For close to six decades, the tree lobster was thought to be extinct, but new research suggests that the mysterious insect from Lord Howe Island is still around, and may be returning to its natural habitat soon.
According to the New York Times, the tree lobster, which is also known by the scientific name Dryococelus australis, is a six-inch-long stick insect that gets its name from its lobster-like exoskeleton. The creature was once prominent in Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, but in 1918, an unexpected event severely diminished tree lobster numbers. That was when scores of rats ran ashore as they scampered from a capsized steamship, and feasted on the stick insects for the next few years.
By 1920, the insects had almost disappeared from Lord Howe Island, but it was only in 1960 when the tree lobster was declared extinct. There was no sign of the creatures in the decades that followed, but a new study has just confirmed that the tree lobster didn’t vanish after all, while also offering some hope for bringing its numbers back up.
“The Lord Howe Island stick insect has become emblematic of the fragility of island ecosystems,” said Okinawa Institute of Science evolutionary biologist Alexandr Mikheyev in a statement quoted by Business Insider.
“Unlike most stories involving extinction, this one gives us a unique second chance.”
The first hints of the tree lobster not being extinct as once thought came in 2001, when a rock-climbing ranger found a few similar-looking insects on Ball’s Pyramid. However, scientists had presumed that these insects were actually different from the Lord Howe tree lobsters, as they had some distinct features, such as skinnier legs, smaller spines, and darker abdominal stubs. Furthermore, Ball’s Pyramid and Lord Howe Island were never connected by land, which, together with the insects’ inability to swim, made it impossible for them to migrate from one point to another.
In the years that followed, thousands more Ball’s Pyramid tree lobsters have descended from the original pair, as scientists were successfully able to breed a new population for potential reintroduction to the wild. According to a previous report from the Inquisitr, about 13,000 Ball’s Pyramid tree lobsters lived in the captivity of the Melbourne Zoo, as a result of these breeding efforts. But thanks to DNA analysis, Mikheyev and his colleagues determined that the Lord Howe and Ball’s Pyramid tree lobsters were from the same species.
“We found what everyone hoped to find, that despite some significant morphological differences, these are indeed the same species,” Mikheyev observed.
Although the new study proves that the tree lobster is truly not extinct, the researchers noted that rats are still a threat to animals on Lord Howe Island, as their presence has resulted in the extinction of five bird species and “around a dozen” invertebrates, and a grave threat to about 70 other species. However, the Lord Howe Island Board launched a rat eradication initiative in September, which could allow threatened or endangered species like the tree lobster to return to the island if everything pushes forward as hoped.
[Featured Image by Ashley Whitworth/Shutterstock]