Thursday, March 1, 2012

Land lobster

Not to be confused with terrestrial coconut crabs, so-called "land lobsters" are giant insects (pictured above) that kept their existence secret for years. From the story on NPR, I have compiled a timeline:

1918: A British supply ship ran aground at Lord Howe Island 300mi off the coast of Australia. The wreck killed one passenger and released some black rats, which survived - and thrived - on the giant stick insects that the island was known for. The bugs were as long as a human hand and local fishermen baited their hooks with them...until they were wiped out.

1920: The rats on the island were thriving at the expense of the stick insects, which were nowhere to be found. In the ensuing decades the bugs, known scientifically as Dryococelus australis, were presumed extinct.

1964: Climbers found the dried-out remains of a giant stick insect on Ball’s Pyramid, an 1,800' spire of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea 14mi from Lord Howe Island (photo and map here), with more dried bodies discovered 5 years later incorporated into a bird’s nest on a remote pinnacle of the spire.

: Based on these scant clues, Australian scientists David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile scaled the rock face of Ball's Pyramid to have a look. On their way down, they spotted insect poop beneath a lone melaleuca bush and decided to investigate further. Carlile went back after dark with a local ranger and saw 2, then 2 dozen, of the enormous tree lobsters! "It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world," said Carlile. They were the only survivors, and no one knows how they did it.

2003: After receiving approval, the team went back to collect 4 of the insects for a breeding program. One pair died within 2 weeks, but the other pair - "Adam" and "Eve" - were bred at the Melbourne Zoo under the care of Patrick Honan. Eve began laying eggs, but then fell ill. Acting on instinct, Honan handfed her a mixture of calcium and nectar. He describes, "She went from being on her back curled up in my hand, almost as good as dead, to being up and walking around within a couple of hours." Eve's eggs were harvested, incubated, and hatched (fantastic video here, scroll down).

2008: Jane Goodall toured the walking stick breeding program at the Melbourne Zoo and was shown rows and rows of incubating eggs (11,376), hundreds of adults (700), and "photos of how they sleep at night, in pairs, the male with 3 of his legs protectively over the female beside him."

This may not be enough to ingratiate the land lobsters to the residents of Lord Howe Island, where the scientists are working to reintroduce them.

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