Too Big to Fail

Let me start off by saying I think insects are gross, terrible things, and I honestly could live in a world without them.  Nevertheless, they are a key piece of the ecosystem, and if there were no insects, then all the other animals I like (birds, small mammals, geckos) would not exist.  So, I sort of tolerate their existence just so I can live in a natural world that I otherwise enjoy.

A recent article on NPR about the tree lobster, a giant walking stick insect (the largest flightless insect on Earth) found on Ball’s Pyramid, a small crag of an island between Australia and New Zealand.  To summarize the NPR article, the tree lobster was commonly found on Lord Howe Island, until a shipwreck nearby led to a rat population thriving on the island, wiping out the tree lobster population there.  For decades, people thought that the tree lobster was extinct, until the early 2000’s when scientists discovered them on Ball’s Pyramid.

The question then became – “How can we repopulate Lord Howe Island with the tree lobsters?”  Because they were on Lord Howe Island, prior to the anthropogenic introduction of rats there.  The simple solution: wipe out the rats on Lord Howe Island and start a walking stick breeding program. Which begs the question – Are we OK with wiping out one population intentionally to make up for wiping out another population accidentally?

Many people might argue that the extinction of the walking sticks was just natural selection: “Rats are more fit than tree lobsters, so that’s why they went extinct”.  The problem with that argument is that it’s not natural selection that killed the tree lobster, it’s artificial selection.  If there’s one think humans are good at, it’s accidentally (or intentionally) killing things.  We’ve killed off 100X more species in our time as humans than in the ~4 billion years previous according to the fossil record (or the previous day if you don’t believe in science).

Unlike natural selection, which is based upon the premise that only the most fit organisms survive, artificial selection is much more arbitrary.  Species are wiped out because they have the misfortune of living where we need resources, and are only preserved if scientists or society deems them “cute” or “interesting”, independent of their ability to survive in the wild.  For a perfect example, look at the panda bear.  A completely useless animal that hides in the mountains of China and survives off of bamboo because it can’t compete against any other animal for nutrients (great debate on panda conservation can be found here).  In a world of humans, only those animals that are able to scavange resources off of us or live in such extreme environments that we could never destroy their habitat (i.e. megalodon sharks – yes, they exist).  Also, we kill things much faster than nature would, and animals don’t even have the opportunity to adapt to not be killed by us.

Because we kill everything that is good and nice in the world, it is our responsibility to repair our damage just to make the world slightly more palatable.  I would rather not live in a world filled with cockroaches, rats, and jellyfish, but maybe that’s just me.  People who don’t believe in global warming seem oblivious to the fact that even if it is not a man-made phenomenon, we should do our part to not screw up nature as much as we do.  So, I applaud the efforts of the scientists bringing back the walking stick to Lord Howe Island.  Many inhabitants complain about the prospect of having to live with gross giant insects, but they should realize it was their island first.  However, very few people respect the idea of firsties.

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