A giant insect saved from extinction

March 1, 2012 • 1:57 pm

I’m quite familiar with Lord Howe Island, for I’ve published on its bird fauna (garnered from the literature; I haven’t been lucky enough to visit there), and wrote a “news and views” on its flora for Current Biology, a piece that I described on this website (see the link for the geography and location of the island).  It turns out that Lord Howe was once home to a bizarre variety of stick insect, the species Dryococelis australis, the heaviest flightless insect in the world.  Here it is:

The Lord Howe stick insect. Photo by Rod Morris/www.rodmorris.co.nz

This beast, called “the Lord Howe stick insect,” can be nearly six inches long and weigh up to 25 grams—about 0.9 ounces. It’s in the order Phasmatodea (“phasmids”), which includes stick insects, walking sticks, and all manner of bizarre species (see the Wikipedia page for some cool phasmid photos).

Photo by Matthew Bulbert/The Australian Museum

At any rate, Robert Krulwich reported yesterday at KrulwichWonders, his website at National Public Radio, about the near-extinction and rehabilitation of this insect. It was once common on the isolated Lord Howe island, but was completely wiped out within two years when a British ship ran aground in 1918 and accidentally released rats, who made a handy meal of these large, tasty, and defenseless insects (their other name is “tree lobsters”).

For 83 years the species was thought to be extinct, until in 2001 some hardy climbers scaled a nearby spire of rock, the famous “Ball’s pyramid,” a spire of naked rock about 12 miles SE of Lord Howe. It, like Lord Howe itself, is of volcanic origin:

Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe / NPR

The climbers spotted insect droppings and went back at night, finding at least one living insect.  The obvious thing to do was breed them in captivity.

At any rate, go read Krulwich’s description of how a few breeding pairs of insects (the species was down to an estimated 30 individuals) were taken to Australia for breeding, and how they’re now ready for re-release on Lord Howe. First, though, the rats have to be extirpated. And. . . the residents of the island have to want the insects back; curiously, a few are balking.

Be sure to see the awesome Vimeo video (also on Krulwisch’s page) of one of these insects hatching. Don’t miss this one! It’s from the Melbourne Zoo, where the phasmids are being reared, and it’s the first video of this species actually hatching (the eggs incubate for six months).

h/t: Rev. El Mundo

68 thoughts on “A giant insect saved from extinction

  1. I don’t know much about insects of any kind; is it normal for phasmid species to have THAT much trouble getting from of their egg?

    1. It reminded me very much of watching my tarantulas molt. They pop the top of their carapace (more correctly, prosoma) and sort of ooze out, with all 8 legs laboriously sliding & tugged through the leg holes in the exoskeleton that adjoin the carapace. It takes a very long time during which they’re enormously vulnerable.This seems far more understandable in an animal whose new legs are already formed within the hardened legs of the old exoskeleton. I found myself wondering just what it was that made it so difficult for the neonate phasmid?! Perhaps it’s the “hydraulics” needed to straighten out limbs that have been curled/crumpled in ovo?

      Sorry, I know this doesn’t answer your question! Just free associating, as always…

    1. Bait, with poison. It’s a small population, and you target them during periods of food shortage.

      There have been more than 300 successful rat eradication programs in islands. I know of only one that didn’t used a rodenticide.

    2. I believe that on one of the Southern Ocean islands (McQuaries? I’m not sure), they did try eliminating a rat infestation by introducing cats. Which reduced the rats seriously. But then the cats started to chow down on the resident bird population, and continued to expand.
      So, to reduce the threat to the birds, they got rid of the cats …
      And the rats came back even more strongly, and themselves started to expand their portfolio of target species.
      Introducing another exotic species to control an exotic accidental invasive species has a very poor track record.

      1. It’s because they’re legs are big and enough, you won’t even be able to shake them off of you!

        1. Funny you should mention. Just yesterday, Baihu caught his first lizard of the season, and he’s just itchin’ to go back outside right now.

          I got a couple pictures of the kill. I’d be more than happy to email them to you, if you like.


