Ball’s Pyramid and the Miracle of the Tree Lobster
Our story starts on Lord Howe Island. This is a small island between Australia and New Zealand. It was settled in 1834, used as a whaling station, then an exporter of the indigenous Kentia Palm (Imaged above,) and since World War Two tourism has played an increasing role on the island. When originally settled, as well as a cool palm tree, Lord Howe Island also had the largest insect in the world, the Lord Howe Stick Insect. It was as large as the human hand, 12 cm long, and was called a Tree Lobster by the locals. Then, in 1918, disaster struck. A tramp steamer ran aground on the island, some black rats escaped, and within two years the Lord Howe Stick Insect was no more. One of numerous unique island species wiped out by the spread of rodents and such throughout the South Pacific, its passing almost unnoticed at the time I am sure.
Now we fast forward to Ball’s Pyramid in the early 1960s. Ball’s Pyramid is 13 miles from Lord Howe Island, a volcanic spire jutting from the sea. At 562 metres (1,844 ft) high it is the tallest such volcanic stack in the world. And despite its rugged appearance, there is vegetation growing in every sheltered crack and crevice going all the way to the top. In the early 1960s a few groups of intrepid climbers did make it to the top. And on the way noticed a few recently Dead Lord Howe Stick Insects. They were mountain climbers, not naturalists, so they didn’t investigate any further.
Fast forward to 2001 when two naturalists decided to take a closer look. And making their way to the island, they found a single bush in a crack in the rock with some suspiciously large insect dropping under it. The Tree Lobster was nocturnal, so they returned after dark with flashlights and to their delight found dozens of Lord Howe Stick Insects happily cavorting under the bush. Figuratively speaking. Subsequent searches found that they lived only under this one bush on the island. Dropped by a bird, let loose by a fisherman, who knows, but somehow the Lord Howe Stick Insect had survived under this one remote bush for more than eighty years after it was eaten to extinction on Lord Howe Island.
Well, now what? Scientists and government officials spent two years pondering this, they wanted to preserve the insect, but didn’t want to risk wiping out its only remaining wild population. Yes, the Australian government was involved at this point, times had changed since 1918. In 2003 the scientists returned, and took two and only two pairs of insects. One pair was given to one of Australia’s foremost insect collectors, and the other pair to a naturalist at the Melbourne Zoo.
Well, the insect collector’s pair died within a week. The ones in the zoo started off well, laid a bunch of eggs, but then they too began to decline. Eve (yes, human’s can be annoyingly unimaginative sometimes) was near death when her caretaker whipped up a concoction of nectar and calcium that proved to be a life saver, within hours she went from near death to cavorting. And the rest is history, while only the first 30 of her eggs were fertile, it was enough, and today there are hundreds of Lord Howe Stick Insects living happily in captivity.
So what now? No one is quite sure. It would be nice to re-establish them on Lord Howe Island. It would however require wiping out the rats on the island. That’s the easy part. Then they have to convince the islanders that a six inch creepy crawly living with them on the island would be a good thing. The Melbourne Zoo has launched a PR campaign to that effect. Will it be successful? Would you want these guys running around your yard at night?
The clincher, the Lord Howe Stick Insect has an extremely unusual behaviour. They apparently form mating pairs, foraging and sleeping together for life. How could anyone resist?
(Palm photo credit and copyright: Black Diamond Images Ball’s Pyramid photo credit and copyright: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Lord Howe Stick Insect credit and copyright: Rod Morris. This was an instant post, written in about an hour. I just think it’s a incredibly cool story, makes me wonder what is hiding out in other hidden corners of the globe.)