I’ve just spent a week on Lord Howe Island, about which I’ve posted before (here and here and here). I’ll be posting about it a lot more as it is a naturalist’s paradise, and I took 800 photos, but to start off – I cuddled a land lobster!
The Lord Howe Island phasmid (Dryococelus australis), also known as the land lobster, is said to be the rarest insect in the world. It is an endangered species, found in the wild only on Ball’s Pyramid (a spectacular volcanic rock spire about 20 km from Lord Howe).
These big stick insects (12-15 cm), the world’s largest, were once common on Lord Howe, but the black rats that escaped from an early ship made short work of them. UPDATE: Apparently not the world’s largest; that honour goes to a Borneo stick insect. There’s more on big bugs here.
They were considered extinct in 1920, but were rediscovered by a rock climber on Ball’s Pyramid in 2001. (Just before all you rock climbers grab your gear, note that rock climbing has since been banned there.)
The nursery manager says the scientific team who later investigated them on Ball’s Pyramid didn’t find many during the day, but at night (the team slept over) there were an awful lot more. This makes sense, as the insect is nocturnal and comes out to feed at night.
There are presently a dozen adults and a dozen youngsters (nymphs) in the kentia palm nursery. The nursery manager says the population has stabilised at this number in the cage.
They munch their way through the leaves of the banyan fig (Ficus macrophylla var. columnaris) trees that are plentiful on Lord Howe. On Ball’s Pyramid, where there are no banyans, they feed on meleleuca bushes.
The nymphs hatch out from the eggs …
… as little greenies …
Melbourne Zoo has an official breeding program, now with about 800, and the original adults in the Lord Howe nursery came from that source. The next two shots, taken in the Lord Howe Island museum, show a 2003 article about the transfer of phasmids from Ball’s Pyramid to Melbourne Zoo.
You can see the phasmids and even handle them (gently) if you go on a tour of the kentia palm nursery, Fridays only (book at the Information Centre). Kentia palm exports and tourism are the economic lifeblood of the island.
Here are more pics of the phasmid, just because I love ‘em …
When the rats have finally been eradicated …
… the phasmids will be returned to their island home.
Further reading on the phasmid
“The Lord Howe Island Signal”, vol. 6 no. 142, 4 November 2011