Giant Insect Thought to Be Extinct Has Been Secretly Living on Australian Island

March 14, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Lord Howe stick insect
Photo credit: Granitethighs/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is now the rarest insect on Earth.

All alone, off the eastern coast of Australia, sits Ball’s Pyramid — a steep and rocky island.  It turns out, this solitary chunk of rock is home to the rarest insect on Earth: the Lord Howe stick insect, also known as the tree lobster or walking sausage.

It used to live on Lord Howe’s Island, which is located about 12 miles from Ball’s Pyramid, but it was believed to have gone extinct just two years after rats were accidentally introduced to the island when a ship ran aground in 1918.  

In the 1960s, a few dead tree lobsters turned up on Ball's Pyramid, so it seemed like an unlikely refuge for the plant-eating insect.  

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“Ball's Pyramid is a very inhospitable place,” Paige Howorth, the San Diego Zoo's curator of entomology said to National Public Radio.  “There's no free water on the rock. Really, not much grows there.”

However, in 2001, Australian scientists David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile went to Ball’s Pyramid to find out for certain if there were any of the insects left.  They managed to spot insect droppings beneath a shrub growing in a rocky crevice, and when they returned later that evening to see what bugs were responsible, they spotted a couple dozen of the giant insects.

In order to maintain and grow the population, on February 14, 2003, researchers returned to the island and collected one male and one female tree lobster.  The Melbourne Zoo, located in Australia, now has a breeding program and hundreds of the insects.

In addition to those living in the zoo, tree lobsters are breeding in a few enclosures on Howe Island to protect them from the rats. However, the Melbourne Zoo wants to establish more colonies said Howorth, “so that if something catastrophic happened to the population at Melbourne, there would be something to fall back on for this species.”

The San Diego Zoo tried to breed this insect a few years ago, however it was unsuccessful.  In order to try again, they needed to get a hold of the two main plants that the insects feed on in Melbourne.  So, the zoo got clippings from Australia and began to grow some.

In January, Howorth flew to Melbourne and brought back 300 eggs, which started hatching on February 11.  “We couldn't be happier!,” Howorth said.

“The nymph that comes out of the egg is about three times the size of the egg itself,” continued Howorth.  “It's just folded up in there like an origami piece or something — it's amazing.”

Bristol Zoo in England and the Toronto Zoo in Canada are also establishing populations.

The tree lobster may look intimidating, but it is actually quite docile and its mouthparts can’t bite people.

The hope is that one day the insects could return home and be released into the wild on Lord Howe Island, but before that can happen the island would have to get rid of the rats — which is what residents are currently trying to do.

“It's a very romantic story,” said Melbourne zookeeper Rohan Cleave told National Public Radio, “in that there's always that hope that one day, they may go home.”

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