The Muhammad Ali of of the Insect World: Stuck on a Rock

Written by Asher Flatt



For me there is no better, more logical, or earth shattering reason to make documentaries other than sheer enjoyment. I have always been fascinated by our interactions with the natural world, and how we have shaped it for better or for worse throughout the ages. I am also a bit of a history fan and a sucker for a good story so what better way to segue into a brief spiel about my current project titled Stuck on a Rock:

I couldn't believe my luck when I first stumbled across this tale, it simply seemed to good to be true. I was volunteering at the Melbourne Museum, in the Live Exhibits section, and was on the hunt for a good natural history story to breath life into. This section of the museum contains an amazingly large and impressive stick insect collection, part of which is a small colony of very rare Lord Howe Island stick insects (“The Phasmid”). 

The man that heads this section is one Patrick Honan, the ex-head of entomology at Melbourne Zoo, and also the person to first breed the Phasmid in captivity, bringing it back from the brink of extinction. One of the animal keepers casually dropped these facts about Patrick into a conversation and my story senses began to tingle. With further research, I was blown away to discover no one had done a documentary on this insect before, I could now be the first person to bring this story to life on film! 

Lord Howe Island is a tiny blip on the radar in the South Pacific, about an hour flight from Sydney, New South Wales. Its history is the usual story among human colonised islands, humans came and the native fauna began to disappear. What’s not usual about this story though is one of the islands ex-residents, a humble little stick insect that has gone from presumed extinction to the comeback king, the Muhammad Ali of the insect world.

Endemic to Lord Howe Island, it was exterminated by rats that were accidentally introduced in a shipwreck in the early 1900s. But a series of incredible discoveries then led to its re-emergence on one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth, about 20km south east of Lord Howe – Balls Pyramid, the worlds tallest volcanic sea stack. This incredible pinnacle of rock was once a mecca for climbers who found stick insect remains in the 1960's, pointing to it's continued existence. It is now closed to all but the birds that call it home.

In an interesting twist of fate it was climbers again, that had a hand in the insects eventual rediscovery. After climbing on the Pyramid had been banned it took numerous applications from climbers, hungry for adventure and using a stick insect search for an excuse, to eventually prompt the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to mount its own expedition and put stories of the insect’s continued existence to rest once and for all. 

What the expedition did not expect, however, was that they would actually find this relic of the past alive and well, a single known colony on a single known bush on the side of a singular geographic feature. 

Since then it has been an epic journey to prevent this unique species of insect from disappearing again, turning this unassuming creature into a symbol of the struggle to preserve what we have left and to mitigate our impact on the natural world.

Stuck on a Rock is a documentary following the homeric saga of the Lord Howe Island stick insect from extinction to rediscovery, from captive management to reintroduction. 

 

Putting this film together has so far been an immensely challenging and enjoyable experience. I’ve met and interviewed some amazing people, including Patrick, the climbers who found insect remains in the 60's (now both very old and very interesting characters) Dick Smith of Dick Smith Electronics fame (who also climbed the pyramid in the 60s) and many other scientists and interesting personalities, who I would never have got to meet otherwise. And finally, in February 2017, I'll be journeying to Lord Howe Island to shoot the rest of the film and do this story the justice it deserves. 

Wildiaries •