Jane Goodall on the Lazarus Effect

Rediscovery of a long-lost species sends a message of hope about second chances for all of us. Goodall relates two beautiful examples: the tiny Caspian horse and the Lord Howe Island phasmid (it's a bug).

By Jane Goodall|Wednesday, September 16, 2009
RELATED TAGS: NEW SPECIES

Excerpted from Goodall's new book, From Hope for Animals and Their World:How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink, written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson.

In 2008, during my lecture tour in Australia, a very large, very black, very friendly Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis) crawled across my hands, my face and my head. The encounter sent shivers up my spine—knowing, as I did, the incredible story of how it came to be there.

The forests of Lord Howe Island, about 300 miles off the coast of New South Wales, Australia, were the only known home of the Lord Howe Island phasmid, also called a “stick insect” or “walking stick”—a creature about the size of a large cigar, four or five inches long and half an inch wide. In 1918, black rats arrived on the island after a shipwreck, relentlessly adapting to their new environment and probably finding easy and delicious prey in the giant phasmid, which lacked wings. At some point in the 1920s, the Lord Howe Island phasmid was presumed extinct.

Then, in 1964, rock climbers found the dried-out remains of a giant stick insect on Ball’s Pyramid, an 1,800-foot-tall spire of volcanic rock 14 miles from Lord Howe Island. Five years later, other rock climbers found two other dried bodies incorporated into a bird’s nest on a remote pinnacle of the spire, a place almost entirely without vegetation. It seemed impossible that a large, forest-loving vegetarian insect could be surviving in such a bleak environment. And so biologists ignored these reports until, in February 2001, a small group of people—David Priddel, the senior research scientist of the Department of Environment and Climate Change in New South Wales, his colleague Nicholas Carlile, and two other intrepid souls—decided to settle the matter once and for all.

stick
stick
Lord Howe Island stick-insect

Matthew Bulbert © Australian Museum

The seas around Ball’s Pyramid are rough, and the team of three men and one woman had to leap from their small boat onto the rocks. (“Swimming would have been much easier, but there are too many sharks,” Carlile said.) They put up a small camp and set off to climb about 500 feet up the spire of rock where the main vegetative patches clung to life. They searched thoroughly but found nothing other than some big crickets, and eventually the heat and lack of water drove them back down. Then, in a crevice 225 feet above the sea, they came upon another tiny patch of comparatively lush vegetation, dominated by a single melaleuca bush. Here they found the fresh droppings of some large insect.

Back in camp, over supper, they discussed the situation. Priddel knew that stick insects were nocturnal and that the group would have a better chance of seeing them if they went back to that bush at night. Carlile and team member Dean Hiscox—a local ranger and expert rock climber—volunteered to make the almost suicidal climb in the dark. Finally they reached the vegetated area and saw one, and then two, enormous shining, black-looking bodies spread out on the bush. “It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world,” Carlile said.

Early the next morning, the whole team climbed back up and made a thorough search. They found some frass (the proper terminology for insect poo) and about 30 eggs in the soil. They were all convinced that the only population of Lord Howe Island’s giant phasmid in the world lived on that one melaleuca shrub.

How did the little colony get to that isolated pillar of rock? Perhaps a female, full of eggs, had made the 14-mile journey from Lord Howe Island clinging to the legs of some seabird, or floating on some vegetation after a storm. And once there, she had found the one and only suitable habitat on the entire pyramid, that little bush. The point is, she got there somehow. How her descendants survived for 80 years in that desolate environment we shall never know.

As soon as they returned, the biologists got to work on a recovery plan for the stick insect. They faced many battles with bureaucracy, and two years elapsed before they had permission to return—and they were allowed to catch only four individuals. When they arrived, they found that there had been a big rockslide on Ball’s Pyramid. How easily the entire population could have been wiped out during those two frustrating years. However, on Valentine’s Day in 2003, they found the colony still thriving on its one bush. To transport the incredibly rare insects, a special container had been prepared, and this presented a problem when they arrived in Australia. It was not long after 9/11, and security was very tight, yet the scientists had to convince officials not to open the precious box! One pair of insects went to a private breeder in Sydney, and the other two, Adam and Eve, went to the Melbourne Zoo. To everyone’s delight and relief, Eve soon began laying pea-size eggs.