            1. Yup. You nailed it.

              And to hell with the farm-raised bunnies and lambs and Bambis whose ground and frozen remains he eats, too.

              Same goes for the birdies I regularly turn into chicken soup and eat, myself, of course. And the piggies whose bacon I on occasion indulge in.

              Out of curiosity, why aren’t you expressing outrage at the hordes of insects the lizard had so cruelly eaten before Baihu oh-so-brutally cut his life short? Won’t somebody think of the insects!? And all the plants those insects had eaten — and the poor, defenseless photons the plants enslave!


              1. well, that’s an interesting basis for a moral philosophy: ‘why should i behave responsibly if other organisms don’t?’. of course, it’s solipsistic, and (willfully, i’m guessing) stupid, too. the cat doesn’t know any better; you ought to. it’s not determinism, either, is it? it’s not that you can’t help being selfish, shortsighted and destructive; you want to be so. it’s sometimes called ‘the terrible twos’ when referring to infantile behavior in children; maybe ‘sociopath’ is more appropriate for you.

              2. My, my. What hypocrisy.

                Come back when you’ve stopped being a mass-murderer yourself.

                At least I’ve got some idea of what deaths I’m responsible for. You just play the “three monkeys” game and somehow think that makes it all better.

                Poor kid. Don’t look too closely in that mirror — you won’t like what you’ll find there. Then again, the sooner you have a peek, the sooner you might get over yourself.


              3. your argument seems to be based on at least two inane assumptions: all life is of equal value; the behaviour of any organism, conscious or not, justifies that of any other. if you’re actually interested in discussing the issues, you’ll quit making assumptions about me and hyperventilating over them.

              4. your argument seems to be based on at least two inane assumptions: all life is of equal value; the behaviour of any organism, conscious or not, justifies that of any other.

                lt;snork />

                You are so clueless.

                Got any idea how many animals of all sorts whose brutal deaths you’re continually responsible for?

                No, I don’t give a flying fuck even if you’re the most conscientious vegan on the planet, you’re still killing animals by the boatload.

                What, you think that wheat in the bread you’re eating didn’t get harvested by a combine that kills far more lizards, rodents, birds, and what-not in an hour than any cat could possibly be responsible for in a year?

                How ’bout all the pigs and chickens the Chinese workers ate so they could build the computer you’re working on? Or the cows who died so the construction workers who built your home could eat Big Macs?

                The only way I could possibly respect such an ignorant and obnoxious a hypocrite such as you were if you fed yourself to a lion, thereby giving some wildebeest a few more days of life.

                if you’re actually interested in discussing the issues, you’ll quit making assumptions about me and hyperventilating over them.

                Dude, you’re the one who started preaching to me.

                And, in case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t an argument, it’s abuse. Arguments are down the hall and to the left.

                Stupid git.



              5. if you take a deep breath and calm down a little, maybe you could read what i wrote and respond to that, rather than ranting about irrelevancies…which does seem to be your forte, admittedly.

              6. Okay guys, enough. Take it to private email, where this one-on-one belongs.

    1. Because he learned, probably long ago, to control his human-normal reactions.
      I used to be quite a strong arachnophobe ; not quite ‘screaming on a chair’ level, but not far from it. My sisters cottoned onto this and wound me up deliberately about it, as siblings do. I learned to control my “hammer them to pulp” reaction through a lot of camping etc, when manual population control reaches into the unfeasible. But I never got past a shudder.
      Until I persuaded a babe to invite me home from the bar, after months of trying. And she wanted me, amongst other things, to meet her red-kneed tarantula (IIRC) and stroke it. Some kink of hers, I guess, but the message was plain : “any sign of disgust, and it’s no nookie for you”.
      Given sufficient encouragement, one can overcome these reactions.

  2. Great post, though I found the video distressing – not because I’m a phasmophobe (quite the opposite) but because the poor thing has to put in such a lot of effort!

  3. How do they plan to get rid of the rats?

    poison, no doubt.

    Cool video. As parts emerge from the egg they’re inflated with air.

