For the most part human beings have managed to dominate all but the most inaccessible and wild places of this planet of ours. Almost everywhere you go we are the rulers, the masters and subjugators of all around us, ever asserting our will over all we oversee. Yet there are places out over the horizon where we do not rule, and where animals of often mysterious origins have taken over.
One of the strangest and most amazing islands of animals can be found upon a remote speck of rough volcanic land sitting out in the middle of nowhere in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. Measuring approximately 10 km long and between 2.0 km and 0.3 km wide, Lord Howe Island is part of an archipelago of 28 scattered islands called the the Lord Howe Island Group, and it was long an uninhabited lost world until 1788, when it was claimed as a British possession by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, aboard the passing British prisoner vessel HMS Supply, while on the way to start a penal colony on Norfolk Island.
In the wake of its discovery by Europeans, Lord Howe island 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. 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, as well as domesticated pets such as cats and dogs, which conspired to cause massive damage to the island’s ecosystem and wipe out many endemic plant and animal species that were found nowhere else on Earth.
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. This all did very little good in the end, and rats were eventually responsible for the apparent extinction of the island’s most enigmatic inhabitant, the massive 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.
This seemed to be the end for these majestic insects, and for decades they were considered extinct. Then, in the 1964 an unusual report came in from a group of climbers who had been out scaling a precarious spire of rock jutting forth 1,844 feet into the air from the ocean off Lord Howe Island called Ball’s Pyramid. More or less a jagged tower of volcanic rock that soars straight out of the depths, the pyramid was a popular spot for climbers who were willing to navigate the treacherous rocks and swirling sea to ascend the spire. It also seemed like the last place anyone would expect to find anything living, but it was here that this particular group of climbers came across a recently deceased carcass of a Lord Howe stick insect, which was both exciting and baffling for biologists because it hinted that the insects were not gone after all, and also no one could figure out how in the world it had ended up on this isolated, forbidding slash of rock.
Follow up expeditions were sent over the years to try and find living specimens, but these were unsuccessful and the Lord Howe stick insect became a sort of cryptid, a specter. Then, in 2001 a team of two Australian scientists by the names of David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, along with their assistants, braved the dizzying heights, unsettling vertical drops, and craggy surface of the pyramid to climb up hundreds of feet above the waves, where they found a single, solitary Melaleuca shrub growing out of a crevice high in the air, under which they found the droppings of some large insect.
It was exciting to say the least, and when the team returned after dark, 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 scientists were able to count 24 Lord Howe insects going about their business as if they had never been gone. Further searches of other similar bushes turned up no further insects, and it became apparent that the total population of remaining Lord Howe stick insects in the entire 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 in the middle of nowhere 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 remote, very unlikely location.
In the wake of this amazing discovery there have been efforts to preserve this anomalous population of the giant insects, and a very few have been removed from the island in order to breed them for possible reintroduction to their original habitat. At one point, a landslide destroyed the original bush and it was feared that the insects were gone once again, but fortunately there were some breeding pairs remaining. Out of two breeding pairs that were removed from the island, one pair died off, but another has managed to successfully produce eggs, and 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 Lord Howe insect is both a remarkable success story and a puzzling conundrum. It is still unknown how these giant bugs managed to wind up on Ball’s Pyramid hundreds of feet above the sea on a craggy rock face, or how they managed to survive all of those years sequestered under that one lone bush. It is thought that they may have hitched a ride on sea birds or floating debris, but the answer remains elusive. 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. Whatever the answers may be, the story of the Lord Howe stick insect and their bizarre lost world island lair is intriguing to say the least.
If giant insects aren’t creepy enough for you, then how about an island ruled by poisonous snakes? Ilha de Queimada Grande is an isolated, 110 acre tropical island that lies in the South Atlantic roughly 20 miles off of the coast of Brazil. Other than its quaint beauty, the tiny, uninhabited island seems otherwise fairly innocuous and average from a distance, until one goes ashore and sees that the island is known by its other namesake “Snake Island” for a reason. For slithering through the thick vegetation, lurking in the underbrush, and even hanging from the trees, are thousands upon thousands of deadly snakes of the species Bothrops insularis, known by its common name, the golden lancehead viper.
