with an opportunity to debrief, ask more questions and interact with some demonstration materials provided by the presenters.

The overall purpose of the event was to create a series of welcoming and educational events, whether they know a lot about nature or not. The intention of the event is also to increase diversity in engagement with nature. As an Australian born person with Chinese ancestry, I don’t see a lot of people with a similar background in environmental science (although they are definitely there and I have met some of them!). I wanted to create some “cool” events that would be appealing to a young adult demographic.

I reached out to Bonnie Koopmans, a Canberra based scientific illustrator and natural history artist to create some graphics which would hopefully signal that the events were aimed at a “younger” crowd (but not too young!). I think she did a wonderful job based on my very loose descriptions!

Art for “Walks and Talks” by Bonnie Koopmans

An important part of the project for me was to feature presenters who were from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. I wanted to highlight researchers who were minorities and doing interesting work – right here in Canberra. I only had enough funding to fund three events, so in the end the speakers were myself, Audrey Prasetya and Dr. Jess Fenker. It ended up being perfect. Audrey presented on her research taxa, which is birds, and Jess presented on her research taxa, which was lizards and geckos. I asked each of them for an animal they might want Bonnie to illustrate, and that’s how we got our animal selection. I selected Macarostola formosa, a leaf-rolling leaf-mining moth. Audrey selected the welcome swallow Hirundo neoxena, and Jess selected the grassland earless dragon Tympanocryptis lineata. These all occur in the ACT.

I reached out to a friend of mine who worked at the Canberra Environment Centre (CEC) to see if I could run my events there. Turns out it was the perfect venue, as it had everything we needed (tables, chairs, projector), was close to ANU and there was a lovely park we could explore right next door.

As a team, we planned our events for three consecutive Sundays, before the end of 2021. We promoted the events across our social medias, reached out to university groups and did what we could to advertise the event. We decided to manage the bookings via Eventbrite, which is a surprisingly handy tool for this kind of thing. We capped participation at 25 people per event, and to our surprise we got that many people signed up. It was great to see.

One of the display tables with reptile specimens, books and microscopes on it for attendees to ask us about

The actual events all went off without a hitch. I like to say that’s because I did a LOT of planning, but it was also fortunate that Audrey, Jess, Chrissie (my CEC friend) and/or Tina (an undergraduate student I recruited) were there to help each day. I think we’d had 2 or 3 in-person meetings before it all happened, and I think those helped with communication. I couldn’t have done it without such great and enthusiastic team members.

I was so glad to see how keen people were for the guided nature walk. I’d love to do more. I had allocated 40 minutes of time for the walk and it was rarely enough time – we’d always be finding something interesting and stopping to have a an extended discussion. Participants also enjoyed the debrief session, where they could bring some stuff from outside and look at it under a microscope – always a fun time. However I think 2 hours was probably the perfect amount of time for both the organising team and attendees.

Happy faces at one of our Walks and Talks events

Overall it was a great experience. I had an awesome time working with my team, there was so much support for each other. I would love to hold more Walks and Talks events, but alas I don’t feel comfortable holding them without being able to pay the people involved (including the speakers!). As my events target people from a minority background, and feature people from a minority background, I don’t want to create additional burdens by asking people to donate their time. So I am on the lookout for funding opportunities or partnerships to be able to hold more of these events. I have applied for some grants – but if you are a Canberra based institution and this post got you interested, do reach out. I’m happy to share my experiences. I hope to have some exciting announcements for 2022.

List of Australian Plants to Look for Leaf Miners On

Last updated: 22th August, 2022

As part of my research, I’m interested in collecting fresh leaf miners. Below is a list of host plants for which I’m particularly interested in getting material from. If you see a leaf mine on these plants, you can upload the record to the Australian Leaf Miners iNaturalist project or directly email me (email at the bottom).

I have listed them by state/territory, plant family and time of year that the mine has been recorded.

You may find similar mines on related plant families, and you may find mines at different times of the year, or even in a different state. I hope this list just gives you an idea of target plants I’m looking for.

If possible, I will also link to an example of what the mine may look like. Unfortunately sometimes all that’s in the literature is the name of the host plant, so I may not be able to provide an image of what the mine looks like (which may be why I’m interested in the plant in the first place!).

This page is constantly updated, and if the plant is listed here it means I am still interested in that plant.

If you have observed any leaf mines on the below host plants, please send me an email at ying.luo@csiro.au. If you have permission to collect from that area and are willing to send me some samples, I can also reimburse you for postage. Do get in touch. 🙂

Victoria

Malvaceae
Gynatrix pulchella – (September) – Tentiform mines that look like this

New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory

Eupomatiaceae
Eupomatia laurina – (July) – Serpentine mines that look like this

Fabaceae
Hardenbergia violacea– (March) – Blotch mines that look like this
Kennedia nigricans, K. prostrata – (September) – Underside blotch mines, may have multiple larvae inside

Malvaceae
Gynatrix pulchella – (September) – Tentiform mines that look like this
Palmeria scandens – (June) – Tortuous mine

Monimiaceae
Wilkiea hugeliana, W. macrophylla – (February, September) – Mines that look like this

