Land Lobster: World’s Rarest Insect

The Land Lobster (Dryococeius australis) has the unique distinction of being the rarest insect in the world. Land Lobsters, also called tree lobsters, are native only to the Lord Howe Island group, a chain of volcanic islands located between Australia and New Zealand. The species was believed to have gone extinct in 1920 but was rediscovered in 2001. It was not until 2017 that the scientific community had genetic evidence that the rediscovered population of insects was, in fact, the thought-to-be extinct land lobster.

picture of land lobster
Source: P. Halaz via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 2.5

Description & Behavior

Despite their famous status in the etymology world, land lobsters are relatively nondescript and resemble several other species of stick bugs. They are a reddish-brown color and have legs and a body shape that makes them look like dead vegetation on the forest floor. Adult male land lobsters can measure up to 8 inches long and adults females 10 inches. Stick bugs do not have any wings but they can run rather quickly. Land lobsters are obligate herbivores and eat decaying plant matter on the forest floor. They are mostly active during the night where they scurry around looking for food.

Unfortunately, much of what we know about their natural reproductive habits is limited as the majority of studied species exist in captivity. However, it is known that males and females form long mating bonds and females will lay their eggs while hanging upside down. Land lobster eggs normally take about 9 months to hatch, though it is believed this length can vary greatly depending on environmental conditions.

picture of Dryococeius australis
Source: Granitethighs via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 3.0

History, “Extinction,” & Rediscovery

Land lobster used to be a common sight in the Lord Howe Island group, where they were used by the indigenous population as fishing bait. Entomologist have traced the apparent extinction of the land lobster to the crash of the supply ship SS Makambo in 1918, which introduced black rats into the environment. Black rats are voracious predators and in a few short years, they had rendered the species virtually extinct. After 1920, no land lobsters could be found and the species was declared extinct.

In 1964, a hiking team climbing Ball’s Pyramid discovered a trove of dead land lobster specimens, which gave local researchers a valuable store of data on the insect. However, no live specimens could be found until almost 40 years later.

In 2001, an expedition led by Australian scientists David Priddel and Nicolas Carlile successfully found living land lobster specimens. Priddel and Carlile discovered a habitat of 24 insects living in some shrubs. A future expedition in 2003 led by a team of researchers from New South Wales obtained two breeding pairs, one of which was donated to the Melbourne Zoo for breeding purposes.

Further expeditions in 2006, 2008, and 2011 found more live specimens. However, researchers still had no conclusive evidence that the specimens collected from the Ball Pyramid region were, in fact, the long lost land lobster. It was not until 2017 that genome analysis of collected specimens found that their DNA varied from the genome museum’s dead specimens by less than 1%—a small enough variance to determine the two insects were the same species. The land lobster had finally been officially rediscovered!