Study Says Lord Howe Island Stick Insects Still Exist

Posted: Oct 6 2017, 2:55pm CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
Study Says Lord Howe Island Stick Insects Still Exist
Credit: Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo, Australia

Once declared extinct, Lord Howe Island stick insect lives

A stick insect that disappeared almost a century ago and was feared extinct has been rediscovered in the remnants of a massive volcano. And the discovery has stirred excitement among the scientific community.

Lord Howe Island stick insect, also known as tree lobster, is a 6-inch long insect that inhabits Lord Howe Island, but there were no reported sightings of the elusive species since 1920. They thought to have gone extinct after a shipwreck in 1918 introduced black rats into the island's ecosystem.

In 1960s, rock climbers discovered the freshly dead remains of what seemed to be Lord Howe Island stick insects on Ball’s Pyramid, a small, isolated volcanic stack located in the Tasman Sea. Later, a 2001 survey of Ball's Pyramid also reported the presence of a few dozens of live individuals at the top of a tree. But there remained some doubts over the true identity of the Ball's Pyramid stick insects as they were not quite the same as the museum specimens collected from Lord Howe Island.

To confirm their identity, researchers analyzed and compared the DNA from Ball’s Pyramid and museum specimens and confirmed that rediscovered populations are indeed Lord Howe Island stick insects. Comparisons between living and dead insect’s DNA found a difference of less than one percent, meaning that they similar enough to be declared the same species. The discovery suggests that Lord Howe insects are genetically not extinct so far. The insect survived by hiding out on a nearby island.

“We found what everyone hoped to find—that despite some significant morphological differences, these are indeed the same species.” Alexander Mikheyev at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan said in a statement.

Finding a thought-to-be-extinct species is a rarity. Researchers are planning to breed more insects with the ones taken from their Ball’s Pyramid and then reintroduce them to the Lord Howe Island.

“The Lord Howe Island stick insect has become emblematic of the fragility of island ecosystems," said Mikheyev. "Unlike most stories involving extinction, this one gives us a unique second chance."

The story of the survival of the insect gives a larger message related to conservation. It shows the importance of protecting natural habitats.

“The stick insect (story) illustrates the fragility of island ecosystems, and in particular, how vulnerable they are to manmade change like invasive species," said Mikheyev. "It just took one shipwreck, and the fauna of the island has been altered in such a fundamental way."

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