Myrtaceae
Syzygium smithii – (November) – Mine-galls that look like this


Rhamnaceae
Pomaderris cinerea – (November)

Rutaceae
Acronychia imperforata – (March, June) – Mine-galls that look like this

Vitaceae
Cissus antarctica – (June) – Serpentine mines that look like this

Queensland

Eupomatiaceae
Eupomatia laurina – (July) – Serpentine mines that look like this

Fabaceae
Millettia pinnata – (Jan – March) – Blotch mines like this, or

Malvaceae
Hibiscus sp.
Sida subspicata
Malvastrum americanum – (August) – Tentiform mines that look like this

Meliaceae
Dysoxylum fraserianum

Monimiaceae
Wilkiea hugeliana, W. macrophylla – (February, September) – Mines that look like this

Oleaceae
Jasminium simplicifolium – (December)

Primulaceae
Aegiceras corniculatum – Serpentine mines that look like this

Proteaceae
Stenocarpus salignus
Stenocarpus sinatus


Rutaceae
Acronychia imperforata – (March, June) – Mine-galls that look like this

Verbeceae
Avicennia marina – (December) – Potentially serpentine mines

Vitaceae
Cissus antarctica – (June) – Serpentine mines that look like this

Western Australia

Fabaceae
Kennedia prostrata – (September) – Underside blotch mines, may have multiple larvae inside
Glycine romanosa – (April)

Rhamnaceae
Trymalium sp. – (October)

South Australia

Fabaceae
Hardenbergia violacea– (March) – Blotch mines that look like this
Kennedia nigricans, K. prostrata – (September) – Underside blotch mines, may have multiple larvae inside

Northern Territory

Fabaceae
Millettia pinnata – (Jan – March) – Blotch mines like this or this

Article out in The Conversation

An article I co-authored on clothes moths (with my supervisor) has just been released in The Conversation. If you are unfamiliar with The Conversation, articles there are written by academics for a general audience. There are many excellent articles there on all topics, and I have been a long time reader. Glad to have an article of mine on there. 🙂

Introducing the “Australian Leaf Miners” iNaturalist Project

Are you using iNaturalist? It is one of the biggest online platforms for uploading records of observations of any thing in the natural world. If you are unfamiliar with iNaturalist, this page is an excellent read to understand how to use it .

As I embark on my PhD, I realised that there is so little information about leaf miners in Australia out there! But they are a group which can be explored by anyone who has ever picked up a leaf.

The more I learn about them the more I have become fascinated by them, and I think it’s a shame we don’t know more. I know there are people who are also interested in leaf mines (some of them have reached out to me!), so I have decided to launch the Australian Leaf Miners project on iNaturalist. Projects on iNaturalist are a good way of collating observations under a topic or theme, and will make the records easy to find for me.

In this post I will outline how to submit an observation to the project. It is intended for people who have never used iNaturalist in addition to people who are familiar with it. Happy snapping!

How to Submit an Observation to the Australian Leaf Miners Project

Firstly, you must be a member of iNaturalist to submit an observation. If it is your first time submitting an observation to iNaturalist, I suggest you follow this post about how to upload photos from your phone (through the app) or through the website. Then you can join the Australian Leaf Miners project to observations to it.

Take Photos of Your Leaf

Take photos of the leaf with the presumed leaf mine for your iNaturalist submission (I will make a post about how to tell if something is a leaf mine later).

If possible, take at least three different photos: top view (full leaf), bottom view (full leaf), and a back lit photo.

Two easy methods for taking back lit photos:

Leaf mine held up against the bright sky
Using a phone to back light a picture of a leaf mine
  • Hold the leaf (via the stem or branch) against the sky/sun. Perfect source of light!
  • Use a phone/torch/headlamp to light the leaf from behind.

A back lit photo gives a suggestion of whether a leaf miner is present, and how big it might be (useful information for my research).

Advanced: Close up photos of the “beginning” and “end” of a mine are useful too as the way a leaf miner exits the mine can be diagnostic, but this information is difficult to capture without a macro lens (I use an Olympus TG-5 camera).

Submit your observation to the “Australian Leaf Miners” project

You can add an observation to the project through one of two methods.

The Australian Leaf Miners project banner from the website

Method 1: Adding an observation by uploading it directly to the project by going to the project page as above and clicking “Add Observations”.

Method 2: Adding an observation to a project by typing in “Australian Leaf Miners” to the Projects field, often found on the bottom right hand side of the observation record.

Add additional information using the Observation Fields

A sample of some Observation Fields for this project

For every observation, there is an option to add Observation Fields. These are fields which provide useful information on host plant identity and may give clues on ecology. I have made the Host Plant ID a requirement (this is important information for identifying a leaf miner), but don’t worry if you can’t identify your plant, you can either:

a) Leave the Host Plant ID as “Kingdom: Plantae”

or

b) Upload a separate observation to get the plant identified. Useful types of photos to include for plant ID are discussed on this page. You can then link the observations by editing the description of the leaf mine observation to include a link to the plant observation, or you can use the Similar Observation Set Observation Field to link the records.

What about rearing out the larvae?

