Stick Insect Survivors

3 March 2014

Three new arrivals this morning added to Melbourne Zoo’s celebration of the first-ever World Wildlife Day.

The newly-declared United Nations World Wildlife Day aims to highlight the diverse wonders of the natural world, the threats so many species face in the wild, and the efforts conservation organisations are making to help protect them.

The Zoo focused today’s celebrations on one of the most remarkable 'back from the brink' stories anywhere, which began in 2003 with the arrival of two large insects: a male and female of an ancient species believed extinct for almost a century.

The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was just one of the beautiful island's endemic species that fell victim to the Black Rats that swam ashore when a ship ran aground there in 1918.

In 2001 scientists from the New South Wales Office for Environment and Heritage discovered a tiny surviving population on the nearby Ball's Pyramid, and the discovery made the headlines internationally.

 It was decided that the situation of these large flightless invertebrates on the rocky and steep slopes of the sea stack was so precarious that a recovery breeding program should be established.

Melbourne Zoo Director Kevin Tanner says that 'our Zoo had already developed significant insect expertise, with the Butterfly House having opened in 1985 , so it was entrusted with two individuals, subsequently named Adam and Eve.

'This was an honour and a privilege, but it was also a stressful situation, with Keepers definitely feeling great anxiety about caring for a species which had not previously been bred in a zoo anywhere.

'There was virtually no documentation about the species, its life cycle, or reproductive biology.  This had to be discovered through careful observation, and the success of the program is a great credit to all staff involved.

‘We are delighted to be working in partnership on this project with the N.S.W. Office for Environment and Heritage and the Lord Howe Island Board.’

Invertebrate Keeper Rohan Cleave says that ‘with the breeding results in the past 11 years, we can now classify this amazing creature as a Lazarus species, back from the dead.’

In that time, the Zoo has bred more than 11,000 of these critically endangered and charismatic insects, known by islanders as ‘land lobsters ’in the days before the arrival of the feral rats.

Rohan Cleave recently visited Lord Howe Island to liaise with authorities there, including the Lord Howe Island Central School, where a display has been set up so students can connect with and learn about this native species by caring for it, with long-distance mentoring from Rohan