Thanks, Trees

A female tree lobster specimen. Scientists have learned that the Ball’s Pyramid stick insect and the Lord Howe stick insect are variations of the same species. CreditRohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo, Australia

Thanks to Joanna Klein and the Science section of the New York Times:

A Stick Insect. A Tree Lobster. Whatever You Call It, It’s Not Extinct

A genetic analysis showed that a stick insect found on another island was the same species as one that had been wiped out by rats on Australia’s Lord Howe Island.

The tree lobster, one of the rarest insects on Earth, has lived a rather twisted life story.

Scientifically known as Dryococelus australis, this six-inch-long stick bug with a lobster-esque exoskeleton once occupied Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand.

In 1918, rats escaping a capsized steamship swam ashore. The tree lobsters became rat chow. Two years later, all tree lobsters seemed to have vanished, and by 1960 they were declared extinct.

But in the latest chapter for what has also been called the Lord Howe stick insect, scientists compared the genomes of living stick bugs from a small island nearby to those of museum specimens, revealing that they are indeed the same species. The resulting paper, published Thursday in Current Biology, resolves an identity question that has impeded conservation efforts for years, and sets the scale to effectively resurrect the insect.

“This allows us a second chance to bring it back to the island,” said Alexander Mikheyev, an ecologist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology who led the study.

Not long after the insects were believed extinct, climbers found dead tree lobsters on Ball’s Pyramid, a sheer rock cliff of an island separated from Lord Howe by 12 miles of water. In 2001, nearly four decades later, scientists scaled the rock, a third-of-a-mile-high, and discovered a small group of living tree lobsters dining on tea tree at night. It turned out they were not extinct.

But some scientists worried these tree lobsters might actually be a distinct species because they looked mysteriously different from the preserved Lord Howe tree lobsters. Their legs were skinnier with smaller spines and the little stubs sticking out from the abdomen called cerci were slightly off. They were darker. It wasn’t clear if they’d always been on Ball’s Pyramid or if birds, mistaking them for nesting material, carried them there. The two islands were never connected by land, and the insects couldn’t swim.

The researchers collected living specimens to create a new population of tree lobsters that could be reintroduced to the wild if the ones on Ball’s Pyramid ever disappeared. Now thousands of living descendants and eggs from the Ball’s Pyramid couple are held in zoos and museums around the world…

Read the whole article here.

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