Monday, January 18, 2016

The Power of "Sticking Up" for Someone

Ball's Island (South Pacific) - Photo Credit John White
National Public Radio science writer Robert Krulwich writes one of the more interesting articles I've read in a long time. Entitled Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years, the story is a modern parable on the power of perseverance in "sticking up" for someone (or something) that is in trouble. Rather than summarize, I am reposting the article here:

 No, this isn't a make-believe place. It's real.

They call it "Ball's Pyramid." It's what's left of an old volcano that emerged from the sea about 7 million years ago. A British naval officer named Ball was the first European to see it in 1788. It sits off Australia, in the South Pacific. It is extremely narrow, 1,844 feet high, and it sits alone.

What's more, for years this place had a secret. At 225 feet above sea level, hanging on the rock surface, there is a small, spindly little bush, and under that bush, a few years ago, two climbers, working in the dark, found something totally improbable hiding in the soil below. How it got there, we still don't know.

Here's the story: About 13 miles from this spindle of rock, there's a bigger island, called Lord Howe Island.

On Lord Howe, there used to be an insect, famous for being big. It's a stick insect, a critter that masquerades as a piece of wood, and the Lord Howe Island version was so large — as big as a human hand — that the Europeans labeled it a "tree lobster" because of its size and hard, lobsterlike exoskeleton. It was 12 centimeters long and the heaviest flightless stick insect in the world. Local fishermen used to put them on fishing hooks and use them as bait.

Rod Morris/
Then one day in 1918, a supply ship, the S.S. Makambo from Britain, ran aground at Lord Howe Island and had to be evacuated. One passenger drowned. The rest were put ashore. It took nine days to repair the Makambo, and during that time, some black rats managed to get from the ship to the island, where they instantly discovered a delicious new rat food: giant stick insects. Two years later, the rats were everywhere and the tree lobsters were gone.
Totally gone. After 1920, there wasn't a single sighting. By 1960, the Lord Howe stick insect, Dryococelus australis, was presumed extinct.

There was a rumor, though.

Some climbers scaling Ball's Pyramid in the 1960s said they'd seen a few stick insect corpses lying on the rocks that looked "recently dead." But the species is nocturnal, and nobody wanted to scale the spire hunting for bugs in the dark.

Climbing the Pyramid

Fast forward to 2001, when two Australian scientists, David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, with two assistants, decided to take a closer look. From the water, they'd seen a few patches of vegetation that just might support walking sticks. So, they boated over. ("Swimming would have been much easier," Carlile said, "but there are too many sharks.") They crawled up the vertical rock face to about 500 feet, where they found a few crickets, nothing special. But on their way down, on a precarious, unstable rock surface, they saw a single melaleuca bush peeping out of a crack and, underneath, what looked like fresh droppings of some large insect.

Where, they wondered, did that poop come from?

The only thing to do was to go back up after dark, with flashlights and cameras, to see if the pooper would be out taking a nighttime walk. Nick Carlile and a local ranger, Dean Hiscox, agreed to make the climb. And with flashlights, they scaled the wall till they reached the plant, and there, spread out on the bushy surface, were two enormous, shiny, black-looking bodies. And below those two, slithering into the muck, were more, and more ... 24 in all. All gathered near this one plant.

Map of Lord Howe Island
Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe / NPR

They were alive and, to Nick Carlile's eye, enormous. Looking at them, he said, "It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world."

They were Dryococelus australis. A search the next morning, and two years later, concluded these are the only ones on Ball's Pyramid, the last ones. They live there, and, as best we know, nowhere else.

Photo Credit/Patrick Honan
How they got there is a mystery. Maybe they hitchhiked on birds, or traveled with fishermen, and how they survived for so long on just a single patch of plants, nobody knows either. The important thing, the scientists thought, was to get a few of these insects protected and into a breeding program.

That wasn't so easy. The Australian government didn't know if the animals on Ball's Pyramid could or should be moved. There were meetings, studies, two years passed, and finally officials agreed to allow four animals to be retrieved. Just four.

