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The "tree lobster", a rare species of giant insect was thought to be extinct.  (Source: Patrick Honan)
Invasive species almost killed these magnificent bugs, but in the end they were saved by a chance relocation

What black and shiny and as big as your hand?  If you guessed "Devonian Period-esque mountain insect" you are a winner.

The bizarre Dryococelus australis is a throwback species.  The hardy arthropods long hailed from Lord Howe Island, a small island midway between Australia and New Zealand.  The species of tree insect lived fruitfully since the human colonization of the island, until a fateful day in 1918, when disaster struck.

Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island
[Images Source: Stephanie d'Otreppe / NPR (left), Wikimedia Commons (right)]

The S.S. Makambo a sea liner travelling from Britain ran aground.  And from its destroyed hull scurried several small mammalian survivors -- European black rats.  The omnivorous mammals soon found an indigenous food they were quite fond of -- the tree insect.  Soon, thanks to the invasive species, the insects -- which locals affectionately referred to as "tree lobsters" had joined the likes of the Tasmanian Wolf -- extinct.  Their last sighting was in 1920.

But 13 miles away from the tiny Lord Howe Island (modern population: 341) sits an even tinier island, the spire remnant of a sea volcano, dubbed "Ball's Pyramid" after the British naval office who first spotted the 7 million year old spire in 1788.

Ball's Pyramid
Ball's Pyramid [Images Source: John White (left); Google Maps (right)]

The spire is utterly uninhabitable and remote, but proved a joyous climb for adventurers with a solid set of equipment.  And those climbers discovered the island's secret -- a spindly bush located in a nook 225 feet above sea level.

Climbers in the 1960s first noted insect corpses resembling the famed tree lobsters.  But confirmation was difficult as the beasties were nocturnal.  But in 2001 a pair of Australian scientists David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile and two assistants scaled the island.  At first they were discouraged at seeing only crickets.

But under a melaleuca bush they spotted insect droppings.  Returning with flashlights at night they hit pay dirt -- 24 scurrying tree lobsters climbing on the bush and in the dirt below it.

Tree Lobsters
Meet the "tree lobster" in all her glory!
[Image Source: Rod Morris (left); Patrick Honan/Nick Carlile (right)]

Fast forward two years and Australian researchers and conservationists had received permission to collect a few of the insects for a captive breeding effort.  A landslide had recently struck and the researchers were fearful they'd be returning only to find insect corpses.  But the insects had apparently survived everything nature had thrown their way and were still scurrying about their favorite bush.  

Four were collected on Valentine's Day 2003.  Tragically, two quickly died.  That left only a male and female, which researchers named "Adam" and "Eve".  Eve almost perished as well due to illness, but was cured at the last moment by Patrick Honan, head of the Melbourne Zoo's invertebrate conservation breeding group.  Recalls Jane Goodall in a Discover magazine piece and a separate story with Australian Broadcasting Company:

Eve became very, very sick. Patrick ... worked every night for a month desperately trying to cure her. ... Eventually, based on gut instinct, Patrick concocted a mixture that included calcium and nectar and fed it to his patient, drop by drop, as she lay curled up in his hand.

She went from being on her back curled up in my hand, almost as good as dead, to being up and walking around within a couple of hours.

Eve survived and bred with Adam, producing 30 fertile eggs.  The babies would go on to flourish.  And from that line 700 adults and tens of thousands of eggs have been bred.

In a world first, zookeeper Rohan Cleave captured the amazing hatching process of a critically endangered Lord Howe Island Stick Insect at Melbourne Zoo. The eggs incubate for over 6 months and until now the hatching process has never been witnessed. If you didn't see it you wouldn't believe it could fit in that egg! [Source: Vimeo/The Melbourne Zoo]


(Note: This success came in part thanks to the fact that invertebrates have shorter, more consistent genomes and thus are less sensitive to lack of genetic diversity in a population.  Two insects can yield a healthy population, where as two mammals -- say tigers -- likely do not have enough genetic diversity to continue a species.)

Today the discussion turns to whether to reintroduce the tree lobsters to their natural home, which mankind disturbed -- Howe Island.  The researchers are conducting a public relations campaign to try to encourage the islanders to embrace their shiny black invertebrate comrades.

Where the story goes next is anyone's guess, but the story of the critters is already quite epic.  To quote Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcolm, "Life will find a way."

Sources: NPR, Discover Magazine, Australian Broadcasting Company



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

But what about....
By Fenixgoon on 2/29/2012 11:17:57 PM , Rating: 5
the rock lobster?




RE: But what about....
By Jason H on 3/2/2012 12:50:31 AM , Rating: 2
It already migrated from a bus, to a plane, to a UFO and to outer space, baby!


RE: But what about....
By Ramstark on 3/2/2012 8:29:24 PM , Rating: 2
EPIC WIN !! \m/,


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