Return of the Land Lobster
Lord Howe Island, AustraliaOne of my recent postings talked about island endemism and reminded me of the insect conservation story that most inspires me. It’s from Lord Howe Island, a tiny archipelago off of the east coast of Australia. It’s sufficiently isolated that large numbers of the species that live there are endemic. Nearly half of the plant species (over 100 species) are found nowhere else in the world. The island was once home to 15 native species of land birds, 7 of which were endemic. Nine have subsequently become extinct, however four of the surviving species are endemics. One of the island’s coolest creatures is its native stick insect, the Lord Howe Island phasmid. This flightless species ranges to 6" in length. Its large size gave it the nickname of "land lobster." It was formerly abundant enough that they were used as fishing bait. Curiously, this feature may have saved the species from extinction.
A "land lobster" or Lord Howe Island phasmidIn 1918 the freighter Makambo foundered at the island, and black rats escaping the ship became established there. The rats devastated much of the island’s fauna, including several bird species. The last phasmids were seen just two years after the shipwreck.
Ball's PyramidIn the late 1960s, rock climbers were exploring an offshore island called Ball’s Pyramid about 15 miles from the main island. Rats had never become established on Ball’s Pyramid. The climbers found a dead phasmid. Rumors of possible surviving phasmid population persisted for decades until an expedition visited in 2001. They found a tiny population surviving under a single bush fairly high on the island. It's not known exactly how the phasmids got to Ball's Pyramid, a mostly unsuitable habitat. Transport from the main island by fishermen is one possibility.
Today, a captive propagation program is underway at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. The current captive population is about 50 individuals. Lord Howe Island has been cleared of goats and pigs, and there are plans afoot to attempt rat eradication. If the rat eradication is successful, phasmids will be released onto the island to repopulate their former range.