Indeed, this particular species is only found on this one island, but the truly startling thing about Snake Island is not simply that venomous snakes are found there, but rather just how many of them there are. The island is absolutely teeming with them. Estimates for the density of these venomous snakes on the island vary from a conservative 1 to a horrifying and perhaps exaggerated 5 snakes per square meter. The most common figure given by researchers is around 3 snakes per square meter. It is said that when stepping foot on the island you are never more than 3 feet away from a venomous viper. Since understandably very few scientific expeditions have done a thorough exploration of the island, the exact number is unknown, but it is widely considered to be more snakes per square meter than anywhere else on Earth.
Over the years the island has perhaps not surprisingly accrued a rather ominous reputation, and there are numerous tales of people venturing there to disappear without a trace or to be found half-melted by the flesh dissolving hemotoxic bites of the snakes. While these reports are for the most part unverified, there is plenty of mystery in the fact that no one really knows why there should be such a remarkable concentration of these snakes on the island. It is known that they feed off of the vast numbers of migratory birds that pass the island, but as to why they are so intensely concentrated here is anyone’s guess. For now Ilha de Queimada Grande is off-limits to visitors, with only a very few scientists permitted to go shore. For those of you who don’t like snakes, that is probably all for the best.
Moving away from creepy crawlies such as bugs and snakes, there are other island’s with perhaps cuter, yet equally enigmatic inhabitants. Big Major Cay, near Exuma Island, in the Bahamas, is in every way a postcard perfect island paradise, with white sand beaches and clear azure waters. The one thing that doesn’t really seem to fit in are all of the pigs that call this little island home. Here on this otherwise uninhabited speck of land dozens and dozens of feral pigs can be seen lounging about on the beach, and very unusually swimming and cavorting about in the crystal clear waters.
As with the other animals we have looked at, no one is quite sure how these hogs got here, although it is suspected that they are descended from domesticated pigs aboard a shipwrecked vessel or a population that was intentionally released here as a food source at some point in history. Today the island and its pigs have become a tourist attraction, with several outfits offering excursions out to see the pigs, which are known to swim right up to boats looking for hand outs, much to the delight of tourists. There are tours that actually go ashore as well, but the pigs are said to be bold, unafraid of humans, and potentially dangerous.
Another island paradise with its own strange denizens is the Aldabra Atoll, in Seychelles, which is composed of four tiny uninhabited coral islands and a lagoon. Here one can find the largest population of giant tortoises in the world, with an estimated 150,000 of the gentle giants wandering the beaches and vegetation. Again it is unclear why such a large concentration of these animals should be here, but their presence has made the island a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is mostly off limits to visitors except for small numbers of scientists and naturalists. Those who wish to visit can undergo a vetting process by the Seychelles Islands Foundation and pay a steep fee, which is used towards conservation of the tortoises.
Japan has several islands that are overrun by animals, such as Tashirojima (Tashiro Island), in Miyagi Prefecture, which is a haven for cats. The animals, which were originally introduced in the Edo period to control the rats that fed on precious silkworms, and the population has since ballooned to the point that cats outnumber humans on the island 6 to 1. The cats are well-cared for and revered as bringers of good luck, to the point that a shrine has been erected in their honor, and they bring in masses of tourists year round.
Japan also has Ōkunoshima, also called Usagi Jima, literally “Rabbit Island,” which lies just off the coast of Hiroshima. Here rabbits are king, with around a thousand of the creatures inhabiting an island with no natural predators and cavorting about with not a care in the world. The island is crawling with rabbits, which are very friendly and will approach people in droves looking for handouts, and as with many of the other animals here their presence on the island has long been a bit of a mystery, as they are not an indigenous species. The main idea is that they are test animals that were abandoned with the closing of a Japanese chemical weapon facility from World War II, the ruins of which can still be seen today. However, it is said that all of these animals were euthanized and could not possibly have been the origins of the island’s rabbits. Another idea is that a few rabbits were released onto the island by schoolchildren in 1971, after which they did what rabbits do and multiplied unchecked and unhindered by any natural predators.