    The story of finding them on Ball’s pyramid is fantastic too.

  4. They look quite adorable. Could they be bred as pets? That would be one method of ensuring their survival.

    Alternatively, how do they taste? Could they replace lobster and prawns?

  5. Sorry for off topic. Thought this might be of interest to the folks who come to your site.

    For U. S. readers – tonight at 8 PM eastern time National Geographic is airing ‘Cradle of the Gods’ about a temple dating 7000 years before the pyramids. A reshowing will occur at 10PM.

    I have no knowledge of how good or poor the program will be, but will be checking it out.

    1. Nat Geo is a bunch of wh*res. Their most recent effort (March 2012 print issue) has a lengthy article on the apostles with extremely low standards for veracity.

      1. Sorry to hear that. Maybe ‘past performance is no guarantee of future results’ might make this interesting anyway. If it is bad, I am glutton enough for punishment to see how bad – up to my nausea threshold.

    2. Doesn’t appear to be coming out in the near (this side of Monday) future in the UK – just the usual diet of Air Crash Investigation with an overdose of 9/11 maunderings.
      A “temple” that is 7000 years older than the pyramids isn’t, quite, incredible. We’ve got Pyramid-contemporary (approximately) structures scattered through this region, for which some sort of ritualistic interpretation is pretty much inescapable. (Well, if you’ve heard any credible non-religious interpretation of recumbent stone circles, educate me.) So, construction of elaborate structures for ritual purposes was widespread by that time.
      7000 years earlier … is quite a stretch in one leap. More than doubling the time range of such structures. However, the Göbekli Tepe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe ; beware of line-wrap problems in the link.) site in southern Turkey is (to my eye) clearly some sort of ritual site. A temple, of some sort. That is dated to around 8000 BCE.
      Ah, yes, that’ll be the target : Charles C. Mann, “The Birth of Religion: The World’s First Temple” National Geographic Vol. 219 No. 6 (June 2011), pp. 34–59: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text
      Well, most likely.
      I’m often underwhelmed by the content and style of Nat Geo productions, but they’re generally relatively respectable about what the put in print. There’s a lot more utter tosh on their TV channel though. The “57 channels and nothing on” syndrome. (I have something like 600 channels now, and there’s even less on.

  6. I’ve always had aversion to insects (especially moths and grasshopers) and arachnids, and generally speaking arthropods. I’m wondering if this kind of phobia (as with worms and such) has an evolutionary explanation, cause many people do. I’m not sure if it’s cultural, I don’t see a reason for it to be. I just find them disgusting, and so my siblings. When I was a kid we had an “animal encyclopedia” with big color photos of animals, and I used to get anxious every time I opened it (I was still curious) because I didn’t want to land on the page with the giant mantis face on it.

    1. I believe there is some literature supporting an inherent predisposition in many humans for arachnophobia (and ophidiophobia).

      I definitely have the former. As a would-be biologist, it infuriated me, and I’ve managed to ameliorate it significantly by owning tarantulas. I love to observe spiders in situ, but still have a cow when a large, darting grass spider suddenly appears on the couch with me…

      1. I was born and raised in South America and my country has part Amazon jungle. I lived in a coastal city, and it’s the Andes mountains between both. I’ve been to the latter two regions, but I’m too chicken to visit the jungle partly because of this (well, mostly). Huge, horrible monster insects over there!

        1. Omigosh, I’ve only been in the tropics twice, and I absolutely love the “jungle,” tho I was as trepidatious as you were before my first visit. Do take advantage of your wonderful opportunity. Just learn to recognize ponerines…

      1. Found it on Google Earth. Very clearly part of a caldera-rim intrusion. A ring-dyke probably. There’s another couple of arcuate reefs a half-km or so to the west, which also look to follow the caldera rim.
        There are some seriously spiky bits in the NAIP (North Atlantic Igneous Province) too – I’m hoping that my diving club will get to St Kilda one day … or should I exercise some of my extortion options and get Uncle Horrible and Dr Toxic to “volunteer” their boat.
        Which begs the question of how old this province is? 7Ma, according to Wikipedia.
        Hmm, that’s a geologically interesting area. It’s also a hydrocarbon exploration prospect, so I’ll just tighten the focus of my “places to get work” list slightly. It’s all part of my plan for world domination, which is proceeding on schedule.

