Science has come a long way in recent years. We’ve made so much progress and so many discoveries as a species, with scientific breakthroughs and ground-breaking research coming thick and fast. We’ve discovered and identified countless species, mapped out the entire world, plunged to the depths of the oceans, and more. And yet, there’s still so much we don’t know about our own planet; nevertheless, so many secrets hiding away, just waiting to be discovered.
Scientists estimate that there are still countless species out there we’ve not even met yet, as well as so much of the world’s oceans and waters that have not been explored, so many jungles, forests, and other natural landscapes that could be hiding all kinds of fascinating secrets. You never know when and where one of those secrets might be discovered next, and when a group of scientists explored this Australian island, they made an unusual and creepy discovery.
The Lord Howe Islands
Many people dream of spending some time on a private island, and if you saw pictures of the Lord Howe Island Group, which is part of Australia, you might think it looks like a paradise.
The islands are renowned for their beautiful beaches, dramatic scenery, and coral reefs, but one of them had been hiding a skin-crawling secret for almost a century, and scientists were about to find out exactly what was going on.
All About The Islands
So what exactly are the Lord Howe Islands, and where are they located? This island group is situated between Australia and New Zealand, right in the middle of the Tasman Sea. Several different islands make up the group.
They’re mostly rocky in appearance, covered with lush forests and greenery, with some beaches and beautiful coastal spots too. The main island is called Lord Howe Island, measuring up at 6.2 miles in length.
Uninhabited For Eons
European settlers arrived on the main island of the Lord Howe Island Group back in 1834, with some choosing to permanently settle in the area, developing their own towns and communities.
Before then, however, it is believed that no almost no humans had ever even set foot on the Lord Howe Islands. Even the native Polynesian people of the South Pacific had no idea that the islands actually existed, and it’s believed that these lands were untouched for many, many years.
The First Sighting
Before the European settlers arrived, however, one man had at least seen the Lord Howe Islands with his very eyes. It was in 1788 that a British lieutenant called Henry Lidgbird Ball became the first European man to see the landmass.
The ball was the commander in chief of the HMS Supply, an old First Fleet ship that had left England for Australia. It was while he was journeying to nearby Norfolk Island with a ship full of convicts that he saw the main Lord Howe Island.
Ball Gets Curious
We’ve seen that the first permanent settlers on Lord Howe Island arrived in 1834, but Ball had beaten them to it. He was curious about the island he’d seen while sailing to Norfolk Island, and he wanted to take a closer look.
On his way back from Norfolk Island, he decided to send a boarding party over to the shore and claim the land in the name of Britain. He wanted to know more about this mysterious place.
Naming The Islands
As the first person to seemingly discover the islands, Ball had the unique honor of getting to name them. He wanted to honor the First Lord of the Admiralty, Richard Howe, so he decided to call the main island, Lord Howe Island.
Richard Howe was the main figurehead of the British Royal Navy at the time, so he was a very important official. Ball also decided to name a couple of the smaller islands after himself, deciding on Mount Lidgbird and Ball’s Pyramid as suitable names.
The Settlers Start To Arrive
Ball’s boarding party didn’t spend too much time on the islands, simply taking a look around and letting their commander decide on the various island names. Then, decades later, the first settlers started to arrive.
In 1834, three men arrived on the shores of Lord Howe Island. They were working with a whaling firm in Sydney and were accompanied by their Maori wives and children. They made huts and gardens, starting to grow their own food and begin a new life.
The Island Starts To Grow
In the beginning, Lord Howe Island was home to just a few small families, but over time, like so many places all over the world throughout history, it began to grow and develop.
By the early 1950s, several different businesses had started to use Lord Howe Island as a hub for their employees, setting up trading posts and farms. In the mid-19th century, Captain Henry Denham of the HSM Herald conducted a survey of the island.
Teeming With Life
Captain Denham wanted to do a biological assessment of the island, seeing what kind of flora and fauna could be found there, and his team made a lot of discoveries. The island, left alone for so long, without any human interference, was teeming with life.
