VIP: Very Important Phasmid

By: Rohan Cleave (Melbourne Zoo), Category: Museullaneous, Date: 02 May 2017

Introducing a Very Important Phasmid, now rehoused at Melbourne Zoo thanks to the efforts on an AM led expedition to Balls Pyramid.

Lord Howe Island Phasmid

Lord Howe Island Phasmid
Photographer: Tom Bannigan © Australian Museum

Dryococelus australis, the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, also known as the Lord Howe Island Phasmid or Land Lobster, is regarded as one of the world’s rarest insect species.

Now, thanks to the daring efforts of the Australian Museum-led expedition team, a new female has been introduced to the Melbourne Zoo population. Her addition diversifies the genetic pool of the breeding program and increases the chances of the species' survival.

The species had been declared extinct in the wild, until a 2001 scientific team made an amazing rediscovery on a night survey of Balls Pyramid: a small group of live specimens living on some Melaleuca howeana bushes.

In order to prevent the potential extinction of the species in the wild, the decision was made to remove two pairs to establish a captive breeding program.

They were collected on Valentine’s Night, 2003 – and so began a breeding program for a species about which very little was known at the time.

The captive breeding program’s goals were to ensure the species does not go extinct and secondly to serve as a source for potential reintroduction if rodents can be successfully eradicated from Lord Howe Island in the future.

Melbourne Zoo’s invertebrate team received the pair, an adult male and female, aptly named Adam and Eve. Soon after arriving Eve became very ill but fortunately survived with exceptional veterinary and husbandry care, and she went on to lay 248 eggs during her lifetime.

Dryococelus australis adult male on Melaleuca howeana.  © Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo.

The first nymph to hatch from that pairing emerged on 7th September 2003. This was a significant date, being Threatened Species Day as well as Fathers’ Day. The nymph was given the name Yarra in honour of its birthplace.

Dryococelus australis hatching. © Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo.

The team were delighted but shocked as the nymph looked nothing like the adult specimens: it was bright green. Over time we learned that the young are diurnal whereas the sub adults and adults are nocturnal, so colouration is linked to camouflage.

Dryococelus australis young. © Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo.

In 2008, some Zoo-born individuals returned to a protected setting on their home island under the care of the Lord Howe Island Board, so residents and visitors could see the species on Lord Howe Island for the first time in living memory. Two more groups have been set up: in 2013 at the Lord Howe Island Central School and at the Lord Howe Island Museum in 2014.

Expansion of the captive breeding program was supported by the Lord Howe Island Board, with the Melbourne Museum, Bristol Zoo – UK, and San Diego Zoo - US becoming involved.

Since the program began in 2003, Melbourne Zoo has hatched more than 14,000 nymphs. We house anywhere between 400 - 700 animals at all times to ensure a healthy population and have thousands of eggs incubating which have a 6-9 month incubation.

Young rearing glasshouse. © Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo.

Last year Melbourne Zoo opened a new public encounter area for visitors to see the animals and learn more about them.

Melbourne Zoo Invertebrate Specialist Kate Pearce with Vanessa. © Rohan Cleave, Melbourne Zoo.

With the continued support of the Lord Howe Island Board, Lord Howe Island community, Zoos Victoria and partners, there is every reason to be confident about a positive future for this high profile species.