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The Lost World Island of the Giant Bugs

The world has corners and crevices in which some of the most amazing things remain hidden from sight, tucked away beyond our awareness and understanding. These places lurk out over the horizon, sequestered away in remote, secluded locales far from our prying eyes and sometimes harboring wondrous discoveries and creatures. On occasion, these sanctuaries from civilization harbor new species as well as those which have long been considered extinct. Without a doubt one of the most amazing cases of a such a creature is a truly gigantic insect that remained for nearly a hundred years merely a forgotten memory, only to be found teetering on the edge of extinction upon a barren patch of rock in the middle of the ocean, and it remains a beacon of hope not only for those who look out over the seas and wonder what discoveries may lie out there, but also for those who believe that nature can sometimes find a way to fan an ember of life in the face of oblivion.

Sitting out in a remote corner of the vastness of the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, is a crescent shaped speck of volcanic land measuring around 10 km long and between 2.0 km and 0.3 km wide called Lord Howe Island. The quaint island is tucked away within what is called the Lord Howe Island Group, which is comprised of 28 scattered islands varying in size from many kilometers long all the way down to practically mere rocks jutting from the waves. Lord Howe Island itself was long an uninhabited snarl of rough volcanic rock and wild vegetation, known only to the Polynesian people of the Pacific, but in 1788 all that would change.

Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island

In February of 1788, the British vessel HMS Supply was on its way from Botany Bay along with nine male and six female convicts, in order to establish a penal colony on Norfolk Island. As the prison vessel made its way past this unknown, uncharted land, the crew would become the first Europeans to lay eyes upon this lost world. The commander of the vessel, Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, was so intrigued by this mysterious island and a nearby distinctly unusual spike of jagged rock that burst forth like a spire from the sea that he decided to take a closer look on the way back from their mission. On the return journey back to Botany Bay, Ball sent a landing party to investigate the island and claim it as a British possession, and who also found it to be teeming with all manner of completely new plant and animal life. Ball gave the island the name Lord Howe Island, after the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, Richard Howe, and the curious, oddly shaped outcropping of rock he had seen would be named Ball’s Pyramid, after himself.

It was not long before this once tranquil island that had been untouched by human hands for millennia became first a major whaling outpost and provisioning port in the early 1800s, then a full-fledged settlement starting from 1834. None of this was particularly good news for the many endemic species here that were found nowhere else in the world. Here there abounded an incredibly diverse ecosystem of unique flora and fauna that had evolved in the complete absence of humans. Indeed, the island displayed a striking amount of biodiversity and a high degree of endemism for its size and relatively short geological history, and it still does. However, the arrival of humans brought with it earth shattering changes for the wildlife here. Humans readily hunted animals for food and also eliminated any that were perceived as a threat to their crops, which themselves required the clearing of large amounts of the island’s forests.

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Humans also brought with them invasive weeds that served to spread out to choke out native plant life, as well as various livestock animals such as pigs and goats, and unwanted stowaways in the form of rats and mice. These were new, aggressive species with which the species of plants and animals of Lord Howe Island had never had any contact, and from which they had no defense. Many of the pigs and goats brought here quickly fanned out across the pristine landscape of the island and went about causing all manner of damage. Goats ate copious amounts of plant life, in the process disturbing natural nesting areas for the island’s many unique species of bird, and pigs not only rooted through the ground looking for roots but also readily devoured bird eggs and even chicks. The introduction of stray cats and dogs to the island in later years would only further exacerbate the problem.

The introduction of rats and mice to the island did perhaps even more damage to this previously untouched ecosystem than any other animal brought here by the hands of man. They ate practically anything they could get their paws on, including birds, eggs, insects, and lizards, ravenously bringing about destruction in their wake. The arrival of these rodents was an absolute scourge, and caused a breathtaking trail of decimation of native species, to the point where settlers of the island went to great lengths to eradicate rats and mice, even offering increasingly generous bounties for the tails of the little beasts, all of which made the hunt for rats and mice a very popular pastime and all of which had little effect on reducing the burgeoning rodent population on the island.