When the team went back to collect them, it turned out there had been a rock slide on the mountain, and at first they feared that the whole population had been wiped out. But when they got back up to the site, on Valentine's Day 2003, the animals were still there, sitting on and around their bush.
The plan was to take one pair and give it a man who was very familiar with mainland walking stick insects, a private breeder living in Sydney. He got his pair, but within two weeks, they died.

Adam And Eve And Patrick

That left the other two. They were named "Adam" and "Eve," taken to the Melbourne Zoo and placed with Patrick Honan, of the zoo's invertebrate conservation breeding group. At first, everything went well. Eve began laying little pea-shaped eggs, exactly as hoped. But then she got sick. According to biologist Jane Goodall, writing for Discover Magazine:
"Eve became very, very sick. Patrick ... worked every night for a month desperately trying to cure her. ... Eventually, based on gut instinct, Patrick concocted a mixture that included calcium and nectar and fed it to his patient, drop by drop, as she lay curled up in his hand."
Her recovery was almost instant. Patrick told the Australian Broadcasting Company, "She went from being on her back curled up in my hand, almost as good as dead, to being up and walking around within a couple of hours."

Eve's eggs were harvested, incubated (though it turns out only the first 30 were fertile) and became the foundation of the zoo's new population of walking sticks.

When Jane Goodall visited in 2008, Patrick showed her rows and rows of incubating eggs: 11,376 at that time, with about 700 adults in the captive population. Lord Howe Island walking sticks seem to pair off — an unusual insect behavior — and Goodall says Patrick "showed me photos of how they sleep at night, in pairs, the male with three of his legs protectively over the female beside him."

Now comes the question that bedevils all such conservation rescue stories. Once a rare animal is safe at the zoo, when can we release it back to the wild?

On Lord Howe Island, their former habitat, the great-great-great-grandkids of those original black rats are still out and about, presumably hungry and still a problem. Step one, therefore, would be to mount an intensive (and expensive) rat annihilation program. Residents would, no doubt, be happy to go rat-free, but not every Lord Howe islander wants to make the neighborhood safe for gigantic, hard-shell crawling insects. So the Melbourne Museum is mulling over a public relations campaign to make these insects more ... well, adorable, or noble, or whatever it takes.

They recently made a video, with strumming guitars, featuring a brand new baby emerging from its egg. The newborn is emerald green, squirmy and so long, it just keeps coming and coming from an impossibly small container. Will this soften the hearts of Lord Howe islanders? I dunno. It's so ... so ... big.

But, hey, why don't you look for yourself?

What happens next? The story is simple: A bunch of black rats almost wiped out a bunch of gigantic bugs on a little island far, far away from most of us. A few dedicated scientists, passionate about biological diversity, risked their lives to keep the bugs going. For the bugs to get their homes and their future back doesn't depend on scientists anymore. They've done their job. Now it's up to the folks on Lord Howe Island.

Will ordinary Janes and Joes, going about their days, agree to spend a little extra effort and money to preserve an animal that isn't what most of us would call beautiful? Its main attraction is that it has lived on the planet for a long time, and we have the power to keep it around. I don't know if it will work, but in the end, that's the walking stick's best argument:

I'm still here. Don't let me go.

Courtesy the Australian Museum


Anonymous said...

Very entertaining post!


Christiane said...

Magnificent post, WADE. Thank you.
Something sacred from the Creator is always made visible to us in the beginning of new life.

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour." (from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence)

"Who among all these does not know That the Hand of the LORD has done this,
In Whose Hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind?"
(The Book of Job 12:9-10)

Rex Ray said...


I am amazed at the devotion of these people to do something that is right…and accomplish the job under crazy rules.

My brother bought a house in a nice area, but is finding out there are ‘rules'. He’s been told it was OK to have two humming birds at his feeder, but he could not have three that were eating there. Also his wife was told to stop sitting in a chair on their front yard. (She is 80)
Meanwhile there are 15 coyotes roaming the area eating dogs and anything else. Worried about their bite size dog, his request to have the coyotes removed was denied on the grounds, “They were here first.” He replied, “So were the Indians.” Maybe ‘Dear Abby’ could tell him what to do.

