There is another creature however that has managed to sidestep extinction…ever hear of the noble tree lobster? Better known as the Lord Howe Island stick insect or Dryococelus australis, this skinny creepy-crawly is not actually a crustacean, nor would you find it on a menu at Red Lobster – great biscuits by the way.
As you might have guessed from the name, these stick instincts were originally from Lord Howe island, which is located between Australia and New Zealand. The nocturnal stick insects were very common on the island, and they apparently made for excellent fishing bait. Measuring up to 15 centimetres in length, and weighing as much as 25 grams, these critters couldn’t fly, but they could run very quickly.
Unfortunately, in 1918 the supply ship SS Makambo ran aground off the coast of Lord Howe island for nine days. The ship was repaired and refloated, but the delay near the island allowed black rats to escape the ship which caused an ecological disaster.
Apparently, black rats found the stick bugs to be delicious. By the time the SS Makambo left the island, a death sentence had been passed not just for the stick instinct, but also the Lord Howe thrush, Lord Howe gerygone, and a number of other seabirds.
By 1960, the insects were considered to be extinct, with none of them having been sighted since the 1920s. However, the humble tree lobsters raised their middle finger (or whatever the insect equivalent is) to fate.
Twenty kilometers off the coast of Lord Howe island lies Ball’s pyramid.
Ball’s Pyramid was formed 6.4 million years ago and is the tallest volcanic stack in the world. It is 562 metres tall, 300 metres wide, and 1,100 metres long. Basically, it’s big, imposing, and not particularly friendly.
Even though it was discovered in 1788, the peak of Ball’s Pyramid remained unclimbed until the 1960s, when several expeditions attempted to reach the summit. While the peak was conquered in 1965, it was a failed 1964 expedition led by Australian Dick Smith that made an amazing discovery – a dead stick insect on Ball’s Pyramid. The insect was photographed, but no live specimens were found.
This discovery began a four-decade long game of hide and seek with the crafty tree lobster. Expeditions in later years discovered more examples of dead stick insects, but no live specimens were found. A 2001 expedition discovered droppings under a bush – one of the few plants on the otherwise rocky island.
They knew that the poop had to come from somewhere (this is a game mothers have been playing for thousands of years). Knowing that the stick insects were nocturnal, two scientists decided to come back at night – which meant they had to climb 500 feet of rock, in the dark, with just their cameras and flashlights.
A population of 20-30 individual stick insects was identified, making it the rarest insect in the world. No one knows how they got to the island, perhaps they were dropped by a passing bird (they could not have flown as they are the heaviest flightless stick insect in the world).
The survival of the species might have come down to the fact that the insects can reproduce without the presence of males, in a process known as parthogenesis. However, Ball’s Pyramid couldn’t be defined as “hospitable” by any stretch of the imagination.
As if that didn’t complicate things enough, these insects only had a selection of one species of shrub to dine on, making their care and feeding even more difficult. After much debate, it was decided that four of the insects could be taken off for breeding to establish a protected population.
But the fun didn’t end there – when the scientists came back to Ball’s Pyramid to find the four lucky insects, the bush where the tree lobsters were, had been knocked down by a rock slide. Horrified, the scientists thought the tree lobsters had been found only to lose them again. But these insects would have none of that.
They had lived through everything else and no landslide was going to take them out. The entomologists found and took their four specimens away as to avoid any future extinction events.
As you can imagine, there were a lot of entomologists purchasing antiperspirant and anti-anxiety meds at this point, and it just got worse. One pair of the insects quickly died. The others, named Adam and Eve, weren’t doing much better. Eve was sick, but since no one had seen these bugs for over 70 years, they had no idea how to help them.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Eve was revived through the efforts of the staff at the Melbourne Zoo, who also went on to successfully breed the pair. There are now hundreds of adults and thousands upon thousands of eggs.
Eggs have also been flown to Bristol, San Diego, and Toronto, so that separate populations could be established, further solidifying the safety of this species.
Australian Zookeeper Rohan Cleave says “It’s a very romantic story,” he says, “in that there’s always that hope that one day, they may go home.”
For the stick bugs to go home though, the invading black rats would first need to be exterminated. This is an issue of contention for some residents of Lord Howe island. The current plan to exterminate the rats involved dropping 42 tonnes of poisoned cereal on the island. Some residents worry about the impact of the poison and others aren’t fans of the stick bugs. Either way, it’s unlikely you will see stick bugs on Lord Howe island anytime soon.
For now the Stick Bugs are in a sort of Jail Cell, on the island but not integrated yet.
While the Lord Howe Island stick insect might not be all that much to look at, it carries a story that speaks to the worst of what humanity can do to the environment, but also of what we can do in its preservation. Perhaps we can all learn a lesson in perseverance from the noble tree lobster.
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