Amazing Places

This Massive Stone Tower in the Middle of the Pacific Once Hid a Decades-Long Secret

Roughly 350 miles off the coast of Australia, there sits a massive natural pyramid, one of the last dry remnants of a sunken content. Ball's Pyramid is the world's tallest sea stack, rising to a staggering height of 1,844 feet above the Pacific. The monolithic natural structure formed after years of erosion from an ancient shield volcano about 7 million years ago, and it's home to what is arguably the rarest insect in the world.

Related Video: Giant Insect Makes an Unlikely Comeback

The Island's History

While the island itself sits a long way from Australia, it's only 12 miles off the coast of Lord Howe Island, an old whaling island discovered in 1788 by a lieutenant in the Royal Navy named Henry Lidgbird Ball. He found both the landmass and the towering stone structure when he was on his way from Sydney Cove to the penal colony of Norfolk Island. He eventually named the island after a British admiral and Ball's Pyramid after himself.

This strange pyramid structure that seems to exist alone in the ocean actually sits atop what researchers are calling the "lost continent." Geologists discovered this mostly-sunken land mass, called Zealandia, in 2017 after decades of rock sampling and geologic research. While we usually don't consider sunken land masses continents, some say Zealandia meets all of the necessary requirements and its sunken condition doesn't negate its continental status. Ball's Pyramid is one of several above-ground land masses on this continent, the most notable being the country of New Zealand.

What makes Ball's Pyramid even more interesting is its unique history and wildlife. After it was discovered, Lieutenant Ball was unable to go ashore due to its jagged shoreline and steep elevation. In fact, no one was able to go ashore on the island until nearly a century later. In 1882, it's believed that Henry Wilkinson, a geologist at the New South Wales Department of Mines, took a team ashore. However, little is known about this first journey today. Since then, the world assumed the island to be a barren wasteland, devoid of life.

The Big Bug That Could

It wasn't until 1964 that a climbing team from Sydney, Australia tried to summit the pyramid. They failed, but the team discovered something scientists thought had been long lost:

The massive Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, nicknamed the "tree lobster," was abundant on neighboring Lord Howe Island for most of its history. An infestation of rats from a 1918 shipwreck decimated their population, however, and after 1920, no more specimens were found, and experts believed them to be extinct. Visitors in 1964 and 1965 did discover dead specimens, however, and that gave researchers hope that these insects could be found again.

A Shocking Discovery

Finally, in 2001, a group of entomologists discovered a group of 24 living insects living around a single Melaleuca shrub. This population was thought to comprise nearly all of the remaining Lord Howe Island stick insects on Earth. In 2003, a team returned and collected two breeding pairs, which were eventually able to produce offspring at the Melbourne Zoo. By 2012, scientists were able to breed more than 12,000 individual insects in captivity, bringing the species further away from extinction. Plans are being made to reintroduce these insects to the wild.

The survival of this rare insect is thanks to the fact that Ball's Pyramid existed relatively untouched for most of the modern era. In order to summit the island today, you have to get permission from the New South Wales government. However, a local tour company gives weekly boat trips to the island for anyone interested.

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See this story illustrated in vivid watercolor with "Phasmid: Saving The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect," written by Rohan Cleave and illustrated by Coral Tulloch. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Trevor English July 5, 2018

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