Stuck on a Rock: How the Lord Howe Island stick insect was brought back to life

23rd February 2021

Ball’s Pyramid from Lord Howe Island - Credit: Asher Flatt

The sound of birdsong is starting to be heard once more on Lord Howe Island after a $15 million rodent eradication project is being hailed as a success. Rats and mice had made an oversized impact on the island’s wildlife, wiping out at least five species of bird and numerous insects. One of these was the unlikely flagship species of the eradication project, the large black Lord Howe stick insect, endemic to the island but for almost a century believed to be extinct…

Lord Howe Island – Credit Asher Flatt

The incredible story of the Lord Howe Island stick insect starts all the way back in 1918, when a ship crashed on a reef just off Lord Howe. Along with offloading all its cargo, it also released the plague of all small islands, rats and mice. It is these tiny furry mammals that many island species have no experience of, and no defence against, ultimately causing the extinction of so much unique flora and fauna. The stick insect was one such unique island inhabitant, becoming a distant memory in the minds of the islanders and the world at large.

Magazine layout from 1964 expedition to Ball’s Pyramid – Credit: Asher Flatt

It wasn’t until the 60s when Rick Higgins and Dave Roots, two bold and cocky young climbers, went to Lord Howe to scale the unscalable Ball’s Pyramid, lying 20km off Lord Howe, that hope for this small insect was rekindled. As luck would have it, Dave Roots was a keen naturalist and had taken it upon himself to take photos of the island’s never before documented wildlife. Among these photos was one of a seemingly innocuous dead black insect, the first clue that there might be a population of these unique creatures still in existence.

Despite the buzz of excitement caused by Dave Roots photo in the insect world, the remoteness and sheer scale of Ball’s Pyramid prevented any serious science expeditions from searching for a live specimen. That is until 2001, when again it was climbers that spurred on the investigation, but this time in a more roundabout fashion.

Climbing Ball’s Pyramid was banned in the 80’s, much to the chagrin of climbers everywhere (any climber you talk to that has experienced climbing Ball’s Pyramid will tell you about this at length), but there was one loophole open, which many climbers tried without success to exploit. For scientific purposes one could scale the Pyramid, so overnight every climbing party suddenly became advocates for the scientific search for the last remaining live stick insects thought to be surviving on Ball’s Pyramid.

In a twist of fate it was the paperwork generated by denying these ‘scientific expeditions’ that prompted David Priddel, of the National Parks authority, to mount his own expedition to Ball’s Pyramid. This would prove once and for all that there were no stick insects on the Pyramid and that climbers should stop sending in their permit applications.

So an expedition to find the long lost stick insect was finally underway. After the first day of fruitless searching in the stifling heat, Dave and the team decided that, since they had heard tell that this insect was nocturnal, they should go searching for it at night, no mean feat on a 600m high pinnacle of rock! They had found insect droppings under a certain bush during the day, so thought it would be wise to start their night search there. Two of the best and bravest climbers from their group ventured out in the pitch black to this bush and lo and behold, there before them was a very large and very black stick insect, the first time anyone had laid eyes on a live specimen since the early 1900’s.

Stick insect rediscovery – Credit: Nicholas Carlisle

This was the only known population of these insects in existence, about 20-30 individuals persisting on a small bush on the side of a cliff face. David recognised that to ensure the newly discovered insects survival a population needed to be taken into captivity.

Due to the uncertain population size, only two went to Melbourne Zoo, where a dedicated captive breeding programme was started. The entire fate of the species rested on these two individuals.

Captive stick insect – Credit: Asher Flatt

After many ups and downs, a blossoming captive breeding programme now has many hundreds of adults and many thousands of eggs all awaiting the time they can be returned to their home on Lord Howe Island. If it wasn’t for the intrepid exploration of the many climbers, venturing where no one else would, this would have never been a possibility. If it wasn’t for the dogged determination of some truely remarkable conservationists, the insect may never have made it off Ball’s Pyramid alive. There is a debt owed to both these groups for the preservation of one of Earth’s precious species.

Captive stick insects – Credit: Patrick Honan

Finally, in 2019, a long planned rodent eradication project was put into action on Lord Howe Island. As it stands the island has officially been declared rodent free, a truly remarkable feat. Already the locals have reported seeing their island spring back to life after more than 100 years of subjugation by ravenous rodents. Species of plant, bird and insect that had scarcely been seen, or were clinging onto existence are beginning to reclaim their home. Now too can the Lord Howe stick insect finally be returned to the island of its birth and end its precarious existence stuck on a rock.

If you’d like to find out more, Asher Flatt’s documentary, Stuck on a Rock, is being shown at 8pm on Sunday 28 March as part of the Film Festival at Earth Optimism. After the screening, Rohan Cleave, a zookeeper at Melbourne Zoo, will be giving a short presentation before a live Q&A with Rohan and Asher. Find out more and register here.

Asher Flatt

Asher Flatt is a documentary filmmaker and science communicator who hails from the island nation of New Zealand. He is passionate about building a better world through positive conservation stories that have the ability to inspire change. Currently he is living and working in the UK at the BBC Natural History Unit.