A Comeback for Tree Lobsters?
Australia is working to save a species of giant insect once thought to be extinct
PHOTO: Nobody knows how the creepy creatures migrated to this remote island. (Kevin Schafer / CORBIS)
MAP: Ball’s Pyramid is about 13 miles from the tree lobsters’ home of Lord Howe Island. (Jim McMahon)
For nearly 80 years, scientists believed that Lord Howe Island stick insects—also known as tree lobsters—were extinct. Now, 10 years after a handful of these giant insects with lobsterlike exoskeletons were discovered alive, they are at the center of an intense conservation effort in Melbourne, Australia.
The tree lobsters once lived on Lord Howe Island. In 1918, a supply ship ran aground there. Black rats that escaped from the ship landed on the island and began to eat the stick insects. After two years, the rats were everywhere, and the stick insects could no longer be found.
In the 1960s, rock climbers on an island known as Ball’s Pyramid said they’d seen some dead stick insects. Ball’s Pyramid, located about 13 miles south of Lord Howe Island, is a spindle of rock that’s the remainder of an ancient volcanic eruption. But the insects are nocturnal, and were difficult to find. It wasn’t until 2001 that Australian scientist Nick Carlile and a local ranger went to Ball’s Pyramid to search for the insects—and discovered 24 live ones.
“It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world,” Carlile said
A BIG DISCOVERY
Nobody knows how the insects got to Ball’s Pyramid from Lord Howe Island. But scientists do know it is important to protect them. In 2003, four stick insects were taken to Australia for breeding. Two died, and the remaining two were sent to the Melbourne Zoo. The zoo is now breeding its tenth generation of stick insects and is home to 500 of them.
Only 20 to 30 of these giant stick insects are believed to exist in the wild today. Now, conservationists are hoping to reintroduce them to Lord Howe Island. They hope residents of the island will be open to sharing their home with the oversize insects. But first, scientists must clear an even bigger hurdle—removing the black rats that nearly made the insects extinct in the first place. Until then, the zoo will continue to breed the insects in captivity.
Click here to watch a video of a tree lobster hatching!