Within two weeks of arriving in Australia, the pair in Sydney died and Eve became very, very sick. Patrick Honan, a member of the Invertebrate Conservation Breeding Group, worked every night for a month desperately trying to cure her. He scoured the Internet for help, but no one knew anything about the veterinary care of giant stick insects! 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. To his joy, she seemed to get better and laid eggs for a further 18 months. But the only ones that hatched were the 30 or so that she had laid before she fell sick.

In 2008, when I visited the Melbourne Zoo, Patrick showed me his rows of incubating eggs: 11,376 at the last count, with about 700 adults in the captive population. He showed me a photo of how they sleep at night, in pairs, the male with three of his legs protectively over the female beside him. As further insurance for the survival of the species, eggs are now being sent to other zoos and private breeders in Australia and overseas. The 200 eggs that were sent to the San Antonio Zoo in Texas have already begun to hatch.

My second story is about a very small and very beautiful breed of horse and an American woman, Louise Firouz, who “discovered” and rescued the animals from obscurity in Iran. Louise had married a young man from the Iranian royal family, Narcy Firouz, and had become a princess. In 1957 the young couple established the Norouzabad Equestrian Center, where the wealthier Iranian families sent their children to learn to ride. But the horses were typically too big for the smaller children, including their own three. And so when, in 1965, Louise heard rumors of a small pony in the Elburz Mountains near the Caspian Sea, she determined to investigate. She set out on horseback with a few women friends, and she found the “ponies.” They were being used as work animals, pulling carts, malnourished and covered with ticks.

Almost at once Louise realized that these were not ponies at all—they had the distinctive gait, temperament, and facial bone structure of horses. Very small, narrow horses to be sure, standing just over 40 inches, but horses for all that.

As she pondered the nature of this little horse, Louise suddenly remembered seeing, on the walls of the ancient palace in Persepolis, relief carvings of a horse that looked very much like the one she had just found. The Lydian horse depicted in those carvings had the same small, prominent skull formation. With a sense of excitement, Louise began to wonder whether, hidden beneath the matted coats of these work animals, was a true representative of the ancient lost breed of the royals, considered extinct for a thousand years. She found that there were still five purebred horses in the village, and she bought three of them. After extensive DNA testing, archaeozoologists and genetic specialists agreed with Louise that these animals were indeed Caspian horses, the ancestral form of the Arabian horse. What an incredible find!

At first Louise and Narcy financed the breeding themselves, but then in 1970 a Royal Horse Society was formed in Iran. The society’s mission was to protect Iran’s native breeds, and it bought all of Louise’s Caspian horses, which by then numbered 23. Louise and Narcy then started a second, private herd near the Turkmenistan border. When two mares and a foal were killed by wolves, Louise, wanting to ensure that some of the horses would be kept safe, arranged for eight of them to be exported to Britain in 1977. The Royal Horse Society was angered, presumably because it had not been consulted. The society immediately banned all further exports of Caspian horses and began collecting up all of the animals that remained in Iran, including all but one of the Firouzes’ second herd.

Then came the 1979 Islamic revolution. Because of their connections with the royal family, the Firouzes were imprisoned. Narcy was jailed for six months, but Louise for only a few weeks, for she remembered advice given to her by a friend: that if she went to prison, she should go on a hunger strike. This worked, but during that time most of the Caspian horses were auctioned for use as beasts of burden or slaughtered for meat.

Still passionate about saving her beloved Caspian horses, Louise managed to rescue some of those that remained from starvation and slaughter and established, for the third time, a small herd in Iran. And once again she managed to export some of them to safety.

The last such effort was in the early 1990s, when Louise sent seven horses on a dangerous journey to the United Kingdom. They had to pass through the Belarus war zone, where bandits attacked and robbed the convoy. The horses arrived safely, but it had been a costly business. Soon after, in 1994, Louise’s husband died, and she could no longer afford her breeding program.

With Iran’s many political upheavals—the overthrow of the shah, the Iran-Iraq war, the very real threat of famine—as well as the Caspian’s former association with royalty—the fate of these horses was ever in the balance. One moment they were considered a national treasure, the next they were seized as wartime food. But thanks to Louise Firouz, who had exported a total of nine stallions and seventeen mares, the future of this ancient line has been ensured. Today they can be found in England, France, Australia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, and the United States.

From Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink, by Jane Goodall with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson. Copyright © 2009 by Jane Goodall and Thane Maynard. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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