To the unassuming traveler, the Lord Howe Island Group probably looks like a tropical paradise. And while it’s true that the lush forests, beaches and coral reef are something of a haven, there’s more to these Australian islands than first meets the eye. Indeed, one particular isle has been harboring a decades-old, skin-crawling secret that was left undiscovered for over 80 years.
Found between Australia and New Zealand, the Lord Howe Island Group lies in the Tasman Sea. The rocky landmasses 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.
What’s more, before European settlers moved to the central island permanently in 1834, the stretch of land was seemingly uninhabited. The Polynesians in the South Pacific had no idea that it even existed, in fact. And it’s incredible to think that for many years, the island remained potentially untouched by humans.
However, in 1788 – so, several decades prior to people arriving on the island – a British lieutenant named Henry Lidgbird Ball had become the first European to spot the landmass. Ball was commander of the oldest First Fleet ship, HMS Supply, which had left England with ten other vessels to found Australia’s first European settlement. And it was while the lieutenant was en route to the nearby Norfolk Island with a cargo of convicts that he first laid eyes on Lord Howe Island.
Then, just under a month later, Ball embarked upon his return journey from Norfolk Island. And during this section of his voyage, he did more than simply observe Lord Howe Island. This time, in fact, he sent a boarding party to the shore and claimed the land for his home country.
As the discoverer of the island group, then, Ball had the honor of naming the various land masses of which it’s comprised. And he named the most prominent island after the then First Lord of the Admiralty – the political figurehead of the British Royal Navy – Richard Howe. Somewhat inevitably, he also put his own name on two other places there: Mount Lidgbird and Ball’s Pyramid.
As mentioned earlier, though, it wasn’t until 1834 that the earliest settlers arrived on Lord Howe Island. Three men landed on the shore under the employment of a whaling firm in Sydney and were accompanied by their Māori wives and children. The new natives then established a fresh water supply along with a garden and huts, and they also used their stores of meat, fish, wood and vegetables to barter for commodities only available on the mainland.
Then, over the next couple of decades, several different businesses would use Lord Howe Island as a hub for their employees, establishing farms and trading outposts there. In the early 1850s HMS Herald’s captain Henry Denham conducted a hydrographic survey of the island, too. Along with a team of biologists, he thus collected valuable information on the area’s flora, fauna and geology.
And the Lord Howe Island Group certainly has its fair share of natural splendor; it has even been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The majority of the islands are covered in lush forest containing all manner of wildlife, while the area also teems with historical, cultural and natural points of interest.
In fact, the flora and fauna on the main island became a subject of interest not all that long after Ball’s initial discovery. In May 1788, you see, a number of other First Fleet ships – including HMS Scarborough, HMS Charlotte and Lady Penrhyn – visited the land, and the crew of these vessels subsequently made many notes in their diaries and journals about animal and plant life there.
At around this time, several artists also made watercolor sketches of the island’s wildlife. Artists John Hunter and George Raper, for instance, both documented native birds such as the white gallinule, the Lord Howe pigeon and Lord Howe woodhen. Unfortunately, though, the first two of these species have since been hunted to extinction – with the paintings acting as the only remaining evidence that they ever existed at all.
Meanwhile, in addition to its use as a provisioning port and trading post, the main island experienced an early economic boom by way of the whaling industry. In the late 18th century, whalers began operating in the Pacific, chasing sperm whales into the southern hemisphere. And Lord Howe Island was perfectly positioned in an area that saw the mammals thrive.
In fact, at one point, whale oil was Australia’s most profitable export. But the boom couldn’t last forever, and the whaling industry eventually took a downward turn in the 1860s. Nevertheless, a new economic enterprise blossomed in its place for the residents of Lord Howe Island.
There were several factors at play in the decline of the whaling industry in the mid-19th century. Perhaps top of the list, though, was that alternative energy sources such as petroleum began to take precedence. In 1859, you see, the U.S. produced up to 2,000 barrels of petroleum every year; at the turn of the century, however, the same number was being pumped out every 17 minutes.
And as whaling began to fall off, Lord Howe Island’s inhabitants were forced to explore other ways to generate income. As a result, then, a man named Nathan Thompson – who is the ancestor of many of the island’s modern-day residents – purchased a ship and began trading food and animals with Sydney. Alas, the boat was sadly lost at sea in 1873.
In the 1870s, however, the island’s unique kentia palm plant was becoming increasingly popular. Then in 1878 Lord Howe Island officially became a forest reserve. And it wasn’t long before the island’s first government administrator – one Captain Richard Armstrong – was appointed.
During his time as the island’s administrator, Armstrong was a major proponent of the kentia palm trade. His tenure also saw him oversee the construction of roads around the island, support schools and encourage residents to plant trees. Despite all this, though, Armstrong still didn’t win favor with the local populace, and a parliamentary report recommended that he be replaced.
