Lorde Howe Stick Insects Are Back from the Dead, And That's Not Even The Best Bit

Image: Mikheyev et al

Lorde Howe Stick Insects are extinct, victims of the introduction of rats to the Island's ecosystem via a shipwreck in 1918. Without mammals on the island, the rats quickly wiped out five bird species and 13 insect species - including our sticky friends.

Or so we thought.

A team of international and Australian scientists compared the DNA of some newly discovered insects, with a museum specimen of the 'extinct' ones - and guess what? They are the same species.

The road to the stick insect's re-discovery began in the 60's, when Rock climbers on a small, isolated volcanic stack located in the Tasman Sea called "Ball's Pyramid" found freshly dead remains of what looked like Lord Howe Island stick insects.

So in 2001 a closer look at Ball's Pyramid was undertaken - and live stick insects were found 65 metres above sea level, feeding on a tea-tree. The next year 24 more insects were found in the same place. So they were collected and sent to Melbourne Zoo.

But we didn't really know for sure they were the real Lorde Howe Stick Insects - they did have some slight differences.

Now with this new research, thanks to the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, Zoos Victoria and the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO, DNA sequencing has removed any doubt.

Mitochondrial genomes from both the Ball's Pyramid island stick insects as well as preserved specimens of Lord Howe Island stick insects from CSIRO's Australian National Insect Collection (that were collected before the species was declared extinct) were compared.

Turned out the DNA diverged by less than one per cent - close enough to scientifically be declared the same species.

"In this case, it seems like we’re lucky and we have not lost this species forever, although by all rights we should have," says Professor Alexander Mikheyev from the Ecology and Evolution Unit at OIST and lead author on the research paper.

"We get another chance - but very often we do not."

Getting rid of the rats is now the main focus - and luckily there is now strong government and community support to do so.

But there's another cool side-effect of this research - it has highlighted the absolute gold mine for genetic data that museums actually are.

"In the past researchers could do little more with specimens other than observing them, or risking damage them with more in-depth studies," Professor Mikheyev points out. "They can now sequence entire genomes of long-lost species."


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