We have had an exciting birth in our household. A stick insect hatched! My husband Geoff is a teacher who has been lucky enough to participate in a program with the Melbourne Zoo to rescue an endangered species of stick insect. Although we did not get to observe it hatching, a video of one of them emerging from its egg is a family favourite.
The Lord Howe Stick Insects were thought to be extinct, before a few individuals were found on Ball’s Pyramid, a remote rocky islet 23 km from Lord Howe. The discovery of this tiny isolated population about 11 years ago is a story of bravery, tenacity and intuition by the researchers involved.
Stick insects, or phasmids, are usually quite cryptic , and many species are common on the Australian mainland. True to their names, they usually mimic the vegetation on which they rely, and surprisingly, they make great pets. Requiring only native vegetation and a spray of water, they are easy to care for and are good for impressing your friends. Geoff and I have kept and raised phasmids for years.
But the Lord Howe Stick Insects, which start out bright green and small, grow to an enormous size and become a deep glossy black. The adults are so large and striking that they have earned the name Land Lobsters.
A shipwreck on Lord Howe Island in 1918 had the unfortunate consequence of introducing black rats to the island, with devastating consequences. Several species of birds and the stick insect succumbed to the appetite of the rats. Within a few years these giant land lobsters were thought to be extinct.
Consequently, the discovery of some Lord Howe Stick Insects living on a small shrub clinging to the cliffs on Ball’s Pyramid was a significant find. Because they hide in crevices during the day, the researchers had to make a hazardous landing at night and climb in the dark to collect a few individuals.
Two of those found their way to the Melbourne Zoo where they were named Adam and Eve. Their offspring now form a captive breeding colony. As part of their program, the zoo invited Victorian schools to apply for chance to raise small colonies of their own. Geoff, as the Science Coordinator at Tallangatta Secondary College, put in an expression of interest and was successful. He attended a training session at the zoo in March where he received a container of eggs, shrubs for food, and a purpose built enclosure.
On Sunday morning he went in to school to check on his charges, and one of the eggs had hatched. It was cold in the classroom, so he brought the baby stick home along with its enclosure. We cranked up the heater in the lounge room and the small bright green insect was gently transferred to its new home. Here is a video of its first steps:
During the day, the newborn stick insect hung about cryptically and ate part of a leaf. I can’t tell you how excited we were by this, and how many times we peered through the glass to see if it had moved. The temperature was checked, the heater moved, and water was gently sprayed to keep up the humidity. Like new parents, we even enjoyed watching the little thing sleep.
Now the baby Lord Howe Stick Insect is back at school, where we hope it will soon be joined by others. Apparently, the adults form pairs and are so devoted to one another that they sleep curled up together. I look forward to watching this behaviour.
Mostly, I am just thrilled to be playing a small part in bringing the Land Lobster back to Lord Howe Island. Of course, the rats will have to be removed before they can be reintroduced to their original habitat, but that is another story.
I hope the students at Tallangatta and elsewhere appreciate how precious it is to have a role in bringing an endangered species back from the brink.