‘Tree Lobsters,’ Presumed Extinct, Rediscovered in Australia

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Eighty years after they disappeared, tree lobsters have been rediscovered, living near an old volcano in Australia. And no, they’re not actually “lobsters,” but special six-legged insects that were thought to be extinct decades ago.

The rare “tree lobsters,” otherwise commonly known as Lord Howe Island walking sticks (Dryococelus australis), were thought to be decimated in 1918 when a British ship ran aground on Lord Howe Island, the creatures’ native home. On board were a few black rats, which invaded the island and wrought havoc to the natural ecosystem. (Can’t Australia catch a break?)

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Known for its hard exoskeleton – hence, the lobster nickname – Dryococelus australis was last seen in 1920. By 1960, everyone had assumed the creepy crawler had gone the way of the dodo. But two Australian scientists made the leap to Balls Pyramid, just 13 miles southeast of their original home, on a hunch to hunt for the tree lobsters. There in 2001, they discovered a small, surviving population, hovered around a single plant.

The Australian government has since eventually managed to nourish a small population in the Melbourne Zoo, but plans to reintroduce the insect to its original home would require a large rat annihilation program. Questions remain about what to do with the insects, but for Nick Carlile, who found the insects at Ball’s Pyramid, the walking sticks are unique. He recalls the special moment: “It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world.”

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Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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