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Scientists Discovered A Skin-Crawling Secret That This Strange Island Had Concealed For 80 Years

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Found between Australia and New Zealand, the award Howe Island group lies in the Tasman Sea. The rocky land masses that form it are comprised mostly of volcanic remnants, and the main isle, known simply as Lord Howe Island, is just 6.2 miles long. The central island was first discovered in 1788 by a British lieutenant named Henry Lidge bird fall. On his way to the nearby Norfolk Island, Ball spotted what would become known as Lord Howe Island. However, on his return trip, he claimed it for his home country, and by 1834, the island had been permanently settled.

Designed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the island group boasts a rich variety of lush terrain within which lies a bounty of historical, cultural, and natural points of interest. What’s more, the majority of the islands are covered in unexplored forests containing all manner of wildlife. While Lieutenant Ball claimed the island in the 18th century, it was put to use as a port for whalers. Eventually, however, the whaling industry took a downward turn, and in its place, another economic enterprise bloomed. Indeed, in the 1880s, traders began exporting Ketchup palms from the island, and these are now grown all over the world.

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To this day, the production of Quechua seeds is central to the island’s economy. Furthermore, following World War II, Lord Howe Island became a popular tourist destination. In all, 28 different islands form the group, which is protected by the Lord Howe Island Act of 1981. The legislation covers around 70% of the island, designating it a permanent Park Preserve. Meanwhile, the waters around the islands form the Lord Howe Island Marine Park. Southwest of the mainland mass lies Ball’s Pyramid, an uninhabited island known for being the world’s tallest volcanic rock formation. Indeed, it stands at a mighty 1844 feet high, and like the rest of the islands in the group, it’s a rocky remnant of a six million-year-old volcano.

Ball’s Pyramid was discovered in 1788 on the same voyage as the main island was, and by the same lieutenant. And yet, nobody would step foot on the island for more than a hundred years after its discovery. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1882 that geologist Henry Wilkinson made the first recorded journey ashore. Since then, a number of people have attempted to scale the volcanic tower. In 1964, for instance, a group of Australian climbers failed to complete their ascent after exhausting their supplies. A year later, however, four members of the Sydney Rock Climbing Club finally reached the peak.

The climbing community’s relationship with the island has been uneasy over the years. In fact, in the 1980s, climbing there was banned altogether. But nowadays, some people are able to scale the rock after going through a formal application process. However, there’s another very different reason that people travel to Ball’s Pyramid, and it has very little to do with climbing at all. On the contrary, it relates to one of the few forms of life able to survive on its rocky mass. Until the 20th century, Dryococelus australis was plentiful on Lord Howe Island and was even used as fishing bait.

A type of stick insect native to the island group, it displays some unusual traits when compared to similar species. For instance, the male and female insects pair off, a behavior considered particularly uncommon among insects. However, the female insects don’t need the males to survive; in fact, they can reproduce entirely on their own.

And this peculiar evolutionary trick helped the species to live on in particularly low populations. Nonetheless, by the 1920s, the insects had been declared extinct. Just two years earlier, a supply ship had run aground on the shores of Lord Howe Island, bringing with it a plague of black rats, and it hadn’t taken long for the rats to totally destroy the population of Dryococelus australis.

So it was that scientists assumed these stick insects would never be seen again. Then, however, a group of climbers stumbled upon the remains of a Dryococelus australis on Ball’s Pyramid. Moreover, this was some 44 years after the last known sighting of the insect, dead or alive. Over the next few decades, scientists then managed to find a handful more dead specimens. However, any attempts to discover their source proved fruitless. That was until 2001 when a team of scientists journeyed to Ball’s Pyramid to investigate themselves.

Unfortunately, the scientists had no luck finding what they were after during daylight hours. Instead, they decided to come back at night, noting that the insects were historically nocturnal. And lo and behold, they soon unearthed a group of 24 Lord Howe Island stick insects alive and well.

The scarcity of Dryococelus australis had earned it the nickname “the rarest insect in the world.” But 15 years after their rediscovery, these stick insects were a little less rare. Indeed, in 2003, scientists collected a pair of them from Ball’s Pyramid for breeding purposes, and by 2016, 13 thousand eggs had been successfully hatched. In order to establish backup populations, the researchers dispatched the eggs to zoos in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

It’s astonishing to think that for 80 years, Dryococelus australis flew completely under the radar of humanity. Yet, now, it’s flourishing thanks to a tiny community that managed to survive.

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