Pege' said...

Wade, 1st..I HATE BUGS!!! The pictures gave me the willies!! I could not sleep last night and after reading your post had some interesting insights to an analogy for my spiritual journey..

There I was, a young believer. Enjoying hanging out with other like minded people. Basking in the SON and the Stick Insects. Then out of the blue one day a group of strangers needing help came. Seemed innocent enough. Until something they carried crept in to my life. In your story, it was black rats..but in my life it was the blackness of legalism. It quickly permeated and dominated what was good and right. Few escaped.
There was a remnant who found a way to escape and in a very precarious place they found shelter. Very confining and limited, they found the ability to live together, work together and watch out for one another. Things looked bleak as their numbers were small but they kept doing what the knew to be right and good while below the black ravages of legalism ate and devoured not only their kin but eventually one another.

Many years pass and finally help came to this small resilient group. Finally the tender loving gracious care allowed recovery.
They had Patience and love, Wisdom and guidance.

Once the little " band of bugs" were thriving,the blackness was addressed and removed. The remnant was reintroduced to their once dangerous dwelling place.

If you allow the analogy... this was me. GRACE brought me back from the blackness of legalism to life lived in GRACE. A life filled with LOVE for Christ.

I had people "STICK -UP" for me. People who prayed for me and came every so gently and lovingly help me get stronger and thrive in Grace.

I know I took artistic liberties.....and please remember I wrote this in the early hours of the morning after not sleeping. :)

Victorious said...

That was beautiful, Pege'! Thank you!

Mary Ann

Pege' said...

Victorious... that was very kind to say...I thought it was quirky. I often have sleepless nights and after reading Wades article and seeing the bug pictures, I could not get the story out of my mind.

* NOTE TO SELF: If any future articles by Wade have bug picture do not read them at night! :)

Wade Burleson said...


I agree with Victorious - excellent! You've given me a great idea for a message!

Chrsistiane and Louis,

Thank you both!


Once again, a great anecdote with wonderful irony! :)

Pege' said...!! Just don't call the sermon "PEGE HATES BUGS!!! :)

Rex Ray said...


Suppose “the power of sticking up for someone” were changed to ‘cost’. These are some persecutions that cost Paul for standing for Jesus. (2 Corinthians 23-26)
1. Thirty-nine lashes five times.
2. Beaten with rods three times.
3. Prison more than once.
4. Stoned—left for dead.
5. Faced danger from Jews, Gentiles, and false Christians.

Off the subject is the persecution of a man who would not stop telling what he saw when President JFK was killed.

“Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig heard a shrill whistle and saw a white male running down the Grassy Knoll from the direction of the Depository and jump into a Rambler station wagon. He would not stop talking to reporters that resulted in Sheriff Bill Decker firing him in 1967. Decker was in the secret meeting the night before Kennedy was killed. (p.355) The same year, a bullet grazed his head while walking in a parking lot. In 1973, a car forced him off the road causing back injury. In 1974, he was shot by a shotgun. In 1975 he was seriously injured when his car engine blew up. The same year, he did a series of radio talk shows about someone running down the Grassy Knoll and getting into a Rambler station wagon. Soon afterwards, he was found dead of a “self-inflicted” gunshot. (p.145-146)”
This was written in the book, “LBJ and the Kennedy Killing”…2013 by James Tague who was wounded at Dealey Plaza. We became friends and I was at his funeral 4 months after his book was published.

Wade Burleson said...

Amen, Rex.

My staff said, "Why would anyone spend millions to save bugs?"

I responded, "Why would God ever give His Son to save us?"


Unknown said...

I too love Page's story. I was in the same boat but Praise Jesus He chose to bring me into the light! Now people are trying to convince me that we can grieve God because the word says we can grieve the HOly!