Tree Lobsters, believed for decades to be extinct, are making a comeback

Yes, it’s true. For generations, large human-hand-sized creatures with lobster-like exoskeletons lived in the trees of a remote island miles off the shore of Australia.

They were commonly called Tree Lobsters, and after a shipwreck caused a rat infestation on their home island in 1918, they were considered to be wiped out of existence.

Totally extinct.

Although they lived in the tree limbs above ground and not on the sea floor, these primitive creatures were like the plentiful and lucrative lobsters caught off the coast of Maine in that they belong to the wide-ranging phylum Anthropoda.

So these peculiar things, something like a cross between Maine’s signature crustacean and a giant stick insect, were obliterated from existence in just two years after the supply ship SS Makambo ran aground on their Lord Howe Island nearly a century ago, and accidentally let its supply of stowaway black rats loose on the place.

And that was that. Or so we thought.

According to National Public Radio, adventurers began discovering hints in the 1960s that the Tree Lobsters may have been clinging to life in the unlikeliest of places.

About 14 miles away from their homeland of Lord Howe Island is a jagged volcanic canine tooth of rock spiking up from the sea. It’s called Ball’s Pyramid, after the British naval officer who was the first European to come across the inhospitable place back in the 1700s. It was there that outdoorsy sorts began occasionally stumbling across what seemed to be way-too-fresh Tree Lobster corpses during their extreme adventure climbs decades after the storied shipwreck.

But this place was not welcoming for species of any kind, and was impossibly far from the Tree Lobsters’ last known whereabouts. Furthermore, any live specimens continued to elude humans for decades, casting doubt on whether the animals were still in existence, or well-preserved shells were just washing up on the rock somehow.

Here’s how NPR’s Robert Krulwich describes the scene next:

“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.”

Unlike their Maine cousins (and yes, that term is being used loosely), Tree Lobsters couldn’t have escaped the rat plague by skittering 14 miles across the ocean floor, so how they managed to get to the standalone bush of salvation is something of a mystery.

Nonetheless, a small team of Australians found 24 of the long-thought-to-be-extinct Tree Lobsters huddled around the base of this one shrub, a tiny population keeping the species alive against all odds.

“It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world,” one of the scientists, Nick Carlisle, told NPR.

That discovery of live specimens was actually more than a decade ago, although it remains noteworthy today. The latest news in the surprise comeback of the Tree Lobster is that the San Diego Zoo has joined the breeding program, with its batch of Tree Lobster eggs beginning to hatch.

The Melbourne Zoo had been successfully breeding the creatures since they were saved from Ball’s Pyramid several years ago, but sought a secondary location for the program in case something went awry with their population.

So now we have Tree Lobsters who are Americans.

Entomologists say these Tree Lobsters are easy to root for, despite their somewhat creepy look. For one, they defied all odds and hung on for survival by retreating to a rock ledge in the middle of nowhere, a Hollywood comeback story if ever there was one.

But beyond that, Tree Lobsters are just likable.

NPR’s latest story on the creatures explains:

“The huge, black tree lobster may look intimidating, but temperamentally it is fairly docile. … And its mouthparts can’t bite people. It has been claimed that the males and females snooze together, cuddled up in pairs, with the male wrapping his six legs protectively around the female.”

So even though it’s not quite scientifically accurate in either animal’s case, these lobsters are getting the same lovey dovey reputation as their undersea counterparts.