Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Perfect Past Tense - Earwig

If you are visiting through the Washington Post article: Welcome! I hope you stick around, look through my old posts, and leave some comments. If you’ve got any suggestions for animals to write about, I’d be glad to hear them. I’ve even got a forum here. As for my old readers (all six of you), I’ve got a nice, juicy insect for this month.

Image from Earwig Research Centre
Image from Earwig Research Centre

Meet the Saint Helena Earwig (Labidura herculeana), the largest earwig in the world. It lives (lived?) on Saint Helena1, a small volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Much like Attenborough’s Echidna, this specimen in the picture is not cavorting around its tropical island home, and for much the same reason: this species might have gone extinct in the ‘60s.

While most earwigs will eat about anything they can get their mandibles on, the Saint Helena Earwig is probably mostly herbivorous. They seem to spend most of their time in burrows, coming out only during nights after it has rained. This withdrawn behavior probably has not helped the people who are trying to determine if, in fact, it has gone extinct.

Though, it is not as if people have stopped looking. There have been a number of expeditions over the years, mostly led and funded by the London Zoo. From what I’ve seen, The Independent has been incredulous, if supportive, of spending thousands of pounds for people to wander around a tropical island looking for earwigs.

Most of the island of Saint Helena seems to be in ecological peril, and long time readers of this blog will understand when I say: “It’s because it’s an island.” Remote islands have a very specific ecology that is easily thrown off balance. Then, humans show up bringing rats, pigs, cats, dogs, and deforestation, wrecking the whole place. In the case of the Earwig, people seem to be blaming an introduced centipede, as well as the clearing of an area of forest.

Conservationists are worried about the Saint Helena Earwig, as well as other endemic arthropods. An airport, proposed in 2005, has not been built for fear of destroying the only habitat in which these gentle, albeit freaky-looking, giants may still survive.

1Apparently named for the same saint as the volcano in Washington, though she doesn’t seem to have any direct connection to volcanoes.