Lord Howe Island Stick Insect: San Diego Zoo Welcomes First Ever Tree Lobsters In USA

Conservation efforts for Lord Howe Island stick insect, also known as tree lobster, have bore fruit at the San Diego Zoo, where tiny sized eggs of this endangered insect have started hatching.

This giant stick insect was once confined to one habitat, the Lord Howe island, near Australia. Rat infestation, as a result of a shipwreck near the island, caused a drop in its population and near extinction of dryococelus australis, the stick insect.

Scientists feared that the insect had nearly disappeared due to the predators, the rats. But this plant-eating creature was not ready to give up.

Paige Howorth, the San Diego Zoo’s curator of entomology told NPR, “It’s a very emotional story about an animal that most people don’t get emotional about.”

Surprisingly, a few dead stick insects appeared on Ball’s Pyramid, a craggy island a few miles away from the Lord Howe island, decades after the feared disappearance. In 2001, a few conservationists visited the island to investigate the endangered species. In close proximity to a few droppings, they found dozens of these shiny giant bugs. The rediscovery made huge headlines.

Howarth said, “It was a massive, massive P.R. event for insects, especially an insect like this, which is not one you would deem charismatic, you know, for the most part.”

A couple of years later, a few climbers brought back two pairs of male and female tree lobsters from the Ball’s Pyramid. With this began a dedicated breeding program at the Melbourne Zoo. Around 13,000 stick insects now live in the captivity of the zoo.

Rohan Cleave, the Zookeeper at the Melbourne Zoo, expects to one day reintroduce these stick insects to Lord Howe island.

He said, “It’s a very romantic story, in that there’s always that hope that one day, they may go home.”

Residents of the Lord Howe island, a world heritage site, are working on the extermination of the rats, although they are divided on their plans, the Guardian reports. Many of these giant insects live in captivity on the island at a museum and a school.

A few years ago, the San Diego Zoo tried breeding this insect without success. The plants that the insects feed on in Melbourne, Melaleuca howeana, weren’t available in the States. The zoo acquired 100 clippings from Australia and finally grew some of these bushes.

Lord Howe Island stick insect eggs at the San Diego Zoo Lord Howe Island stick insect eggs [Image via San Diego Zoo]Howorth flew to Melbourne last month and brought back 300 eggs. The eggs have just started hatching, and baby nymph insects have started emerging.

Howarth said, “The nymphs seem to emerge from the egg overnight or in the very early morning hours. Most mornings since Saturday have included one or two little green surprises. We couldn’t be happier! The nymph that comes out of the egg is about three times the size of the egg itself. It’s just folded up in there like an origami piece or something — it’s amazing.”

A Lord Howe Island stick insect nymph hatching A Lord Howe Island stick insect nymph hatching after an incubation period of 6-9 months. [Photo by Rohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo]Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation said, “Zoos have an opportunity to conserve the broad, cross section of biodiversity, not just the pandas and the polar bears and the tigers. And it’s exciting to see this actually happening with the Lord Howe Island stick insect.”

Besides the San Diego Zoo, the stick insect eggs were flown to the zoos in Bristol and Toronto. In addition to being a unique exhibit for those zoos, they act as insurance in case something catastrophic happened to the population in Melbourne.

The tree lobsters, who have appeared in time for Valentine’s Day, are known to sleep together, cuddled up in pairs, with the male wrapping his six legs protectively around the female. Now that’s a thought to warm up to in this cold weather.

[Image via Rohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo]