Ball’s Pyramid is the world’s tallest volcanic stack at 562 meters (1,844 feet) high, and only 300 meters across at its thickest point. It’s part of the Lord Howe Island chain, off the southeast coast of Australia, and has a particularly interesting history — for geeky biologists, that is.
Though discovered in 1788, it was never successfully climbed until 1965, a year after a previous effort failed when the team ran short on food and water on their fifth day. But the 1964 team, while unable to claim the glory of a summit, did get themselves in the history books a different way. They brought back a photograph of a huge, dead stick insect: Dryococelus australis. It was the rarest of the rare, thought to be endemic only to Lord Howe Island, and long extinct there thanks to the introduction of black rats via a supply ship running aground. Yet here was the unmistakeable proof of another population, way out on Ball’s Pyramid, 20 kilometers away from their home island.
Several expeditions attempted to find these insects over the next few decades, but it wasn’t until 2001 that anyone succeeded.
In 2001, two Australian scientists, David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile hypothesized that there was sufficient vegetation on [Ball’s Pyramid] to support a population of the insects, and with two assistants traveled to the island to investigate further. They scaled 500 feet of rock, but only found crickets. On their descent, the team discovered large insect droppings under a single Melaleuca shrub growing in a crevice approximately 100m (330 ft) above the shoreline. They deduced that they would need to return after dark, when the insects are active, to have the best chance of finding living specimens. Carlile returned with local ranger Dean Hiscox and, with a camera and flashlights, scaled the heights again. They discovered a small population of 24 insects living amongst a substantial build up of plant debris beneath the Melaleuca shrub.
Twenty-four insects — all that were left in the whole world, and all beneath a single shrub.
Two years later, another expedition brought back two precious breeding pairs, sending one to a private breeder and the other to the Melbourne Zoo. The breeding program at Melbourne turned into a major success story, with over 9,000 insects produced by April 2012 (and many, many more eggs). The hope is to reintroduce them on Lord Howe Island, but that can’t happen until the black rats are eradicated.
To see the Dryococelus australis in the flesh, check out this March 2012 news report from the Australia Broadcasting Corporation. The juveniles are adorable, but the adults are amazing.
(Click the image to embiggen.)