Nevertheless, the island’s economy did indeed grow through the exporting of kentia palms. The industry thrived in the 1880s, and the once endemic plants are now grown all over the world. In fact, the production of kentia seeds is central to the island’s economy to this day. Furthermore, following World War II, Lord Howe Island became a popular tourist destination too.
In all, 28 different islands, islets and rocks form the group, which is protected by the Lord Howe Island Act 1981. The legislation covers around 70 percent of the main island, designating it a “permanent park preserve.” Meanwhile, the waters around the islands form the Lord Howe Island Marine Park.
Southeast of the main landmass lies the uninhabited Ball’s Pyramid, known for being the world’s tallest volcanic rock stack. It stands at a mighty 1,844 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 during that same voyage which discovered the main island. And yet nobody would step foot on the volcanic tower for nearly 100 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 huge piece of rock. 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, interestingly, it has very little to do with climbing at all. Rather, it relates to one of the few forms of life able to survive on its rocky mass.
Until the early 20th century, the Lord Howe Island stick insect, or Dryococelus australis, was plentiful on the group of islands; it was even used as fishing bait. The insect – which is native to the island group – can grow up to eight inches in length and weigh up to an ounce. And while males of the species are roughly 75 percent the size of their female equivalents, they nevertheless tend to have thicker thighs.
Furthermore, the Dryococelus australis displays some unusual traits when compared to similar species. For instance, the male and female insects pair off – behavior considered particularly uncommon among insects. And while most stick insects have wings, those native to the Lord Howe Island Group don’t – but they are speedy runners.
However, the female insects don’t need the males to survive. In fact, they can reproduce entirely on their own. Therefore, this handy evolutionary trick has helped the Dryococelus australis to survive even in particularly low populations.
Nevertheless, by 1920 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 the 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. But any attempts to discover their source proved fruitless. However, in 2001 a team of scientists journeyed to Ball’s Pyramid to investigate for themselves.
With a pair of assistants in tow, Australian scientists Nicholas Carlile and David Priddel traveled to the landmark, theorizing that the vegetation there should be able to support the insects. Unfortunately, though, the group had no luck finding what they were after during daylight hours. They climbed close to 400 feet up the grassy slope, in fact, but only turned up crickets and insect droppings.
Instead, then, the scientists decided to come back at night – not least because the insects were historically nocturnal. So, armed with a flashlight, Carlile therefore returned to the slopes after dark with a local ranger. And, happily, the duo soon unearthed a group of 24 Dryococelus australis – all of which were alive and well.
Meanwhile, the scarcity of Dryococelus australis has earned it the nickname “the rarest insect in the world.” That said, 15 years after their rediscovery, the stick insects had become a little less few and far between. And the search for them continued, when in 2003 scientists from New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service headed to Ball’s Pyramid to collect specimens of the insect.
The research team ultimately acquired two pairs of Dryococelus australis – one for Melbourne Zoo and another for a private breeder based in Sydney. And while the zookeepers in Melbourne struggled at first to get the insects to reproduce, eventually they managed to successfully increase their numbers.
In 2006, in fact, the number of Dryococelus australis in captivity had reached around 50, while there were also thousands of unhatched eggs. And two years later, when anthropologist Jane Goodall visited Melbourne Zoo, that number had exploded. Amazingly, there were now 700 individuals in captivity along with over 11,000 eggs.
Shortly after Goodall’s visit, 20 of the insects were then returned from the zoo to a designated habitat set up on Lord Howe Island. Indeed, the eventual aim of the scientists has been to reintroduce the insects to their native home. But before that, a project to rid the island of its invasive rat population must prove successful.
Yes, the rats that were thought to have first extinguished the Dryococelus australis population are still an issue today. In fact, estimates suggest there are currently 1,000 rodents for each of Lord Howe Island’s 350 residents. And efforts to eradicate the rats have been met with resistance, as there are fears that the campaign could also harm the very insect researchers are trying valiantly to save.
It seems, too, that discoveries about the Dryococelus australis are apparently still being made. For example, in 2014 a team of unauthorized climbers spotted live insects close to Ball’s Pyramid’s summit – suggesting, perhaps, that the creatures are more widespread than previously believed. And two years later, the insect’s captive population had increased even further, as Melbourne Zoo had at that point successfully hatched 13,000 eggs.
Then in 2017 scientists conducted a study comparing the Dryococelus australis found on Ball’s Pyramid with the remains found on Lord Howe Island. And, intriguingly, the results of the DNA analysis showed that the two populations did indeed both come from the same species – despite there being a handful of morphological differences between them.
Meanwhile, in order to establish backup populations, the researchers have dispatched 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.
Astonishingly, this isn’t the only atoll that’s been totally taken over by creepy-crawlies. Take Ilha da Queimada Grande, for example. While the island may look like a jungle paradise, there’s a deadly secret lurking within its foliage – one so dangerous, in fact, that only a few explorers have ever dared to step foot there.