Some of the animals brought in to fight the rat cataclysm caused just as much damage to the fragile native ecosystem as the animals they were meant to wipe out. Cats brought to Lord Howe Island as ratters were also devastating for the many unique endemic birds and small animals that called the island home, as was the introduction of Tasmanian masked owls in the 1920s. As the biodiversity around them suffered severe losses and an alarming rate of extinction unfolded, the adaptable rats thrived. Indeed it was rats that were responsible for the shocking downfall of perhaps one of Lord Howe Island’s most enigmatic and fascinating of inhabitants.

World renowned naturalist and film-maker Sir David Attenborough (out of frame) holds a Phasmid, or Lord Howe Island Stick Insect during a visit to Melbourne Zoo, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. These invertebrates were wiped out on their island home nearly 100 years ago by rats, but a tiny colony was discovered clinging to a cliff on Ball's Pyramid, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Lord Howe Island, nearly ten years ago. (AAP Image/Joe Castro) NO ARCHIVING

Lord Howe stick insect

The Lord Howe stick insect (Dryococelus australis) is truly a behemoth, with adult male specimens measuring up to 15 cm (6 inches) long and weighing in at around 25 grams (0.88 oz.), making them the largest and heaviest flightless stick insects in the world. The Lord Howe stick insect is so large and intimidating looking, in fact, that they have long commonly been aptly called “tree lobsters.” Indeed, they are impressive looking creatures, with thick legs, wingless armored bodies, and a heavy oblong shape. Despite their formidable appearance, they are actually quite harmless; with their main defenses being to climb trees or rocks and running surprisingly fast for their size, using their powerful legs to vault along. Besides their sheer size, the Lord Howe stick insects are known for their tendency to form strong life bonds with mates, and will adjust their behavior based on what the other is doing, follow each other everywhere, and even sleep together with their arms protectively wrapped around each other, which are all rather bizarre traits for an insect species.

Once plentiful, the Lord Howe stick insect was found throughout the island, and was a common sight crawling about on trees and bushes, no doubt much to the chagrin of people afraid of very large bugs. In fact, the insects were so abundant that they were once used as bait for fishing. However, they were also seen as a delicacy for the island’s many rats, as was pretty much everything else, and had no real natural defenses against this alien threat. The rats made quick work of these easy targets, relentlessly hunting the stick insects down and eating through their population until by the early 20th century there were nearly none of these truly one-of-a-kind creatures left. The last Lord Howe stick insect was seen in 1920, after which they were considered to be extinct. The forests, which were once teeming with the insects, were now minus yet one more species of endemic animal and met with yet another casualty in the war against the invading animals. It was a swift and tragic demise for such a bizarre and unique species as the Lord Howe stick insect, and it followed in the footsteps of countless other animals that human activity had paved the road to destruction for, including birds, lizards, and practically all mammals native to the island.

Ball's Pyramid

Ball’s Pyramid

This might have been the end of the enormous Lord Howe island stick insect, a truly unique species wiped off the face of the earth forever, but to the larger world it had had a miniscule impact as far as the people of the outside world were concerned. After all, this was a small, isolated and sparsely inhabited far away island; a mere forgotten speck far out over the waves from the throngs of civilization. What cares did anyone in the outside world have for such things as colossal bugs? Not even the people who inhabited the island really felt the loss of the Lord Howe stick insect. Yet naturalists were keenly interested in the species, and were excited when in the 1960s a group of adventurous climbers came back with startling news from the place called Ball’s Pyramid, around 23 kilometers (14 mi) south-east of Lord Howe Island.

Looking like something from Skull Island in the movie King Kong, or even a landmark of an alien planet, the precipitous spire of rock called Ball’s Pyramid climbs out of the sea to soar straight up 1,844 feet into the air. Standing completely alone, with no other nearby landmasses, and comprised of more or less a narrow, vaguely triangular spike of sheer, vertical volcanic rock, Ball’s Pyramid makes for a striking sight looming over the open sea, wreathed with the froth and waves around it, and is also the last place one might expect to find anything living. Yet it was here in 1964 that a group of climbers claimed to have accidentally made an amazing and baffling discovery while scaling the cliffs. There, up upon the treacherous, wind lashed rock with the relentless crashing of the waves below, the team reportedly came across some carcasses of Lord Howe stick insects that were described as being recently deceased. It was an incredibly unusual find, not only because these creatures had been presumed extinct for decades, but also because no one could figure out just how this species could have possibly wound up so far away from its native habitat out on the forbidding, isolated terrain of Ball’s Pyramid.

