Finding Phasmids

Researchers rediscover a giant insect, thought to have gone extinct a century ago, and plan to reintroduce it to its native island off the coast of Australia.

By | June 1, 2012

A BIG STICK: Nick Carlile, seen here with the Lord Howe Island phasmid, discovered the thought-to-be extinct insect in 2001. PATRICK HONAN, ZOOS VICTORIA

Australian government ecologist Nicholas Carlile was often asked to review requests from outdoors climbers to visit the normally restricted island of Ball’s Pyramid off the nation’s east coast. An extremely narrow, 562-meter (1,844-foot) high spire of rock, it is the tallest sea stack in the world and a perfect challenge for ambitious climbers.

Some requests were made under the guise of looking for a phasmid, a stick insect the size of a human hand that went extinct from nearby Lord Howe Island in the early 20th century after a supply ship ran aground and released a swarm of hungry—and prolific—rats. There had been rumored sightings of the insects’ skeletal remains and freshly dead specimens on Ball’s Pyramid, and climbers often claimed they were part of a scientific expedition in search of the lost species.

But Carlile, who specializes in island and seabird ecology for the state of New South Wales (NSW) Office of Environment and Heritage, had his suspicions. “You’d look at the list of people who were in the crew, and there wasn’t a scientist,” he recalls. “We knew this was just a ruse for a climbing troop.”

PHASMID HOUSE: Entomologist Patrick Honan in the phasmid enclosure he established at the Melbourne Zoo
PHASMID HOUSE: Entomologist Patrick Honan in the phasmid enclosure he established at the Melbourne Zoo

Convinced that the phasmids were extinct—the bare rock of Ball’s Pyramid simply didn’t have the creature’s preferred humid habitat—Carlile and his colleague David Priddel decided they needed to mount their own survey of the island to prove it once and for all. “Then we could tell these people they had no basis for their climbing,” Carlile says.

So he gathered up a small team, planned for 4 years, then set out for Ball’s Pyramid in February 2001. The team carefully leapt from the pitching boat onto the rocky island, then traversed its jagged perimeter while slowly ascending to GanNet Green, the largest patch of vegetation on the island, about 150 meters, or nearly 500 feet, above sea level. Finding no evidence of the Lord Howe phasmid, Carlile and company began to make their way back down to base camp. During the descent, Carlile spotted some old insect excrement near a bush. Large insect excrement. But, hot and out of water, the team continued downward.

After several cups of a tea and a rejuvenating swim, Carlile decided he would return to the bush where he’d spotted the feces that night, when the nocturnal phasmids might be moving about. Just as it got dark, Carlile set out with Lord Howe ranger Dean Hiscox. When they reached the shrubs, they saw an adult female phasmid—the first sighting of the insect in nearly 80 years. “It was such an amazing experience,” Carlile recalls. “I’d not seen such a large invertebrate. [It was] like going back to the Jurassic, when insects ruled the world.”

When he returned home, Carlile contacted entomologist Patrick Honan at the Melbourne Zoo about starting a breeding program. After 2 years—“both to overcome the logistics of moving invertebrates as carry-on luggage that people weren’t allowed to open up, as well as dealing with the bureaucracy of wanting to collect what is potentially the rarest invertebrate in the world,” Carlile says—government approval was granted and Carlile returned to Ball’s Pyramid to collect four individuals; two males and two females. One pair went to Honan, while the other went to NSW entomologist Stephen Fellenberg, who had bred other species of phasmids.

ISLAND FORTRESS: Ball’s Pyramid, a rocky volcanic remnant jutting out of the Pacific Ocean, where the stick insect was rediscovered
ISLAND FORTRESS: Ball’s Pyramid, a rocky volcanic remnant jutting out of the Pacific Ocean, where the stick insect was rediscovered

But starting a breeding program was easier said than done, Honan writes in an e-mail. “We knew almost nothing of their biology, let alone their husbandry.” Determined to make it work, he stayed with the phasmids every night for the first month. “With only one [pair], and little chance of collecting another, we have to make sure [to get it right the] first time,” says Honan, now a manager of live exhibits at the Melbourne Museum. Today, the captive population is thriving with more than 500 individuals, and Honan and his successor at the Zoo, Rohan Cleave, have sent phasmids to other institutions to start their own colonies. In total, there are more than 1,000 adults and 20,000 eggs now in captivity all over the world, Carlile says.

Studying the phasmids has revealed “an enormous amount about a highly unusual species, whose behavior, morphology, ecology, and reproductive strategy is unlike just about anything else,” says Honan. Eventually, Carlile and his colleagues hope to use the captive-bred phasmids to repopulate Lord Howe. “The phasmid was the major consumer of vegetation on the island, and therefore a key component in the ecosystem in terms of turning over nutrients,” Carlile explains.

The Lord Howe phasmid is “a really important case study in terms of rearing and reintroduction,” says Aaron Dossey, an entomology postdoc at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the founder and owner of All Things Bugs, a company that promotes the use of insects as a human food source. But before the phasmids can be reintroduced, the rodents that drove them off the island in the first place must be eradicated. The project, which is slated to start later this year, will take some $10 million and 3 years to complete.