Regardless of how the rabbits got to Ōkunoshima, they have managed to reach numbers over a thousand on this tiny speck of land measuring just 2 miles long. With no predators, and laws in place to protect them, making it illegal to kill or harm them in any way, as well as a complete ban on cats and dogs, the feral rabbits of Ōkunoshima are numerous, and their rather tame, inquisitive nature has made the island a very popular place to go to for curiosity seekers. Here visitors flock to see, play with, and feed the many, many rabbits frolicking about, and videos of tourists interacting with the island’s fluffy denizens swarming around them are quite the sensation in a nation that reveres all things cute, with photos and videos from here proving to be quite popular. Indeed, the island is far more well-known for its rabbits than it is for its dark history or poison gas museum. The rabbits are not particularly good for the island’s ecosystem, but they seem to be here to stay.
Cute and cuddly creatures are all good and well, but last we come to perhaps the most tragic island of animals. Within the African country of Liberia there lies an island within a river that for many years served as a research facility run by the New York Blood Center (NYBC) dedicated to finding a vaccine for the disease Hepatitis. The facility, called Vilab II, was established in 1972 and home to around 100 chimpanzees that were used for testing, and was able to keep up its operations through two civil wars in the war-torn nation. The work done at this island lab is considered to be instrumental in helping to develop the vaccine for Hepatitis B, as well as the perfection of sterilization methods.
Then in 2005 the facility was closed down and the NYBC promised to provide ongoing care for the remaining 66 chimpanzees left on the island by making it a chimp sanctuary. However, the funding did not last and in March of 2017 the chimps were simply abandoned to fend for themselves. This was a devastating proposition for the chimpanzees, as they were trapped on a tiny swampy island with no fresh water supply, no food, and very little chance of escape since chimpanzees are not good swimmers. They had effectively been left to die, and despite the fact that the chimps were sterilized they still have somewhat managed to continue breeding. Life finds a way.
When the plight of these apes came to public attention, conservation organizations such as the Humane Society, the Jane Goodall Institute, and Born Free, as well as private donators and various care groups, came forward to try and provide food and care for this isolated island of chimps, gathering more funds through online campaigns, but this has not proved to be sufficient and the chimps face a bleak future. The NYBC has done nothing to help, simply stating that the island has now gone over to the Liberian government, which itself does not have the funds to take care of a bunch of chimpanzees that were never native to the island. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has repeatedly reached out to the NYBC for help, but this has turned up nothing, and Kathleen Conlee, the vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society told the site Motherboard:
It can’t be us by ourselves. We need that New York Blood Center support. They absolutely should be doing this. We’re always cleaning everybody else’s messes up and they have the capacity here to do right by the animals. They’re going to have to.
Sporadic donations and a steady but weak influx of money has helped the Humane Society and other groups provide some semblance of care for the island’s chimps, but it is not nearly enough, and in recent days the animals have become noticeably thin and haggard looking. Whenever caretakers arrive to feed them, which only happens every other day at best, the animals eagerly rush forward to meet them, frantically scrambling for every last scrap they are given. It is a sad state of affairs for these close human relatives, and without a steadier influx of money to help this island of chimps they are certainly doomed to die.
It is often uncertain where many of these animals came from, why they have risen to such heights, or what their futures may hold. They hold onto their island domains out past our control, sowing questions and mysteries. While it may not always be clear what the situation is with these strange lost worlds one thing that is for sure is that it seems that for as much as we reach out and usurp nature and its creatures there will always be some isolated pockets where creatures other than us reign supreme.