Ball's Pyramid
December 31, 2014

How tree lobsters survived extinction on Ball’s Pyramid

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Ian Malcolm was (as always) right again: Life found a way. This time, on Balls Pyramid off the coast of Australia with a species called Dryococelus australis.

Odds are you’ve never heard of D. australis (or, the tree lobster), but this species of stick insect has one of the most unique and interesting stories ever produced by the animal kingdom.

tree lobster

Lord Howe Island phasmid. (Credit: Granitethighs/Wikimedia Commons)

According to The Chive, the tree lobster once resided on Lord Howe Island in the Tasmanian Sea. However, in 1918, rats escaped from a cargo ship in the area, spreading all across the island and dining on the nearly six-inch long insects. By 1930, they were believed extinct.

In 1964, a man climbing nearby Ball’s Pyramid, a remnant of a shield volcano and caldera, found a dead tree lobster, but was unable to discover any living specimens. It wasn’t until decades later live ones were discovered, with 24 of them found together on a single Melaleuca shrub. No one knows how they got there, or how they were able to survive.

In fact, as the Daily Mail reported back in 2012, the creatures were living 500 feet above the South Pacific Ocean, and the plant that they called home was the only one that had survived on Ball’s Pyramid. Four of them were removed from the volcano remnant and were used to breed thousands more in order to ensure that species, once thought extinct, would be able to survive.

The discovery was made by Australian scientists David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, who in 2001 set out to investigate reports from climbers claiming to have seen fresh droppings belonging to the six-legged insects, which are the heaviest flightless stick insect in the world. They, too, found the droppings, and continued research uncovered the colony.

“It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world,” said Carlile. Attempts to remove them for breeding purposes were initially blocked by the Australian government, but ultimately four of them were rescued. Two of those tree lobsters died, but the others have gone on to be the foundation of a breeding program at the Melbourne Zoo.

Those insects, which the Daily Mail said were given the names “Adam” and “Eve,” went on to spawn over 11,000 babies. As a result, the tree lobsters, which had long been listed as extinct on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, was upgraded to “critically endangered” in 2002.

As of March 2012, the breeding program had entered its tenth generation, according to The Huffington Post. “The next step for tree lobster advocates,” the website added, “is to convince the people of Lord Howe to exterminate the island's rats in order to make it habitable for the insects once again, an endeavor which could prove very expensive.”

As cool as the tree lobster’s story is, it is not the only extinct species to make a reappearance decades down the road. For example, a type of salmon known as the black kokanee was believed to have been wiped out in the 1940s, only to be found alive four years ago. Likewise, a Chilean frog, the Telmatobufo venustus, had not been seen for a century prior to a sighting in 1999.

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