In 1918, a battered British supply ship was forced to run aground off the coast of Lord Howe Island, a volcanic remnant located hundreds of miles off Australia's eastern seaboard. There, the ship's crew was received by the island's famous Dryococelus australis, a positively massive, hand-sized species of stick insect known to Europeans as "tree lobsters." But these impressive bugs were not long for this world.
In the nine days it took the ship's crew members to repair their damaged vessel, a pack of stowaway rats had managed to jump ship and invade the island. A scourge had been unleashed upon the D. australis population. By 1920, the island had been overrun by rats, and the insects had vanished. The tree lobsters of Lord Howe — long believed to be endemic to the island — were presumed extinct.
But in 2001, scientists made an incredible discovery.
About thirteen miles southeast of Lord Howe sits another island, named "Ball's Pyramid," that would look right at home on the cover of a Tintin comic. It was here, about halfway up the island's precipitous, 1800-foot-high slope, that researchers discovered what is believed to have been one of the last bastions of tree-lobsterdom in the entire world: a collection of two dozen of the enormous black insects, huddled beneath the shelter of a single bush.
D. australis' small-numbered reappearance has led some people to call it the rarest insect in the world, but scientists are working hard to change that. NPR's Robert Krulwich explains:
The important thing, the scientists thought, was to get a few of these insects protected and into a breeding program.
That wasn't so easy. The Australian government didn't know if the animals on Ball's Pyramid could or should be moved. There were meetings, studies, two years passed, and finally officials agreed to allow four animals to be retrieved. Just four.
The plan was to take one pair and give it a man who was very familiar with mainland walking stick insects, a private breeder living in Sydney. He got his pair, but within two weeks, they died.
The other two were taken to the Melbourne Zoo, where, under the care of invertebrate conservation experts, they managed to survive. By 2008, the zoo's captive population had grown to around 700 adults. Today, scientists are faced with the daunting task of reintroducing the bugs to Lord Howe Island, where the descendants of the rats that nearly wiped D. australis off the face of the Earth still pose a significant threat.
You can read more about the history behind these resilient bug behemoths, the puzzling circumstances surrounding their reappearance on Ball's Island, and the ongoing efforts to see them reintroduced into the wild, in this awesome in-depth feature by NPR's Robert Krulwich.
Hat tip to Catherine!
Top image by Rod Morris; Ball's Pyramid photographed by John White via NPR