In the modern era, Lord Howe Island has even been named as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site to preserve its natural beauty and ecosystems, with most of the whole island group being covered with forests and filled with many different species.
The Flora And Fauna
The animals, insects, plants, and other forms of life on the islands have always been a subject of interest for the people who passed by and visited, going back hundreds of years.
In fact, in the late 18th century, before the first permanent settlers arrived, a few other First Fleet ships like the HMS Charlotte and HMS Scarborough stopped off at the islands, with the crew making notes of the different animals and plants they spotted.
The Earliest Traces
Some visitors to the island just made notes about the things they saw, but others drew sketches. A couple of artists, John Hunter and George Raper, were actually able to make watercolor images of the wildlife.
They made pictures of native island birds like the Lord Howe pigeon, the Lord Howe woodhen, and the white gallinule. Sadly, some of the species, including the Lord Howe pigeon, ended up going extinct due to hunting, leaving these watercolors as the only proof of their former existence.
Whaling Takes Off
Nowadays, the act of hunting whales would be seen as immensely cruel and inhumane, but it was a big business a century or two ago. Due to its prime position in the Tasman Sea, Lord Howe Island was seen as a great port for whalers.
There were lots of sperm whales in the area, in particular, so whalers would hunt around the local waters and then stop off at the island afterward, providing a big boost to the local economy.
Whaling Dies Down
There was a time when whale oil was the most profitable export from all of Australia, but almost as soon as the industry really started to become significant, it quickly died back down again.
In the 1860s, whaling became less profitable, and Lord Howe Island’s economy suffered as a result. Fortunately for the island’s people, a new source of the economic enterprise was about to appear and give the island a brighter future.
The End of Whaling
As previously stated, whaling was very important in the early and mid-19th century, but a few different factors started to make it less important and profitable. First of all, the discovery of other energy sources like petroleum was a major contributor.
Petrol was a lot easier to obtain than whale oil, so it made more sense for people to use it. Plus, the United States was producing enormous amounts of petroleum each and every year.
New Ways to Make Money
And as whaling became less important in the area, the people of Lord Howe Island needed to find new ways to make their money. Island economies can be very delicate, so people need to find ways to encourage trade or interest.
An island man named Nathan Thompson decided to buy a ship and start running a trade route between Lord Howe Island and Sydney, Australia. Unfortunately, his ship was lost at sea in 1873.
A Special Plant
Nathan Thompson’s trade route idea was a good one, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the island and its people. Fortunately, the island itself had a special gift to give, in the form of the kentia palm plant.
This unique plant was becoming quite popular by the 1870s, leading to Lord Howe Island being officially designated as a forest reserve in 1878. It even got its first-ever government administrator, a man named Captain Richard Armstrong.
Under Armstrong, The Island Thrives
Captain Armstrong was a great help to Lord Howe Island. Under his authority, the local economy really started to grow as he helped to oversee and advocate for the kentia palm trade.
He also helped to develop infrastructure around the island, building new roads, developing local schools, and encouraging the residents to plant more trees and support their local economy. Despite his successes, the local people didn’t like him too much, and it was decided that he needed to be replaced.
Word Starts To Spread
Even though Armstrong was not a popular man with the local people, they couldn’t deny that he had good effects on the island. The economy grew a lot thanks to his work with the kentia palms, becoming very successful in the 1880s.
Now, these plants, which were once native only to the island, are grown all over the globe. And as the trade increased, word started to spread about Lord Howe Island, helping it develop into a popular tourist destination.
In total, the Lord Howe Island Group is made up of no less than 28 different islands, islets, and rocks. The whole place is protected by the Lord Howe Island Act of 1981.
This special piece of legislation helps to keep the island safe from unwanted developments or other dangers, ensuring that around 70% of the main island is classed as a ‘permanent park preserve.’ Even the local waters are protected as part of the Lord Howe Island Marine Park.
