Wild Ideas: Did the “tree lobster” come back from extinction?    

Since they’ve retired, my brother, Dana, and his wife escape the fall monsoon weather of their hometown, Juneau, Alaska, to camp and hike in the parched deserts of the Southwest. On these trips, Dana occasionally sends me photos of wildlife they find there, either for help in identifying the species or just to share wildlife they are seeing.

A recent photo Dana sent from Organ Mountains, east of Las Cruces, was so out of focus and at such a low resolution that I had to use deduction more than observation to try to figure out the creature that was supposed to be among the fuzzy vegetation in it. This wasn’t the first “Where’s Waldo?” situation he’s presented me with.

As usual, Dana had taken the photo with his iPhone, probably an older model and not the best for closeup photos of small things. He then sent me the original file, full res, which was still not the best, but after enlarging it, I was almost able confirm it was indeed a stick insect (phasmid), which my brother confirmed it was. Phasmids evolved to blend into their surroundings (specifically limbs of the trees they feed on). I didn’t even try to figure out the species of this one.

Through DNA technology, recently discovered six-inch walking sticks were determined to be the Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis), thought to be extinct since 1920. By Granitethighs via Wikimedia

Being a big fan of phasmids, which normally show up on or in my house in early fall, I fired back with a blurb I’d read recently in my Science Magazine news email feed. It was about a giant phasmid, the Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis), which was declared extinct in 1920 but was recently determined to still be around, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

Also called a “tree lobster” because of its hefty exoskeleton and sometimes-red coloring, this herbivore is six inches long. That’s about twice the size of Virginia’s most common and largest phasmid, the northern walking stick. According to Science, D. australis “once thrived on the lush vegetation of Lord Howe Island, between Australia and New Zealand.” But when a ship accidentally introduced black rats to the island about a century ago, the phasmid population there “plummeted.”

Forty years later, similar-looking phasmids were found on Ball’s Pyramid, a volcanic seastack about 12 miles away from Lord Howe Island. While about the same size, they didn’t look identical to the old phasmid museum specimens of D. australis, so their identity remained in doubt. But with the recent advent of DNA technology, researchers finally could determine whether they newly found insects were indeed the same species.

Comparing the DNA, the scientists found that the respective genetic makeup of the museum specimens and living insects varied by only 1 percent, which is within the threshold of being considered the same species. This suggests that the giant “bugs” could be returned to their ancestral habitat on Lord Howe Island.

On receiving my writeup of the Science blurb, accompanied by a photo of the phasmid in question, which I found on Wikimedia, Dana said he remembered reading about this, too, but was glad for a refresher and for the photo. With all the news I get about species going extinct, it’s always refreshing to hear when one thought to be extinct — or on the brink — is still hanging on.

Master naturalists to hold training in March

The Old Rag Master Naturalists chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist (VMN) program starts training its next class of new members on March 6, 2018. As the VMN website puts it, “Virginia Master Naturalists are volunteer educators, citizen scientists, and stewards helping Virginia conserve and manage natural resources and public lands.” The ORMN chapter covers six counties — Culpeper, Greene, Madison, Orange, Rappahannock and western Fauquier.

Certification as a master naturalist requires 40 hours of basic training, which for ORMN focuses on the ecosystems of Virginia’s Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions. Following training, each member must complete 40 hours of volunteer service and eight hours of additional training each year to be certified as a Virginia master naturalist.

Old Rag Master Naturalists’ inaugural 2007 class goes on a forestry field trip in Madison County. By Jack Price

Volunteer projects fall fit within three categories: citizen science (includes monitoring species and ecosystems), stewardship (maintaining and restoring ecosystems) and education (includes giving talks and leading nature walks). Service need not be confined to the chapter’s service area, and generally projects are in partnership with a host of organizations and agencies, such as Shenandoah National Park, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, James Madison’s Montpelier, Piedmont Environmental Council and local government and community organizations. Members are also encouraged to develop projects with partnering organizations, with the approval of the chapter.

Among the many projects the chapter has contributed to or initiated are the annual Rappahannock butterfly count (started by the chapter); planting chestnut trees (with the American Chestnut Foundation); restoring a rare montane alluvial plain in Buck Hollow (Shenandoah National Park); developing a nature program for seniors in Orange County; building a nature trail in the town of Washington; leading public nature walks; and giving talks to a wide variety of groups, including schools.

On a personal note, having helped found ORMN, I can say that the VMN program is worthwhile for anyone interested in learning more about and preserving our natural ecosystems and that ORMN has always been a dynamic chapter involved in many worthwhile projects. Being a member also offers a great chance to meet and share ideas with other citizen scientists and nature professionals. Although no experience with nature is required, the chapter usually receives significantly more applications than they have training slots, so applicants should seriously consider why they wish to join the program and what they can offer to it when they fill out the application. The best master naturalists have one thing in common: a passion for, and dedication to, nature.

The spring training course, at the Culpeper VFW Hall, runs 15 weeks on Tuesday mornings, 9-1, in addition to six field trips. The cost, including materials, is $170. Class size is limited to 15 students. The application deadline for the spring training is Jan. 31. To find out more, go to oldragmasternaturalists.org or call Roberta Jalbert at 540-407-0552.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”