These Giant Stick Insects Never Disappeared, Genetic Tests Confirm

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 5, 2017 3:07 pm
An adult female Lord Howe Island insect. (Credit: Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo)

An adult female Lord Howe Island insect. (Credit: Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo)

Lord Howe Island stick insects are back for good. Nearly a century ago, they were exiled from their homeland by invasive rats and thought extinct, only to be rediscovered in 2001, confined to a lonely rock spire in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The insects looked different though. They were skinnier and had lost some of their spines, raising questions about their origins.

Now, a new genetic analysis confirms that the two are indeed members of the same species, Dryococelus australis, finally putting the mystery to rest and easing a potential re-introduction of the insects, also called tree lobsters, to Lord Howe Island.

The giant insects live on massive volcano remnant known as Ball’s Pyramid, a sharp tower of rock rising from the ocean about 12 miles from Lord Howe Island. A research expedition there in 2001 found stick insects clinging to the branches of a tea tree perched high on a ledge, and a subsequent trip successfully brought back a breeding pair to establish a captive colony in Australia. The plan was to set them free on Lord Howe again, but it’s more difficult to do if they don’t belong to the same species that was once there.

To settle the question, researchers from Australia and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology took samples from the living insects and compared them to samples from museum collections of insects taken from Lord Howe. Writing in Current Biology, they describe how they obtained a full genome from the living insects, and mitochondrial DNA from both. It was enough to reveal that their genomes differed by only about one percent, within the accepted range for species.

(Credit: Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo, Australia)

(Credit: Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo, Australia)

The analysis also found that the living insects had huge genomes, something that could be related to the fact that they have three copies of each chromosome pair, where we just have one. The multiplicity of chromosomes, called polyploidy, is somewhat common in stick insects and may have conferred crucial advantages that allowed the insects to maintain an ascetic lifestyle on Ball’s Pyramid.

This hexaploidy helps stave off the mutative effects of inbreeding, something unavoidable in tiny populations. It’s also been shown to help invasive species gain a foothold in the past, and often leads to giant body sizes — the tree lobsters can be up to six inches long.

Though they numbered just 24 on Ball’s Pyramid, a substantial colony of Lord Howe stick insects has been established in Australia and eggs were sent to Bristol, San Diego and Toronto to set up additional populations. There were reports that a small population had been introduced back to the island, though the continued presence of rats posed problems.

There is a plan in place to drop 42 tons of rat poison on the island by helicopter, although some community members are still opposed to the plan. Doing so would pave the way for a successful re-introduction of the insects to their native home.

It would be a homecoming almost 100 years in the making.

MORE ABOUT: animals, ecology
  • RebelSoldier

    So the Lord Howe stick bug, a magnificently long stick bug, survived for 100 years on a giant rock in the ocean and is today easily being bred for re-introduction and no doubt zoos and collectors around the world. How many magnificent creatures have disappeared like the giant auk, the North Atlantic’s four foot tall version of the penguin driven to extinction in the 1840’s. If humans had had an ethos to leave rare creatures alone then how many bottlenecks might have led to the resurrection of large healthy populations of now extinct animals. Why can’t we create and forge that 11th commandment today among ourselves. If we could it would cushion a little the world extinction event we are living in. Biologists and amateur divers have begun research into breeding coral species that can survive warmer seas. If men put just a little more into efforts to save the jungles, especially now in Indonesia, in fighting the emptying of forests around the developing world of wildlife for the dinner table and pet trade (an entire family or three of gorillas or chimps are killed just to drag a baby or two back to the market to sell as a living conversation piece, in so many small steps we could save much more than we will.

    • JohnnyMorales

      There is no need to breed corals that can survive much warmer seas. They exist in abundance in the red sea, the sea with the highest average water temperature in the world. Corals there survive quite well in water that is routinely in the 90s.

      Also when it comes to the problems you mention, they are mostly national in scope, and hoping for a solution developed by everyone for the common good of all is not going to work.

      • Herne Webber

        One can’t simply use Red Sea coral wherever it’s warmer! One would need the varieties native to the areas. There are hundreds of species of coral. Believing one from one place can take the place of the rest would be like believing a single maple species could replace all trees.


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