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RETURN OF THE LAND LOBSTERS
by Jenny Sontag

 

 
 

Would you let a 4 1/2 inch-long insect crawl over your hands, head and face? When Jane Goodall, famous scientist, let one wander across her, she said these walking sticks were very friendly! She was thrilled at the re-discovery of the Lord Howe Walking Stick.

Four and one-half inches is about the length of this cigar-shaped, flightless bug. With an exoskeleton like a lobster, it has mammoth-sized hind legs for its size that look like lobster's claws. Sometimes called a land lobster, this giant insect was once thought to be extinct. Who would have thought it would reappear on Ball's Pyramid, a remote, volcanic island 13 miles from its lush forest home?

Balls Pyramid, the tallest volcanic island in the world, is found in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of Australia. Far up the cliff is a Melaleuca (mela'lju:ke) bush (part of the myrtle plant family) that overlooks the pounding waves. This bush is now the only place in the world where this peculiar walking stick lives.

About 13 miles southeast from Ball's Pyramid is another island called Lord Howe Island. The forests on this island were once the only known home of this giant walking stick. In 1918 a British supply ship, the S.S. Makambo, wrecked on Lord Howe. Big, black rats from the ship made their way to the island during the nine days the ship was repaired.

The rats apparently found the wingless insect to be delicious, and two years later there were many more rats, but the Walking Stick had disappeared. In 1960 scientists declared the Lord Howe Walking Stick, Dryococelus australis, extinct.

In the 1960s, rock climbers scrambled up Ball's Pyramid. About half-way up, the climbers saw dried shells of enormous insects. They wondered if these exoskeletons could be remains of the Lord Howe walking stick on this rat-free island.

They questioned how they got to this isolated place. If these were Lord Howe Walking Sticks, then these forest-loving insects were now living on an old volcanic rock stack. Scientists discounted reports of giant insects living on Ball's Pyramid for these very reasons.

In 2001, two Australian scientists, David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, decided to investigate further. They saw fresh insect frass (droppings) under the only green Melaleuca bush, but no insects. They knew the insects were nocturnal. So, with flashlights and cameras, the scientists climbed the stack, which was a dangerous mission.

In and under the bush were 24 giant black walking sticks. Looking at them, Carlile remarked, "It felt like stepping back in the Jurassic age when insects ruled the world."

Scientists have guessed that perhaps a female Lord Howe Walking Stick, loaded with eggs, rode on a bird's leg to Ball's Pyramid. Or, maybe she floated on vegetation after a storm. No one knows for sure. However she traveled, she then found the only scrap of vegetation that would nourish herself and her offspring for the next 80 years.

After the excitement of discovering that the Lord Howe Walking Stick was not extinct, scientists wanted to begin a breeding program to insure their survival. It took two years of discussions with the Australian government to convince them. During this time, there was a rock slide on Ball's Pyramid. The entire colony of Lord Howe Walking Sticks could have been wiped out!

But on Valentine's Day 2003, the scientists found the insect colony living on and around the same bush. The Australian government had decided the scientists could capture only four walking sticks because they were so rare.

Two males and two females were captured. One pair went to an insect breeding specialist in Sydney. But both soon died. The other couple went to the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. They were named Adam and Eve.

For the first month in her new home, Eve laid 30 eggs. But soon afterwards she became very sick. She lay limp, curled in the hand of a scientist. He fed her nectar and calcium bit by bit from a dropper. It took a month of this special care before she seemed well again. Eve did lay more eggs, but they were not viable. Only the first 30 eggs produced live babies. The male Lord Howe Walking Stick sleeps next to a female with three of his legs wrapped protectively over her. Pairing up is an unusual insect behavior. But perhaps this is part of the reason for their survival.

In 2008, the Melbourne Zoo had rows and rows of egg incubators: 11,376 walking stick eggs in all and 700 adults! Just in the past 12 months, the Melbourne Zoo bred thousands of Lord Howe Island Stick insects. To insure this species survives, eggs have been sent to other zoos and private breeders around the world.

To watch a video of the Lord Howe Walking Stick, click here.

 

 
 

 

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