How the tree lobster came back from the dead

2018-07-05 13:36

Far south of the equator in the frigid waters of the Tasman Sea, a lone rock juts from the deep - sharp and black like the edge of a giant flint axe.

Both spectacular and eerie in its isolation, Ball's Pyramid could be a place where zombies roam among the salt spray, years after the apocalypse. And while this might seem an unnecessarily lurid picture, bear in mind that Ball's Pyramid is a place where creatures have indeed come back from the dead.

One such creature is tantalisingly known as the "tree lobster". On a good day, it used to be described as "the rarest insect on earth". On a bad day, it was just flat-out "extinct".

So, what is this tree lobster and why was it forced to cling to existence, far out on the edge of the globe?

A relative of the stick insect, the tree lobster (real name Dryococelus australis) once roamed proud and free on tiny Lord Howe Island - an emerald pinprick on the map between Australia and New Zealand and kilometres north of Ball's Pyramid.

Odd customer

Even in its native sanctuary, the tree lobster looked an odd customer - at 15cm long, it was half the length of a standard-issue school ruler and black as pitch. It could sprint like an Olympian, but couldn't fly, or swim.

How it made it to Ball's Pyramid is anyone's guess, but it's very lucky it did - because things on Lord Howe were doomed to get nasty.

About a century ago, in June 1918, a steamboat called the SS Makambo ran aground on Lord Howe. A certain Miss Readon fell off a life raft during the incident and became the Makambo's first victim, but she wouldn't be the last.

The ill-fated ship brought a biological weapon - swarms of black rats that took to Lord Howe like bandits, decimating almost everything in their path.

Of course, the once proud tree lobster didn't stand a chance. Its quick pace - legendary among the local fauna - was no match for the wiry, city-bred rats. It took less than two years for the natives to get gobbled out of existence.

Or so everyone thought.

Flash forward 80 years and Australian scientists David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile are perched about 150m up the edge of Ball's Pyramid.

It's night time and no doubt a very dark one out there. In a pile of leaves and scrub lit up by the glow of a flash light, they spot the impossible - a family of 24 tree lobsters. For these few miraculous survivors, exile had been their saviour.

These days, the tree lobster is quite the insect about town. The descendants of this small colony - all 10 000 of them - are now swanning about, living large in zoos as far afield as Britain and Canada.

Rat problem

Meanwhile, it's the black rats looking down the barrel of a gun.

Scientists are currently looking at ways to eradicate the rats once and for all - and while a few survivors like the tree lobster are back and looking forward to brighter days, the rats still heralded extinction for five Lord Howe bird species and 12 other native insects.

For now, the biggest debate for scientists and locals is the method they choose to wipe out the rats.

After all, poison traps might just pose a whole new threat to the local wildlife. Let's hope they find a safe and fitting way to close Lord Howe's darkest chapter.

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Read more on:    australia  |  insects  |  extinction

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