DNA confirms amazing Australian isle insect not extinct after all

WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - When black rats invaded Lord Howe Island after the 1918 wreck of the steamship Makambo, they wiped out numerous native species on the small Australian isle in the Tasman Sea including a big, flightless insect that resembled a stick.

But the Lord Howe Island stick insect, once declared extinct, still lives. Scientists said on Thursday DNA analysis of museum specimens of the bug and a similar-looking one from an inhospitable volcanic outcrop called Ball's Pyramid 14 miles away confirmed they are the same species. The finding could help pave the way for its reintroduction in the coming years.

"The Lord Howe Island stick insect has become emblematic of the fragility of island ecosystems. Unlike most stories involving extinction, this one gives us a unique second chance," said evolutionary biologist Alexander Mikheyev of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Japan.

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World's rarest stick insect -- Lord Howe Island
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World's rarest stick insect -- Lord Howe Island
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, handles a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up an egg laid from a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
An adult female Dryococelus australis, also known as the Lord Howe Island stick insect which was once declared extinct, is shown in this undated photo released on October 5, 2017. Courtesy Rohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT
An adult female Dryococelus australis, also known as the Lord Howe Island stick insect which was once declared extinct, is shown on melaleuca howeana tree in this undated photo released on October 5, 2017. Courtesy Rohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo/Australia/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Bushell, Curator of Invertebrates at Bristol Zoo, holds up an egg laid from a pair of critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insects, one of the world's rarest insects, which were bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo Gardens on September 2, 2016 in Bristol, England. The breeding pair, alongside two others who were hatched from eggs sent from the Melbourne Zoo, have recently laid eggs at Bristol Zoo Gardens marking the first time the species has done so outside Australia. These six Lord Howe Island stick insects are hoped to become the founding members of Europe's first captive breeding programme in an international effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
(AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) The world's rarest insect, the Lord Howe Island Stick insect has been succesfully bred at Melbourne Zoo, bringing it back from the edge of extinction. Seen here is Patrick Honan, the man in charge of the program, the senior invertabrate specialist at the zoo, with a new baby and adult on 21st April, 2005. THE AGE NEWS Picture by SANDY SCHLETEMA. (Photo by Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
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The glossy-black insect that grow up to six inches in length is nicknamed the "land lobster." Other stick insects are found around the world, so named because their appearance lets them blend in with trees and bushes to evade predators.

As adults, the wingless Lord Howe Island stick insects shelter in trees during daytime and come out at night to eat shrubbery. The bright-green babies are active during daytime.

By about 1930, they had vanished on Lord Howe Island, which was thought to be their only home. There were no land-dwelling mammals there when the rats arrived, and they also vanquished five bird species and 12 other insect species.

A rock-climbing ranger made a curious discovery in 2001 on Ball's Pyramid: a similar-looking insect. Since then, captive breeding programs have begun at the Melbourne Zoo and elsewhere.

Because of certain differences between the Ball's Pyramid insects and the Lord Howe Island insect museum specimens, there was some question about whether they were the same species.

"We found what everyone hoped to find, that despite some significant morphological differences, these are indeed the same species," said Mikheyev, who led the research published in the journal Current Biology.

Officials are planning a program to eradicate the invasive rats on Lord Howe Island, which could allow the stick insects to return.

"I imagine that maybe a decade from now, people will travel to Lord Howe Island and take night walks, hoping to glimpse this insect," Mikheyev said. "In maybe 20 years, they could become a ubiquitous sight."

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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