We can remember that Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, the man who first spotted Lord Howe Island so many years ago, named a couple of the islands after him. One of them is called Ball’s Pyramid, and it’s situated to the southeast of the main island.
Ball’s Pyramid is actually a world record holder. It’s the tallest volcanic rock stack on the planet, standing at an impressive 1,844 feet in height. Like the rest of the islands and rocks in the group, it’s part of the remnants of a six million-year-old volcano.
The First Visit
Due to its towering, rocky structure and unique shape, nobody actually visited Ball’s Pyramid for quite a while. It was first spotted in 1788 and named at the same time, but it would be almost an entire century later before anyone decided to visit it.
A geologist named Henry Wilkinson was the man to make the first recorded visit to Ball’s Pyramid, eager to explore this deserted land and see what treasures and secrets it might be hiding.
Climbing To the Top
Whenever adventurers and explorers hear about tall peaks and unique rock formations, they only have one idea in their minds: reaching the top. Several people have attempted to climb to the very peak of Ball’s Pyramid over the years.
One of the earliest recorded attempts came back in 1964. A group of climbers from Australia set sail for Ball’s Pyramid but were unsuccessful in reaching the summit. Just one year later, however, some members of the Sydney Rock Climbing Club got to the top.
An Uneasy Relationship
Climbers love to tackle new challenges and take risks, but the climbing community at large has always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with Ball’s Pyramid due to the challenging and perilous nature of its location.
It’s one of the most difficult climbs anyone can take on, and climbing was actually banned there back in the 1980s. Nowadays, however, it is possible to climb Ball’s Pyramid, but anyone interested has to fill out a formal application.
Many people plan trips to Ball’s Pyramid to try climbing, eager to get to the top and feel a special sense of achievement and accomplishment, able to say that they made it and feeling proud of such an impressive feat.
However, there’s another reason some people choose to visit this relatively inhospitable place, and it’s all because of an insect, one of the only forms of life able to survive there.
The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect
Meet the Lord Howe Island stick insect. Also known under the scientific name of Dryococelus Australis, this insect used to live all over the Lord Howe Island Group.
It was commonly used as a form of fishing bait and could be seen everywhere in the area up to the early 20th century. It can grow up to eight inches in length and weigh a maximum of an ounce. The males are smaller than the females but have stronger and thicker legs.
A Very Special Stick Insect
At first glance, the Lord Howe Island stick insect doesn’t appear to be too special. If you’re not an expert on stick insects, you might think it just looks the same as any other stick insect out there, but there’s something special about this one.
When compared to other species, there are actually a few different things that make Dryococelus australis stand out. The male and female insects pair off, for example, which is uncommon, and these insects don’t have any wings.
Strong Independent Women
Interestingly, as well as being physically larger than the males of the species, the females of the Lord Howe Island stick insects don’t actually need the males to survive. They’re one of the rare examples of a species that can reproduce entirely on their own.
This is partly what has helped the species survive over the years. Even if a female can’t find a mate due to low populations or predators in the area, she can still produce offspring.
Unfortunately, even with such a powerful evolutionary tool in its arsenal, the Lord Howe Island stick insect was doomed. In 1920, the insects had been declared extinct. How did this happen?
Well, in 1918, a supply ship crashed onto the shores of Lord Howe Island. Many rats were on board the ship and scurried off into the wilderness, eating all the stick insects and ridding the island of Dryococelus australis, entirely.
No Hope Left?
From that moment on, scientists assumed that the Lord Howe Island stick insect would never be seen again. It was assumed that the rats had wiped out the native population, and the insects simply weren’t found anywhere else.
However, one day, a group of climbers over on Ball’s Pyramid spotted something. It was the remains of a Lord Howe Island stick insect. What made this sighting especially astonishing was the fact that it occurred more than four decades after the last recorded sighting.
More and More Sightings
In the years that followed that first sighting, scientists and other visitors to the island began to spot more and more dead specimens of the Lord Howe Island stick insect.
Unfortunately, no matter how much they searched and how hard they tried, they just couldn’t find any living ones and struggled to figure out where the insects were actually coming from. This all changed in 2001 when an important discovery was made.
