Fri, Feb 18, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Bid to save the world's rarest insect under way

LORD HOWE ISLAND A conservation effort is under way to save the world's rarest insect, the phasmid, whose natural habitat is a shrub on an isolated rock in the Pacific

THE OBSERVER , London

Only five people have ever seen the phasmid -- a shiny, 12cm-long, cigar-shaped stick insect and fat as a finger -- in its natural habitat, a tiny shrub high up on an isolated pillar of rock jutting out of the Pacific Ocean.

Thought to be extinct for 80 years, scientists in Australia are currently undertaking an important biodiversity project to save the creature, the world's rarest insect.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, it had lived in large numbers on the tiny Lord Howe island, 700km north east of Sydney and is known as the Lord Howe Island land lobster.

But in 1918 disaster struck when the wreck of a supply vessel, the Makambo, brought rats to the island. Within a few years, the rats had eaten the island's entire land lobster population, and for eight decades it was believed the insect was extinct.

Then in 1964, a rock climber making an unsuccessful attempt to scale the 560m high Ball's Pyramid sea-stack (the highest in the world) 19km off Lord Howe found a dead phasmid on a ledge.

Although the peak was successfully climbed in 1965, it wasn't until 2001 that two scientists with rock climbing skills went searching for the elusive nocturnal creature.

They positively identified several of them scurrying away into the eroded rocks and in 2002, about two dozen of them were found to have colonized a single shrub sticking out of the cliffs on the same part of the spire.

How or when the phasmids reached Ball's Pyramid (geologically younger than Lord Howe and never connected to it) is unclear, but expert opinion is some of their eggs were carried there by a strong prevailing wind to land on the one tiny part of the rock capable of supporting a the same species of melaleuca bush that they favored on Lord Howe Island itself.

In 2003, the conservation effort got well and truly underway when two pairs were caught and taken to Australia -- one to the Sydney laboratory of entomologist Stephen Fellenberg and the other to Melbourne Zoo.

Unfortunately they proved difficult to breed in captivity, with both the original couples dying soon after being transplanted from their niche, but not before mating and laying dozens of slow hatching eggs.

Today, Fellenberg's laboratory has a count of 29 slow hatching eggs but no living phasmids, while Melbourne Zoo has managed to breed 18 nymphs (young adults) and about 100 unhatched eggs.

"We wanted to breed them in their thousands and then restore the species to Lord Howe Island," said Fellenberg, who says the program is in urgent need of private funding.

David Priddel, one of the researchers who first found the living phasmids on the ocean spire and took part in their collection, said, "If we can breed them up and release them back to Lord Howe the survival of the rarest insect on earth, and the one with the smallest known habitat, will be assured."

Ball's Pyramid is now off limits to all but scientists with special permits (and rock climbing skills) to minimize any inadvertent damage to the phasmid outpost.

"Whether you think they look beautiful or ugly, the fact is that they are part of the web of life at a critical moment when species are become extinct all over the world," Fellenberg said.

"Bringing them back from the brink is a trust we have to accept," he added.

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