As exciting as the finding of dead specimens of this long thought to be extinct species was, further investigation proved to be difficult. The remote location and the perilous climb involved with scaling the slick, formidable rock discouraged curious scientists who wanted to get a closer look and possibly find some living specimens. Further confounding efforts was the fact that Lord Howe stick insects are nocturnal, meaning finding live specimens would entail a highly dangerous climb up precarious rock faces far from civilization in the dark of night; a potentially fatal and arduous undertaking very few were even willing to seriously consider. Despite the risks, a few particularly brave souls did mount scattered expeditions to Ball’s Pyramid over the years, but none were successful in finding any further sign of the stick insects. And so the Lord Howe stick insect remained elusive and still technically considered extinct.

A big Lord Howe stick insect male

A big Lord Howe stick insect male

For another 50 years the Lord Howe insect would remain frustratingly elusive, with no solid evidence that it really still existed other than the rumors of the carcasses that had been found. Then, in 2001, a team of two Australian scientists by the names of David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, along with their assistants, were passing by Ball’s Pyramid on a boat to survey the island for potential stick insect habitats where a population might still survive when they spotted some sparse vegetation high up on the windswept cliffs and decided to investigate. Braving the dizzying heights, unsettling vertical drops, and craggy surface, the team managed to climb around 500 feet above the churning sea, peeking and poking into crevices and sparse bushes for any sign of the Lord Howe insect, but all they could find were crickets. It was not until they had given up and were heading back down the slippery, precipitous cliff that they spotted what appeared to be droppings from a very large insect scattered under a solitary, forlorn Melaleuca shrub growing out of a crevice and perched up 100 meters (330 feet) above the waves. It could not have been any more in the middle of nowhere, yet there these droppings were. It was an exciting find, and the team decided to return after dark, as this would be when any potential Lord Howe stick insects would emerge from hiding.

It was a dangerous proposition to say the least, and the only ones who were willing to risk the night climb were Nicholas Carlile and a local ranger by the name of Dean Hiscox. Armed with flashlights and cameras, the two courageous climbers risked their lives to crawl up the sheer wall in the darkness back up to the solitary bush that had been seen with the droppings under it. There upon the branches of this lone bush that was so secluded it may as well have been on another planet they were met with a startling sight; two large, black and shiny bodies scampering about on the branches amid the leaves. A closer look found even more of the enormous things crawling about in the murk, and the excited scientist was able to count 24 Lord Howe insects going about their business as if they had never been gone. Further searches of other bushes turned up no further insects, and it became apparent that the total population of remaining Lord Howe stick insects in the world consisted of just these 24 individuals, and they all lived in only one place; on and under this one lone spindly little bush perched atop a bleak, craggy spike of rock far from their original habitat. So it was that one of the largest insect species in the world, which had been considered extinct for over 80 years, was found still clinging to life in this unlikely location. Carlile would later describe the astonishing sight thus:

It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world.

The presence of the supposedly long extinct Lord Howe stick insect on Ball’s Pyramid was confounding for scientists, and no one could quite figure out how they had possibly ended up all the way out there on that one bush high up on this cliff face. There were a lot of theories bandied about, including the idea that the insects had hitched a ride on the backs of birds or aboard a fishing vessel from the main island, as well as the notion that they had possibly drifted over on an uprooted tree or clump of wayward vegetation, but there was no definitive answer. It was also unclear as to just why they had only inhabited that one bush even though other bushes were around, or how they had survived for so long there in that one tiny spot. With so few remaining specimens it was also unknown just how they had kept their numbers for the past 80 years without dwindling away to nothingness, although it could have been due in large part to the fact that in times of very low numbers the Lord Howe stick insect can demonstrate parthenogenesis, or the ability to procreate without the presence of a male.