A New Team Arrives
In 2001, a team of scientists set out for Ball’s Pyramid, ready to unravel the mystery of the Lord Howe Island stick insect. Australian scientists Nicholas Carlile and David Priddle made the journey, together with their assistants.
They had a theory, suggesting that the vegetation on the island might be enough to serve as a food source for the insects and keep them alive. Unfortunately, despite exploring the island for hours and climbing several hundred feet up its steep sides, they found nothing but insect droppings and crickets.
A Night Time Investigation
The scientists had spent a whole day exploring the island but found nothing. So, they decided to try coming back at night, under cover of darkness, and see if they might have better luck.
There was a lot of logic behind this move. The Lord Howe Island stick insect is a nocturnal insect, so it tends to be much more active after sunset, making it easier to spot. Armed with their flashlights, Carlile and a local ranger explored the island, quickly discovering a group of 24 Dryococelus australis.
The Rarest Stick Insect on Earth
The rarity of the Lord Howe Island stick insect helped it to earn a unique nickname: “The rarest stick insect in the world.” Even with Carlile’s discovery, it was clear that there still weren’t many of these insects around.
In 2003, another expedition was launched. A team of scientists from New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service decided to go to Ball’s Pyramid and collect some stick insects for research purposes.
Life at The Zoo
The research team wanted to help the population of the stick insect starts to grow, preserving a special species and ensuring that future generations would be able to see these insects in real life, rather than reading about them in books and on the internet.
The team managed to capture two pairs of Lord Howe Island stick insects. One pair was eventually given to a private breeder in Sydney, while the other was given to the Melbourne Zoo, where reproduction efforts began.
The Population Begins To Rise
At first, the team at Melbourne Zoo struggled to get the stick insects to reproduce. They worried that their efforts might not be successful. But in the end, happily, the female of the species did produce some offspring, and the population started to build up.
By the year 2006, around 50 of the stick insects could be seen in captivity at the zoo, with thousands more unhatched eggs in storage. Just a couple of years later, there were 700 of the insects and more than 11,000 eggs!
Famed anthropologist Jane Goodall visited the zoo to see the stick insects with her own eyes. Shortly after her visit, a small group of 20 insects were returned to their original home on Lord Howe Island.
A special area was set up for them. This project aimed to hopefully repopulate the island with its native stick insects, undoing the damage that the rats had done, so many years ago.
The Rats Are Still Around
In spite of the desires of the researchers to help the stick insects repopulate their home, the rats are still there and still pose a threat. Estimates suggest there are close to 350,000 rats on the island.
Efforts to wipe them out have been met with opposition, as some campaigners worry that the attempts to eradicate the rats may prove harmful to the environment and make it more difficult for the insects to thrive.
We’re Still Learning More
The Lord Howe Island stick insect really is the gift that keeps on giving, as far as nature researchers are concerned. They’re still discovering more and more interesting facts about this species all the time!
In 2014, for example, some climbers saw the insects’ right near the summit of Ball’s Pyramid. This means that the population over on that island may be larger than initially believed. Not only that, but the population at Melbourne Zoo has consistently increased, proving that this insect can reproduce very rapidly.
All the Same Family
In 2017, scientists decided to undertake a whole new study. They wanted to compare the stick insects found on Ball’s Pyramid with the remains of those discovered on Lord Howe Island, trying to see if there were any tiny differences.
It was believed that the two sets of insects might be a little different, but the DNA analysis results revealed that they were more or less identical, effectively all members of the same big insect family.
The Lord Howe Island stick insect was once believed to be extinct, but it’s doing fine now. To ensure that this species stays safe and protected, various backup population eggs have been dispatched to zoos all over the globe.
Now, zoos in Europe and North America, as well as Australia, have their own Dryococelus australis eggs and specimens. For more than eight decades, this insect was thought to have vanished, but now it’s thriving, all thanks to a little group on Ball’s Pyramid.