Phantastic phasmids

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!

Nursery manager holding rare phasmid - this one has been in the breeding bay for 12 months

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.

One-sixth of the known adult phasmid population on Lord Howe

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.

Female (left), male (right). Female phasmids are fatter in the body and longer than the males

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.

Big old banyan whose leaves feed the phasmids

The nymphs hatch out from the eggs …

Eggs of the Lord Howe phasmid

… as little greenies …

This one hatched in September; it's now mid-November, so a couple of months old

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.

How the phasmids were moved to Melbourne Zoo (continued below)

Page 2 of article (continued from photo above)

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.

The island is full of native kentia palms and many species found nowhere else on the planet

Here are more pics of the phasmid, just because I love ’em …

When the rats have finally been eradicated …

Poison laid for rats in PVC pipes - the red tape on the palm shows there's a bait nearby

… the phasmids will be returned to their island home.

Update: Denis also has a post on phasmids here, and Robert Krulwich (he of the fabulous radio program RadioLab) as also written an article on the Lord Howe Island phasmids here.

Further reading on the phasmid

“The Lord Howe Island Signal”, vol. 6 no. 142, 4 November 2011

This entry was posted in Animals on land, Insects, Travels and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Phantastic phasmids

    • Joy Window says:

      I thought of you, Rebecca, while I was handling them, as I remembered you had studied stick insects. 🙂

      • Rebecca says:

        It was just a short presentation for a class I took as an undergrad, but yeah, I was deeply impressed with the idea of the enormous Lord Howe Island stick insects. Can’t believe I “know” someone who’s actually been there and seen them!

        • Joy Window says:

          This tour is not advertised well, and I only found out about it through friends who live on the island, working to eradicate weeds and feral animals. I was thrilled to not only hear the phasmids’ history and photograph them but also to handle them.
          I was the only person to turn up for the tour, and I told the nursery manager that, in truth, I wasn’t all that interested in the kentia palm industry but only the phasmids. He was happy to cut to the chase and give me 30 minutes one-on-one with the phasmids. Hoo-ee!

  1. Cath Clark says:

    Phantasmagorical! I just finished an old Nature mag you’d given me on phasmids, and how some have eggs with a tasty nubbin on the end to fool ants into thinking they’re acacia seeds and dragging them to the safety of their nests for hatching.

  2. Kathy Pearce says:

    Hi Joy. Glad to hear LHI retains its natural wonders and that you think it has not changed for the worse. When you and I went in 1994, I was very impressed, but I think they have achieved some great conservation work since. I think the bush regeneration groups put in fantastic work. I am sort of glad they have stopped rock climbing, because I think it was causing degredation, as witnessed on my last climb of Mt Gower in 2004. The group I went with was a bit too gung ho, tromping around that wonderful mist forest. Can’t wait to see the best of your 800 pics!

    • Joy Window says:

      The doubling of the human resident population and also doubling of tourist numbers over the past 17 years has really had a negative effect. Anyone who has never been before probably wouldn’t notice the great increase in vehicle traffic and general pace of life. Sad but inevitable, I guess. The great natural beauty of the island is still there, though.

  3. Denis Wilson says:

    Nice report Joy.
    I envy your experience with the Phasmids.
    I once sat beside the guy responsible for bringing them back from the Brink of Extinction.
    I was lining up at a “Community Cabinet” meeting to speak with Penny Wong (then Water Minister) and he was waiting to meet Peter Garrett (then Environment Minister).
    We all do what we can, I suppose.

    • Joy Window says:

      Thanks, Denis. I guess every little helps, and if it’s big so much the better. LHI also has had success bringing the endemic woodhens back from said Brink. They were puttering around the gardens where we stayed with seemingly no care in the world, whereas 17 years ago you’d only see them at the foot of the southerly mountains if you were lucky.

  4. Rich says:

    Land Lobster and Dugong…. turf and surf? I realize this comment may be grounds for an unsubscription but you must realize I couldn’t help myself. I know I have a problem… I really enjoy this LHI content, Joy. I could easily browse all 800 of your images!

    • Joy Window says:

      Alas, no dugongs there or on our North Coast of NSW for that matter. It’s my ambition to see one in the wild, but the seagrasses they depend on are getting fewer and fewer. The big floods in Queensland last summer washed a huge amount of sediment into the ocean and smothered the grasses, so the dugongs there are in big trouble.
      I once saw a manatee (close relative to the dugong) in an aquarium in the US, but it’s just not the same as in the wild. I did see the nostrils of a manatee off Cumberland Island, Georgia, last year and was thrilled with that. The owner submerged quickly, though.
      If you come over for a visit to see my 800 photos, I won’t unsubscrive you 🙂
      (I’ll be posting only a fraction – many are duplicates as there’s nothing so frustrating as taking only one shot and it turns out to be slightly out of focus or the critter has moved too fast and is blurry.)

  5. Bug Girl says:

    Oh, I am so jealous! I would love to cuddle a tree lobster. Maybe someday 🙂

  6. They remind me more of weta from new Zealand than walking sticks.

    • Joy Window says:

      I think the “stick” in the common name “stick insect” refers to a tree twig rather than a walking stick – you can’t see them very well in trees as they look like twigs or sticks and so are very well camouflaged. Weta are awesome, too.

  7. Pingback: The silence in the forest | A-roving I will go

  8. Pingback: Video of Lord Howe Island stick insect hatching | A-roving I will go

  9. Pingback: Tally Howe! | A-roving I will go

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