by Liz Forsyth
Seven million years ago, a volcano rose from the ocean off of Australia, in the South Pacific. Ball’s Pyramid was first noted by British naval officer Ball in 1788. At 1,844 feet high, with an extremely narrow width, it sits, in the ocean, all alone.
Except for a spindly little bush, hanging on the rock’s surface 225 feet above sea level.
Thirteen miles from Ball’s Pyramid exists a larger island known as Lord Howe Island. Many years ago, a stick insect, the largest in the world, lived there. It was 4.5 inches long, non-flying, and called by the Europeans a “tree lobster” as it wore a hard, lobster-like exoskeleton.
Until 1918, when the S.S. Makambo ran aground, necessitating evacuation. Along with the passengers, the black rats left as well, subsequently feasting on the tree lobsters. By 1920 there wasn’t a single sighting of the insect, and by 1960 the Lord Howe walking stick insect, Dryococelus australis was presumed to be extinct.
But there was a rumor. Climbers scaling Ball’s Pyramid in the 1960s claimed to have seen “recently dead” stick insect corpses on the rocks. Nocturnal insects, which no one wished to go looking for in the dark on such a treacherous climb.
In 2001, two Australian scientists, David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, along with two assistants, decided that it was worth a closer look. I mean, how often does one find an extinct one-of-a-kind walking stick insect, extant? They found a single melaleuca bush on the rock side, and underneath it, what appeared to be fresh droppings of some large insect.
Going for the gold, Carlile and a local ranger, Dean Hiscox, decided to make the climb at night. Armed with just flashlights, they scaled Ball’s Pyramid in the dark to the scraggly little bush, and there they found two enormous, shiny, black-looking bodies, and below those, two more, and below those . . . well, 24 in all. And all surrounding this one single bush.
Further research has led to the conclusion that these are the only Dryococelus australis left in existence. How did they get there from Lord Howe Island? Hitchhiking on birds? Traveling with fishermen? And how did these Jurassic Park-like creatures manage to exist on one small plant?
And then, a rock slide. Fearing that the entire population had been wiped out, a team went to collect any that might still live, hoping to place them in a protected breeding program. But upon their arrival, on Valentine’s Day, 2003, the animals were still there, sitting on and around their bush.
Only four animals had been authorized to be removed. Two went to a private breeder in Sydney, Australia, who was very familiar with walking stick insects. Within two weeks, they had died.
So, the remaining two that had been authorized to be removed, appropriately named Adam and Eve, were taken to the Melbourne Zoo, and placed with Patrick Honan, then with the zoo’s invertebrate conservation breeding group. All began well; Eve started laying little pea-shaped eggs. And then she got sick.
From Jane Goodall, wring for Discover:
“Eve became very, very sick. Patrick . . . worked every night for a month desperately trying to cure her. Eventually, based on gut instinct, Patrick concocted a mixture that included calcium and nectar and fed it to his patient, drop by drop, as she lay curled up in his hand.”
Eve recovered almost immediately. Within a couple of hours she was back up and walking. Her eggs were harvested, and became the foundation of the zoo’s new population of walking sticks.
Upon Ms. Goodall’s visiting the zoo in 2008, Honan showed her 11,376 eggs, with about 700 adults in the captive population. Honan told her they paired off (an unusual insect behavior) and showed her photos of how they sleep at night, in pairs, the male with three of his legs protectively over the female beside him.
But now what is to be faced is the universal question; should these animals be released back into the wild, to Lord Howe Island, where descendants of the original black rats still live? Do we have the right to keep captive this glorious, yet admittedly not exactly adorable creature, or must we release them into the hands of the hungry rats that nearly decimated their numbers in the first place? An extensive and expensive rat annihilation program would have to first be initiated on Lord Howe Island, the cost of which would of course be passed off to the populace. Would the average person care to spend a little bit of money to keep these insects alive, in the wild, on the very island where they were first found, or is it best to keep them in captivity, where future generations will be able to view them, study them, and remember that they once existed in the wild on this fragile planet of ours?
An ethical dilemma, whose best argument is that this creature has been here for far longer than we have. They are still here. Don’t let them go.