08/01/2018

Back from extinction - breeding success for world’s rarest stick insect

Keepers are celebrating a breeding success for one of the world’s rarest insects, once thought to have been extinct.

Five tiny, precious Lord Howe Island stick insect eggs were discovered on New Year’s Eve by Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

The Zoo’s effort to save the species from extinction began in 2015 when three hundred Lord Howe Island stick insect eggs arrived from Melbourne Zoo in Australia. 

The species is incredibly difficult to look after, but the skilled invertebrate team at the Zoo succeeded in getting six animals to reach adulthood – three breeding pairs - which produced eggs, which started hatching in May 2017.

Five of these subsequent babies also reached adulthood, and two have now produced eggs of their own. This is the first time a second-generation of eggs has ever been laid outside of Australia.

As adults, they will join the Zoo’s founder members of Europe’s first captive breeding programme for the species, in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct.

Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, said: “We had our suspicions that the females might soon lay eggs, but to find eggs on New Year ’s Eve is a great end to an already successful year, and a fantastic start to 2018.”

He added: “We have been tirelessly working with this Critically Endangered species for two years now, and to have achieved this success after such a lot of hard work and dedication is truly fantastic. It is certainly one of our biggest achievements in the seven years that I have been working in the Zoo’s Invertebrate department and a huge boost to the European captive breeding programme for this species.”   

The eggs should hatch after six months’ incubation, with the tiny nymphs being the third generation of the species at Bristol Zoo. It is hoped that each generation will breed with greater success as the species becomes more acclimatised to the UK climate and conditions. The animals are being fed on plants specially grown by dedicated horticulturists at the Zoo.

Lord Howe Island stick insects were thought to have been driven to extinction by black rats in the early twentieth century. In 2001 they were rediscovered on Ball’s Pyramid – a rat-free volcanic outcrop off the coast of Lord Howe Island, off the east coast of Australia.

Two breeding pairs were taken to mainland Australia to set up a captive breeding population which is now being rolled out across the rest of the world, with eggs sent to Bristol Zoo, San Diego Zoo and Toronto Zoo in 2015.

Adult Lord Howe Island stick insects are wingless and nocturnal, feeding only on one species of shrub although keepers at Melbourne Zoo have been doing trials with other plants and the stick insects have eaten them. The one remaining population on Balls Pyramid has just 20-30 individuals left.

Bristol Zoo Gardens is a conservation and education charity and relies on the generous support of the public not only to fund its important work in the zoo, but also its vital conservation and research projects spanning five continents.

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