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Tree Lobster' Extinct for 80 Years, Now Bred and Ready for Re-Introduction to Native Habitat

A 13-mile long island of rock in the middle of the South Pacific off the Australian coast called Ball Pyramid housed a large secret -- at least for the insect world. It was home to a small population of 12-centimeter long insects with what NPR says locals described as a lobster-like exoskeleton, giving it the colloquial name "tree lobster". The walking stick-like insect was thought to be extinct for the past 80 years.

NPR describes the insect, which often looks like a piece of a tree, as first identified on Lord Howe Island 13 miles away from Ball Pyramid, but states it had not been seen since the 1920s. By the 1960s, it was officially deemed extinct from the island, but there was a rumor at the time from rock climbers on Ball Pyramid who reported seeing some large, stick-like insects. But the rumor fell flat from there for years.

Following up on the potential of the nocturnal insect being present on the rocky island decades later, David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, Australian scientists, set out to investigate. NPR has more:

[...] they crawled up the vertical rock face to about 500 feet, where they found a few crickets, nothing special. But on their way down, on a precarious, unstable rock surface, they saw a single melaleuca bush peeping out of a crack and, underneath, what looked like fresh droppings of some large insect.

Where, they wondered, did that poop come from?

The only thing to do was to go back up after dark, with flashlights and cameras, to see if the pooper would be out taking a nighttime walk. Nick Carlile and a local ranger, Dean Hiscox, agreed to make the climb. And with flashlights, they scaled the wall till they reached the plant, and there, spread out on the bushy surface, were two enormous, shiny, black-looking bodies. And below those two, slithering into the muck, were more, and more ... 24 in all. All gathered near this one plant.

Carlile described seeing them as like "stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world."

After the 2001 discovery, NPR reports, discussion circled around how to protect and grow the small population. It was decided that scientists could remove a couple insects from the island and bring them back to the mainland for study and breeding. From there, "Adam and Eve" were cared for by Patrick Honan at the Melbourne Zoo and when interviewed by Jane Goodall in 2008, the population had grown from two to 700 adults and 11,376 incubating insects.

With such a healthy population, NPR reports, the next step was to consider introducing them back into their once native habitat: Lord Howe Island. It was thought a rat population was, in part, the cause for their initial demise. Here's what has been done so far:

Step one, therefore, would be to mount an intensive (and expensive) rat annihilation program. Residents would, no doubt, be happy to go rat-free, but not every Howe Islander wants to make the neighborhood safe for gigantic, hard-shell crawling insects. So the Melbourne Museum is mulling over a public relations campaign to make these insects more ... well, adorable, or noble, or whatever it takes.

NPR reports that they also made this video as part of the campaign:

NPR says that how the insects got from Lord Howe Island to Ball Pyramid is still a mystery. But invertebrate keeper at the zoo, Rohan Cleave, had some theories for the Sydney Morning Herald:

‘‘The first is that they floated across on vegetation,’’ he said. ‘‘Secondly, we know that they were used as fishing bait so local fishermen could have thrown them overboard or put them there ... [or] seabirds could have carried them across.’’

For now, NPR notes, it's up to the residents of Lord Howe if the insects will be reinstated. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the initiative to eradicate the rats would have to work first.

One last thing…
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