“This is an enormous task and has been in the planning stages for about 7 years,” Honan says. “It would be one of the biggest and certainly the most complicated eradication project ever.”

Once the rats are gone, Carlile will begin reintroducing the phasmid, as well as a biological control, such as an owl species, to avoid overpopulation by the phasmid. “It’s part of the rebuilding of the ecology of the island,” Carlile says. “You’ve got to deal with a number of components to get the pieces to fall back into place.”

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Avatar of: HiddenWays


Posts: 6

June 6, 2012

Hmm, scientists breed giant, extinct insects on a tropical island and they think everything will be fine.  The SyFy channel needs to hear about this so they can start casting good screamers.  “Phasmidsâ€쳌 seems like a natural for a title.

Avatar of: FAALencioni


Posts: 1

June 8, 2012

Great find. This show how we don't know nothing about the species in this wonderful planet we are, day by day, trying to destroy only cause of greed and an increasing stupidity. Fortunatelly few places in the world is really well studied so we can tell for sure which species is extinct or not. Fortunatelly this one was not.

Avatar of: fhapgood


Posts: 3

June 10, 2012

The idea of privileging one moment of past ecological time over another is a bit problematic.  These guys think that the right ecology for Lord Howe Island was the one in the "early twentieth century".  But how about the ecology the island had in the early nineteenth century? The early eighteenth century?  Presumably it changed with time, as all things do.

Right now of course we don't have enough information, at least not in this case, for there to be an argument, but that isn't going to be true everywhere, and maybe not even here forever. 

Something like this problem emerges when preservationist communities split into factions, each believing that the look and feel of the community that needs to be preserved is rooted in a different time. This happens often.

Avatar of: Guest


June 11, 2012

 Incredulity among some biologists is legion.  Game biologists are no exception.

About six years ago, while walking near our forest cabin retreat, I observed a long-tailed cat as it crossed the roadway from heavy cover on one side, to the other side, in two easy bounds.  Knowing how the mind can play tricks, I rushed back to the cabin, got a spiral notebook and jotted down every detail I could recall, color, estimate of length of body, estimate of length of tail...  I noted that the head appeared abnormally small to me, almost as if a smaller cat's head had been grafted onto a large cat's body.

When through making notes, I called, long distance, to the nearest office of the state's fish and wildlife office and spoke with a person who identified himself by name and as a "game biologist."

I read off my notes to him, and before I got to the end he remarked, laughingly, "Well, at least you didn't tell me it was black, and that you heard it scream."

I asked him what he meant by that, and he said there had not been a cougar sited in the area I described in at least twenty years.

"There has now," I replied.

This game biologist then said, "Look, I've sat around some camp fires and heard this stuff all my life.  What you probably saw was a bobcat."

"Bobcats don't have long tails," I said, "I've seen at least a dozen of them in my life, and I know how they bob up and down when they run.  This was not a bobcat."

"Well," this guy said, "It was probably an otter.  Most inexperienced people who see an otter mistake it for a cougar.  It's understandable."

I was starting to get mad.  I said, "Do you realize this is a long distance call, and I'm paying for it?"

"No, no," he said, "I don't mean to give you a hard time.  But whatever you saw it wasn't a cougar.  There are no cougars within a hundred miles of there."

At that, I hung up.  I was seething.

That know-it-all game biologist had me so riled it motivated me to do a lot of reading up and a lot of interviewing of people I knew in the area where I saw that cougar.  Also, I looked at pictures of cougars on the Internet and other places and their heads do look smaller than I had previously noticed, in proportion to their bodies.

Not two weeks afterward a story appeared in the local newspaper in the city where our home is.  Accompanying it was a photograph of a cougar in a low-hanging tree.  The story said sheriff's deputies had called the wildlife people, and they were on their way to the scene to tranquilize the cat, but it began to look as if it were going to come down out of the tree, and the sheriff's deputy shot it and killed it.

That was not within fifty miles to the south of my cabin, but it was no more than sixty.  Also, I don't think it was the same cat.

Over months following, I inquired around the area and found no less than eight other people who had seen what I had seen, at other sites within five miles of where I saw it.  And the next fall I saw it, or one virtually identical to it, cross a road a couple of miles from where I made the first sighting.

But here's the best part.

The next person I talked to was a man I flagged down near my retreat cabin, thinking he was one of the locals.  He turned out to be an insurance agent, who had just visited one of the neighbors.  I told him all I'm telling you here, and as I told it he kept laughing.  When I finished I asked him what was so funny.

He said I have a cougar in my den at my house.

"Alive?" I asked.

"No.  It's mounted.  My brother-in-law killed it while deer hunting near here, two years ago."

At that point I was laughing too.

I said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, noooooooooo.  Haven't you heard?  There are not cougars anywhere NEAR this area.  I got it straight from a game biologists mouth."

( : > )

Avatar of: Michael Cammer

Michael Cammer

Posts: 1457

June 19, 2012

No description of what they taste like and whether they could be bred as an eco-friendly protein source. Next time please be more thorough with the reporting.

Avatar of: Larry_T


Posts: 3

June 22, 2012

Rolling back the ecology of this isolated rock to the way it was before humans polluted it with invasive pests is a worthwhile enterprise.  I look forward to their success.

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