Tree Lobsters. What an awesome name. And something that Steven Colbert should clearly fear more than bears! They drop from the trees and snap at you! AAAAAGH!
Um, they would.
If they were really lobsters in trees.
They aren’t, alas. But they are a type of stick insect featured in a recent news release:
The Lord Howe Island Tree Lobster, Dryococelus australis, was thought to be extinct for decades until an exceedingly small population was recently rediscovered on a rocky islet in the South Pacific.
“Tree lobsters” are large ground-dwelling stick insects restricted to New Guinea, New Caledonia and Lord Howe Island.
You should read “large” as “an over 15 cm huge freakin’ bug.” If they did flop on you out of a tree, you’d definitely notice.
Frustratingly, the clearest citation I can get for this paper is on this page–in German. They also have awesome photos of the stick insects in question. Via my rudimentary German, it seems that a molecular analysis finds that the giant stick insects of Australia’s surrounding islands evolved independently. There’s apparently an advantage in being big, thick, spiny, and loosing your wings, so it was convergent evolution that made them look similar, not a close ancestral relationship.
There’s a lovely photo of some of the different body forms here.
The work will be published in Proceedings of the Royal Society (B). At the moment, though, it only has a DOI and a press release:
T. R. Buckley, D. Attanayake, S. Bradler: Extreme convergence in stick insect evolution: phylogenetic placement of the Lord Howe Island tree lobster, Proc. R. Soc. B. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.1552
I suggest that someone immediately begin selling tree lobster t-shirts, with the proceeds to go to conservation of these wonderful insects. Something along the lines of Land Shrimp. Feel free to suggest designs here.
EDITED 12/18/08 TO ADD: Hurray! More English coverage of this paper is now available:
“As part of an analysis of the evolutionary origin of stick insects… colleagues collected DNA from three tree lobster groups, including D. australis, and about 70 other stick insect species. The team found that D. australis was more than 20 million years old, 13 million years older than the rocks on Lord Howe Island.
So where did this species evolve? …The Lord Howe tree lobster may have evolved in one of these drowned islands and traveled south as its habitat eroded away, the team reported online 16 December in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The DNA analysis revealed something else unexpected: The three tree lobster groups are not closely related. That means that their similar stocky body shape evolved separately as an adaptation to a ground-dwelling lifestyle, a process known as convergent evolution. (The wings of birds and bats are another example.) It’s a “very interesting and new … case of convergent evolution in an unusual animal system,” says evolutionary biologist Marco Passamonti…”