Australian Museum researchers and citizen scientists have scaled a volcanic cliff-face in a daring attempt to save the elusive Lord Howe Island stick insect.

Saturday 6 May 2017, Sydney, Australia: An Australian Museum (AM) team of scientists and climbers have ascended Balls Pyramid, the tallest volcanic stack in the world at 560 metres high, to retrieve a live specimen of one of the world’s rarest insects.

The female Lord Howe Island stick insect or phasmid (Dryococelus australis) – named “Vanessa” after the climber who found it – will join a captive breeding program at Melbourne Zoo designed to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

Formerly endemic to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Lord Howe Island, the phasmid was declared extinct in 1986, before it was rediscovered in the early 2000s on the nearby Balls Pyramid.

The AM conducted the daring climb as part of an expedition to Lord Howe Island that saw more than 20 scientists from the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) undertake a comprehensive survey of fauna on the island.

“This year we’re celebrating 190 years of the Australian Museum, and in that time we’ve been at the forefront of scientific expeditions on Lord Howe Island,” Kim McKay AO, Director & CEO of the AM, said.

“It was the findings of a 1973 Australian Museum expedition to Lord Howe that were used extensively by the Australian Government to secure the island’s UNESCO World Heritage listing.

“This climb of Balls Pyramid is the first time in the AM’s history we have attempted something of this complexity as part an expedition.”

In order to reach the nearly inaccessible home of the elusive Lord Howe phasmid, the AM enlisted the help of experienced rock climbers to scale the volcanic remnant’s sheer cliff face.

“This is the pinnacle of ‘extreme citizen science’, combining our scientific expertise with the skills of experienced climbers,” Dr Rebecca Johnson, Director of AMRI, said.

“It has been fantastic to partner with the climbing community, the local Lord Howe Island Board and Museum, Lord Howe residents and our colleagues at Melbourne Zoo and the Office of Environment and Heritage to deliver such a great outcome for species conservation.”

The discovery of “Vanessa” adds much needed genetic diversity to the phasmid breeding program at Melbourne Zoo, which has been founded from four species recovered in 2003.

Melbourne Zoo Director Kevin Tanner said that the arrival of the phasmid is a major highlight in the successful species survival breeding program, now in its 13th generation.

“It has been both a challenge and a privilege to be responsible for this significant program, and we are delighted to have been associated with this historic Australian Museum expedition,” he said.

In addition to the Balls Pyramid Climb, the Lord Howe Island expedition saw AMRI scientists recover the skeletons of three rare Blainville beaked whales, collect tissue samples of Lord Howe wood hens and native currawongs, and discover a species of longhorn beetle – Oricopis insulana – not seen in nearly 140 years.

Read the expedition blog series

Australian Museum’s 190th Anniversary

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Claire Vince | Media & Communications Advisor | M 61 468 726 910