I welcome everyone to have a go at rearing out leaf miners. Whilst I personally don’t have a guide for how I rear my leaf miners out (yet), this one by Charley Eiseman is worth reading.

As for how to link your records, I suggest keeping track of timings of when individuals have pupated and emerged. I would put any larvae/pupae images on at the same observation and maybe make a separate observation for the adult. These can all be linked using the Similar Observation Set Observation Field. The method for linking observations is up to you, but the most important thing is that they are linked.

Be aware: In Australia, you must have a relevant collection permit for your state or territory which allows you to collect plant specimens (which is what leaf mines are). If collecting on private property, then you need permission from the landowner or caretakers.

If you rear out any moths then I suggest you also include your observations in the Lepidoptera Life Cycles (Australia) iNaturalist project.

What is a “leaf miner”?

Have you ever looked at a leaf and noticed some squiggles or blotches on it? Well that could be the work of a leaf mining insect larvae – there might be an insect in there!

A mysterious squiggle on a leaf – made by a leaf mining insect larvae!

I’ve been describing the subject of my PhD research as “a group of leaf-mining micro-moths”, but what does that phrase actually mean?

Leaf mining larvae inside a Eucalyptus sp. leaf
Leaf mining – it’s a lifestyle!
A diagram depicting examples of types of leaf miners (drawn by Lapsap_Art)

The term leaf miner actually refers to many types of insects, so there are leaf mining moths, flies, sawflies etc. It is a description of a life style, similar to the term “burrower” or “cave dwelling”. In the same way that “cave dwellers” can refer to many groups of animals that live in caves, “leaf miners” refers to many groups of insects that make mines in leaves. It just so happens that insects are the only things that are small and diverse enough to have evolved this lifestyle. Leaf mining insects include sawflies (Hymenoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), flies (Diptera) and moths (Lepidoptera). Of the leaf mining insects, a majority of the species are moths.

What do leaf mines look like? And how are they made?
A leaf mine in an Acacia sp. leaf. The dark areas are frass, and you can see the larvae in the middle of the clear patch.

Leaf mines can look quite different, depending on the type of insect and the species of the insect that made it. In general, when I look for leaf mines I look for a blotch or squiggle on a leaf, and then I hold it up to the light. If it is a leaf mine you’ll see some pellets (aka. frass aka. insect poop) in the leaf and if you’re lucky you’ll even see the larvae inside too. But what are they doing in there?

Growing up inside a leaf
A cross section of a leaf, with a leaf mining larvae shown in the epidermis (drawn by Lapsap_Art)

Leaf mining insects live and feed internally in a leaf. The female adult lays an egg on the outside of a leaf, and the larvae burrow (or mine) into the leaf and the larvae then feeds on the internal tissue of the leaf, resulting in some interesting shapes and patterns which may be observed on the outside of a leaf. Sometimes they spend their entire larval (and perhaps pupal) stage inside a leaf, and never move to a new leaf.

A leaf mining larvae feeding in the epidermis (as in the above diagram).

All insects have a larval stage. In butterflies, the larvae are commonly known as caterpillars and in flies the larvae are commonly known as maggots. When referring to “leaf miners”, it is really the behavior of the larval stage that is being referred to. The adult leaf miner is often a nondescript fly or moth that can be hard to identify as the adult form of a leaf miner (even with a microscope!).

What about the adults?
Here one of my leaf miners (a moth) exited the leaf mine and spun a cocoon on the lid of the container.

Good question! In general, once the larvae has finishing feeding it will develop into a pupa (e.g. spin a cocoon) and then eventually moult to become an adult insect (e.g. a beetle, fly, or moth). Many adult leaf miners do not feed, they have reduced or non-existent mouth parts and their aim is to disperse and mate. The females will then lay an egg on a new leaf and the cycle continues…

So what are “leaf mining micro-moths”?!
A specimen of the invasive oak leaf miner Phyllonorycter messaniella (Family: Gracillariidae) in a vial. (Yes it’s really there!)

The leaf miners I study are part of the moth family Gracillariidae, where a majority of the species are leaf miners. The adult moths are smaller than grains of rice, hence the “micro-moth” designation. Leaf miners in Australia remain quite understudied, so I’ll be updating this blog with some of the interesting findings I’ve made. Stay tuned!

2021 – Year of the Blog

It feels a bit strange to have a blog in 2021, but it seems like things from the early 2000s are in again, so here we are!

An adult leaf mining moth (Macarostola sp.)
Two leaf mining moth larvae in a leaf (everything else is frass – poop)

Since starting my PhD in February (more info about me and my project), I’ve been making a lot of fun discoveries about leaf miners, Australian insects and Australian plants. I think my office mates are sick of hearing me talk about my project so I decided to start a blog to share my observations.

I was actually inspired by similar blogs such as BugTracks, which is a fantastic blog authored by Charley Eiseman, who is based in North America.

Planned blog posts include summaries on my attempts at rearing insects, my thoughts on being a PhD student, resources I find helpful etc.

If this sounds like a blog you’d like to follow: bookmark this page, subscribe to updates and/or follow me on social media. I’ll be posting there to let people know when I’ve updated this blog.