Ball's Pyramid

Ball’s Pyramid

In the midst of these unanswered questions, which remain enigmas even to this day, the only thing anyone knew for sure was that this was a critically endangered species in severely low numbers, indeed one of the rarest creatures in the world. The scientists decided that it was imperative to retrieve a breeding pair so that they could be brought back to the mainland to begin preservation efforts, but this idea ran into some hurdles. Australian officials at first resisted the idea of removing any of the few remaining insects from Ball’s Pyramid, limiting human interaction with the species to mere observation and study, as it was thought that even removing one could be potentially devastating to this isolated wild population. Then, after two years of much deliberation and debate on the matter, a team was finally allowed to journey there with the purpose of gathering just four specimens.

When a team was sent to collect the specimens, they found much to their horror that a major landslide had occurred in the general vicinity of the previously discovered bush, leading them to fear that the last remaining population of the Lord Howe stick insects on Earth had been wiped out after managing to survive there for so long. It was a pleasant surprise when the team scaled the rocks to find that the shrub remained and that the insects were still there. Two breeding pairs were carefully removed and brought to Sydney, where one of the pairs quickly deteriorated in health and sadly died within two weeks in the care of an experienced expert breeder of stick insects. The remaining pair was moved to Melbourne, where they were turned over to invertebrate breeder Patrick Honan at the Melbourne Zoo, and a breeding program was put into place.

Lord Howe stick insect

Lord Howe stick insects

The pair, appropriately nicknamed Adam and Eve, successfully managed to produce batches of eggs, and there was hope that the whole plan would actually work. However, things went downhill when Eve’s health inexplicably degraded to the point that she was nearly dead, a mere curled up quivering ball, and it took almost a month of intensive care before the huge insect was finally revived with a solution of calcium and nectar that was hand fed to her with a dropper. After this initial scare, the breeding program took off, with Eve producing eggs just as had been hoped. It was these eggs from this sole female that would serve as the basis to establish a whole captive population of the Lord Howe stick insects numbering in the hundreds, with thousands of eggs, and bring them away from the dark brink of extinction. By 2012, there were over 1,000 adult Lord Howe stick insects in captivity and around 20,000 eggs, many of which have been sent to zoos all over the world, including the Bristol Zoo in Europe, the San Diego Zoo in the United States, and the Toronto Zoo in Canada.

The final aim of course has always been to return these “tree lobsters” back to their original habitat on Lord Howe Island, but there are several obstacles that need to be overcome before this ever becomes a reality. The first is that, although feral pigs and cats were successfully eradicated from Lord Howe Island in the 2000s, and the goat population has been drastically reduced to nearly nothing, the island is still quite infested with rats. In order for there to be any chance of reintroducing the Lord Howe stick insects to the island, there must be a very thorough, concerted and expensive extermination campaign to make the habitat safe for the insects. In addition to this setback is the matter of public opinion, with many of the islanders not exactly thrilled with the idea of having humongous, scary looking bugs crawling around in their backyard. There will have to be some sort of public relations effort made to warm people up to the idea of having these giant insects around again.

The saga of the Lord Howe stick insect incorporates a wide variety of impressive features. It shows that there are those willing to risk life and limb in order to save even a maligned giant bug from the precipice of oblivion. It shows that nature can surprise us with its ability to hide away its secrets far from where they will ever be found. And perhaps most importantly it shows the tenacity of life to fight against all odds and turn up in the most curious of places. In the Lord Howe stick insect we have a tale of adventure, discovery, and of the unconquerable power of the natural world to find a way through mazes of devastation and despair. For 80 years this creature clung to life at the edges of the world, defying its own inevitable doom and teaching us that sometimes the flame of hope is not so easily extinguished. Life finds a way. One hopes that the people of Lord Howe Island will realize the plight of this gentle giant, recognize its importance, and welcome it back home with open arms. The Lord Howe stick insect has certainly earned it.