Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Return of the Land Lobster

Lord Howe Island, Australia

One 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 phasmid

In 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 Pyramid

In 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.

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At 16:01, Anonymous rcwbiologist said...

I love stories like this (the finding of the phasmids, not the extinction of species). Were any of the birds on the island that went extinct flightless? Just curious. I guess a good way of insuring that you don't become extinct if you are a species living on an island with humans is to make sure they need you for something other than food. Great post.

At 22:01, Blogger Ur-spo said...

it is always amazing to learn about some sort of critter being reintroduced like this; and the zeal people have to save something.
It makes me feel good to know someone thinks no species is not worth saving.

At 09:23, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Spo, very interesting info indeed.

At 12:02, Blogger Gary Lee Phillips said...

This is a favorite story of mine as well. Especially since the photos of both islands are so exotic and Ball's Pyramid looks particularly threatening, barren, and forbidding.

Still, I'm just as happy I'm not likely to find these insects in my house. The ones we do get are disturbing enough.

At 07:02, Blogger Floridacracker said...

That's a fascinating tale of loss and rediscovery.
Those islands are spectacular!


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