Friday’s Featured Organism: Dryococelus australis

Dryococelus australis

Giant insects, hellish forgotten islands... What is this, Peter Jackson's King Kong?

Everyone seems to be talking about this story, and I can see why. Usually, I’m more for the protection of entire key ecosystems or group of organisms rather than single, extra-endangered species whose ecological niche is today pretty small and irrelevant, but I understand the importance that these species can have as symbols of environmental protection for common people. This story in particular seems to me really touching, although many people would probably consider Dryococelus australis, the “tree lobster” (actually a giant stick insect), an horrible animal that deserves to be extinct (and here lies the limit and the superficiality of many people’s environmentalism: protect it if it’s huge and famous, burn it if it’s not a vertebrate). This beautiful critter was wiped out by introduced rats on its native Lord Howe island, Australia, by 1930, and was thought to be lost forever. In 2001, however, the walking stick rose from the ashes: a dangerously small population of around 30 individuals was discovered living in one of the few bushes that grows on the hellish Ball’s Pyramid, a small volcano renmant in the middle of the Tasman sea, resembling a giant blade emerging from the depths of some lovecraftian underwater city. Those insects were the last of their kind, and they had survived for all that time on that forgotten rock. 4 animals were captured, only a couple survived, but it was enough: now there’s a relatively stable captive population, all descendants of those two insects, Adam and Eve, and currently there are plans to try to reintroduce the tree lobster to its native Lord Howe island, after more than 80 years. If Dryococelus australis went extinct, nobody would have noticed, and I don’t think there would have been any additional repercussions on the environment (maybe there were at the time it was first wiped out from Lord Howe, but I’m talking about new repercussions). It is however remarkable how this seemingly doomed bug, withouth the help of any environmental organization, scientist, or support from the general public, secretly clinged to life for more than 80 years on that forgotten rock, under a single bush, with a population of less than 30 individuals. Don’t you feel that such an incredible animal, such an incredible feat of durability against all the odds, deserves to live to see another day? Don’t you think it could be  a symbol of biodiversity protection just as good, and probably even better, than the usual tigers, pandas and sea turtles?

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