Once thought extinct, giant Lord Howe Island stick insects do exist

October 9, 2017, 8:28 a.m.
A pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects at the Bristol Zoo
Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Back in the early 2000s, scientists exploring Australia's Ball's Pyramid island left with a mating pair of 6-inch-long insects that looked like black bulky sticks. They believed they had rediscovered the Lord Howe Island stick bug (Dryococelus australis), a creature that had been deemed extinct since the 1930s.

While the scientists started a conservation and breeding effort with the bugs they brought back in an effort to eventually return the insect to the island it was named for, they couldn't be sure then that what they had were actually Lord Howe Island stick insects. The DNA of museum specimens had decayed over time, and the technology they had simply wasn't up to the task of comparing the two genomes.

Fast forward to today, however, and the technology has advanced enough that those decayed DNA samples can be compared with the DNA samples of the descendants captured at the turn of the century. And, lo and behold, the Lord Howe Island stick bug is indeed back in town.

"We found what everyone hoped to find — that despite some significant morphological differences, these are indeed the same species," Alexander Mikheyev at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan said in a statement released through Cell Press.

Questions remain about how and why those physical differences — including bigger legs — came about and how the bugs even got from Lord Howe Island to Ball's Pyramid. However, scientists are optimistic that since the species are the same, that they can soon reintroduce the insects to Lord Howe Island.

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