The Walking Sticks of Ball’s Pyramid

Today’s topic might win an award for the most misleading title. Given our penchant for hiking, one might surmise we’ll explore a special cane used on trails to a majestic pyramid crafted by humans (or aliens, amirite?) to look like a sphere. I’m not exactly sure how a spherical pyramid would appear, but never underestimate extraterrestrial architects.

Longtime readers of the project will recognize three trends for which we tend not to waste opportunities to incorporate into articles:

1. The chance to reward longtime readers with acknowledgment of their keen skills to pick up on tendencies.

2. The possibility of utilizing the image above.

3. Our topographical love for the fractals of the planet’s crags.

Today’s topic does not deserve the alien image, but it certainly fits into the third in the list above (and I’ll never apologize for acknowledging your reading skills).

Ball’s Pyramid was not crafted by human hands, but that doesn’t make it an extraterrestrial topic. In fact, it’s very terrestrial. Ball’s Pyramid is a mountain, and a peculiar one, at that. Half its name will become rather apparent when you treat your eyes with its outline:

Ball's Pyramid - photo by JillBBruce

This striking rock emerges from the tempestuous waters of the Tasman Sea, the arm of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand.

Ball’s Pyramid has quite a bit going on geologically. Technically, the monolith is a stack – vertical columns that rise from the sea; we typically associate them with smaller, rectangular rises, such as those at the Cliffs of Moher. This one is no ordinary stack, however. The Pyramid is a volcanic stack. Composed of basalt, it is the plug of a shield volcano that formed approximately 6.4 million years ago. The hardy rock we see today formed in a vent of the volcano. Over thousands of millennia, the Great Sculptor Ocean whittled away the rest of the volcano, leaving just this resistant plug. This region lies just south of the southernmost coral reef. Volcanic islands that remain largely uneroded do so because of the mitigating powers of reefs. Ball’s Pyramid, unladed with coral, slowly disintegrates.

Still standing, Ball’s Pyramid thrusts an incredible 1,877 feet (572 meters) above sea level. The tiny spit is 3,609 feet (1,100 meters) long and 984 feet (300 meters) wide, meaning it’s twice as high as it is wide. That’s some serious relief!

The stack rests 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the much larger Lord Howe Island. British Rear-Admiral Henry Lidgbird Ball spotted both islands in 1788. Ball christened the larger mass after the First Lord of the Admiralty of the time, Richard Howe. He then dubbed a mountain on Lord Howe Island with his middle name and the Pyramid with his last name. He must have enjoyed mountains.

The location of Lord Howe Island and Ball's Pyramid - graphic by M.Minderhoud
Satellite image, displaying the height-vs.-width aspect - Google Maps

Ball’s Pyramid is the world’s tallest volcanic stack.

And I could stare at the gorgeous photography for hours.

Close-up of the stack - photo by PotMart186
The Pyramid from Mt. Gower on Lord Howe Island - photo by Toby Hudson
Ball's Pyramid with double rainbow - photo by Jon Clark

The Tasman rock would already warrant our admiration, but its story doesn’t end with pretty pictures.

On nearby Lord Howe Island lived an incredible critter, Dryococelus australis. Known as the Lord Howe Island stick insect or the tree lobster, D. australis is an 8-inch walking stick. As humans populated Lord Howe Island, these insects were widespread. For nearly a hundred years, humans and walking sticks lived in relative harmony. In 1918, however, a supply ship ran aground near the island. This incident allowed black rats to transfer to Lord Howe, where they found a flightless, massive tree lobster waiting to be eaten.

By 1920, no one could locate a single stick on Lord Howe Island.

The Lord Howe Island stick insect - photo by Granitethighs

No sticks on Lord Howe meant extinction, as this species had been found nowhere else on Earth.

As you might guess from the photo above, though, the story doesn’t end on Lord Howe. Fast forward to 1964. A group of climbers ventured to Ball’s Pyramid, hoping to be the first humans to summit the plug. They failed on the ascent but noticed something odd during their climb.

They had spied giant insect carcasses. And they looked to have been recently deceased.

Another expedition returned the next year in hopes of reaching the zenith of Pyramid’s Ball. In 1965, the group was successful. Once again, they purportedly witnessed large, dead bugs.

Rumors abounded in the entomology world about these bugs. Were they Lord Howe Island stick insects? This location made scientific journeys difficult. For decades, the mysterious insects lingered in the minds of regional scientists.

In 2001, a group finally managed to launch a proper inquiry on the Pyramid. In theory, they visited the rock to document its flora and fauna in total, but secretly hoped to locate the walking stick. As they ascended the spires, they were disappointed to see no trace of the insect.

Had it disappeared in the intervening half-decade? Had the climbers seen another massive insect?

On the down-climb, about 300 feet above the roiling ocean, the team encountered a single bush. The tea tree shrub – Melaleuca howeana – hung onto a crevice. It wasn’t much, but the plant had given enough stability in a small zone to make soil. There, in the dirt, were some droppings from a very large insect. Unfortunately, the pooping culprit was nowhere to be seen.

The scientists understood, however, that the walking sticks – if they existed – would likely only show their chunky exoskeletons at night. A dangerous mission in the dark hatched.

As the researchers reached the bush, there ambled a walking stick!

Newly discovered walking sticks - photo by Rod Morris

By the end of the outing, they had discovered 24 individuals, all living in the biome of a single bush. How had these insects arrived on the Pyramid? How had they survived in such a small location for so long? These conundrums might never have definitive answers, but scientists had a new question on their minds.

Could they save the stick from extinction?

Years of discussion and wrangling with the government ensued. Finally, the team returned to Ball’s Pyramid to remove four individuals, in hopes of breeding them in captivity. One pair died within weeks. The other, dubbed Adam and Eve, survived, but Eve became sick after initially laying eggs. Thankfully, some fortunate nursing brought her back to health and the pair began to produce offspring!

Since the early 2000s, hundreds and thousands of adult insects have flourished at the Melbourne Zoo. The ultimate goal is to produce numbers large enough to keep the species alive in the wild, even potentially on Lord Howe Island. That idea, however, will require a big project: ridding it of rats.

Until then, scientists and conservationists across the globe must remain buoyed by the efforts at Ball’s Pyramid. Against all odds, these sticks were on the stack! As humans introduced the original danger to the walking stick, hopefully, humans can provide a road back to viability.

Further Reading and Exploration

Balls Pyramid, New South Wales – Peakbagger

Lord Howe Marine Park – Australian Marine Parks

Balls Pyramid and the efficacy of marine abrasion – Carleton College

Lord Howe Island: Return of the Tree Lobster – Geocurrents

Giant stick insect rediscovered – Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years – NPR

Jane Goodall on the Lazarus Effect – Discover Magazine

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