  7. When I look at that picture of Ball’s Pyramid I think I have just found a new location for my supervillan lair.

    Captive breeding program? Oh yeah, there will be a captive breeding program. I will make these insects into MY MINIONS!

    1. Aaack–it says they were trapped…but then what?! I probably don’t want to know. Good for the native wildlife tho.

      1. Apparently they are all going to be put up for adoption, although one wonders about their suitability as pets after being feral.

    1. That would seem to have this “tree lobster” beat by quite a bit! And now that you mention it, I remember the wetas being in the news not that long ago…

      Perhaps the Lord Howe stick insect is more correctly the biggest phasmid.

  8. “A giant insect saved from extinction”

    Let me guess, you’re talking about Bryan Appleyard’s spirited defence of Alain de Botton?

  9. Oddly… one of the singles on the home page of the UK iTunes store today is “Matilda”/“Fitzpleasure” (EP) by alt-J (∆), the cover (!?) of which is a picture of Ball’s Pyramid!


  10. I’m sure you could roast them and eat them but there would be an hour of SCREAMING, one bite, hour of SCREAMING!

    No amount of tequila. Seriously.

    I had to be restrained watching “Starship Troopers.” Can you imagine me in Middle Earth?

    No. Effing. Way.

    1. You’re just not hungry enough.
      Witchetty grub, anyone?
      Broiled tarantula (as I recall from a Hamish McInnes climbing book – “Climb to the Lost World”, or something similar).
      The list is not endless, but is substantial.

  11. Way cool! I wonder what the basis of the calcium in the revival fluid was/is?

    Also, will they return a few of the new batch to the Pyramid, wait a few generations, and re-harvest some to try to increase genetic diversity?

    And per Wikipedia, Lord Howe has a population of 347 with tourists limited to <400 at any time. Sounds good to me!

  12. the residents of the island have to want the insects back; curiously, a few are balking.

    Lab-grown giant insects released on an inhabited island… what could possibly go wrong?

  13. “incubating eggs: 11,376 at that time, with about 700 adults in the captive population”

    All the progeny of one pair drawn from a wild population of 30. Now there’s a bottleneck! I wonder what sort of genetic diversity remains in this captive population.

    1. Not a lot. So … it’d be fairly urgent to return (say) a half dozen of the captive population to the island, while attempting capture of one or two others.
      Lather, rinse, repeat. Rapidly you’d get to sample most of the genetic variation available.
      That would be a pretty good case for doing individual genetics before each round of breeding. Precisely to ensure that you’re capturing as much of the genetic variability as you’ve got in your (captive) population.

  14. What a fantastic post!! And vid!

    Despite all the excellent pictures at Krulwich’s site, after reading his write-up I found I was really wishing for a shot of the bush (apparently, there was just one) these insects were found under.

    I wonder how the phasmids avoided burgeoning to the point of killing this one bush?

  15. What a beautiful animal.
    That hatching video though was seriously distressing, it got me very tense and anxious and all I wanted to do was to reach out and pull that insect free from the egg. Speaking about egg how on earth could it fit in there? Talk about compact living.

  16. If they evolved from winged ancestors, they’re lucky it wasn’t because they had huge stingers to compensate for loss of flight.

  17. When I visited Lord Howe Island during the 80s, I was told that this insect, now extinct on Lord Howe itself, was _known_ to exist on Ball’s Pyramid. The Pyramid is a favourite spot for climbers, and sightings were common.

    Climbers of a particularly hardy type, I should point out, since to reach the top meant having to stay overnight suspended vertically in sleeping bags secured to the rock. Which is when most climbers met the Pyramid’s second most famous denizen, a large and aggressive centipede. Anyone have any information about this creature?

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