Lost chance to save the giant earwig: they got there too soon

Labidura herculeana - picture courtesy of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium. Click to see a larger image

Labidura herculeana – picture courtesy of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium. Click to see a larger image

If only things had been different back in the 1960s, Dave Clarke of London Zoo might now know what it was like to have a three-inch-long earwig wriggling in his hands.

But they weren’t, and half a century on, the St Helena Giant Earwig looks set to be declared extinct. Not that Dave is giving up hope completely.

He led an expedition to the island in 1988, hoping to find live specimens for a captive breeding programme to save the species. It appears they got there too late.

Dave Clarke looked for giant earwigs in the 80s

Dave Clarke looked for giant earwigs in the 80s

The tragedy was that a team from Belgium found live specimens in the 1960s, but the idea of captive breeding just hadn’t taken hold yet. In effect, they had got there too early.

“It is a massive frustration,” admits Dave, team leader of the Bugs and Butterflies exhibits for the Zoological Society of London.

“The last time they had been properly seen was in the 1960s – the Belgian expeditions,” says Dave.

“They made an assessment of live specimens but they weren’t properly seen since, though there was a report of them being seen in 1967.

“Back in the 50s and 60s it wasn’t such a high consideration to be looking at conservation breeding. It is much more an initial consideration these days.”

To be fair, even London Zoo didn’t start doing it until the 1980s. Now it can have the main population of a threatened species in a single room. “You can do a lot in a small space,” says Dave. “It’s not quite as expensive as trying to save tigers.”

Earwig hunters travelled from the Royal Museum of Central Africa

Earwig hunters travelled from the Royal Museum of Central Africa

Even with invertebrates, though, funding is a problem – including on St Helena. And even if the Belgians had taken live specimens of Labidura herculeana back to the Royal Museum for Central Africa, they may not have survived.

It has since been tried with another of St Helena’s more “charismatic” invertebrates – unsuccessfully.

“There’s only a limited amount you can do with captive breeding, even with invertebrates,” says Dave. “Many species are reliant on habitats which are difficult to replicate in captivity.

“A current example is the St Helena Spiky Yellow Woodlouse, which is only found on The Peaks. That is probably a population of a hundred, but we wouldn’t want to take animals out of the wild for captive breeding because we simply don’t know the best way to keep them in captivity.

“We have tried once before, but none survived.”

Sadly, no members of the Belgian expeditions are thought to be alive either, so they cannot be asked about their adventure. The Africa museum kindly supplied pictures of the giant earwig in their collection, but could find none of the expedition itself.

Their findings were included in a 1980 book on the island’s natural riches.

Extract from a 1980 book describing the giant earwig, by Alan Brindle

Extract from a 1980 book describing the giant earwig, by Alan Brindle

When Dave Clarke led the Operation Hercules expedition to St Helena in 1988, the giant earwig was already listed as threatened and potentially extinct. But there were grounds for hope.

“We knew that the chances were slim,” says Dave.

“Knowing that specimens of the forceps were being found we thought there may be a chance, especially with the recent efforts to recreate some of the habitats with the planting of gumwoods on the side of Horse Point Plain.

“We thought, if there was a remnant population there was a chance they could improve and hang on and do better given the habitat protection that was going on.”

The Dodo of the Dermaptera, as it has been nicknamed, was always elusive. The Belgium team had described now the earwigs lived under rocks, and would quickly retreat into deep fissures in the soil.

“It was just physical searching and setting up pitfall traps, because we were also looking for the endemic ground beetle. Unfortunately we weren’t finding any of those either.

“We did come across some of the pincers of the earwig but we weren’t able to tell how recently they were alive. They did look quite fresh, although may have been decades old.”

At the time, there was little understanding of the global significance of St Helena’s invertebrates. In 2014 the island was declared to have more endemic species of them, per square mile of land, than the Galapagos Islands.

London Zoo saw its importance, sending a second expedition in 1993. “We did quite a lot of publicity, including going on the Wogan programme, which was one of the biggest TV slots in the UK.

“We ran a symposium in London – St Helena Natural Treasury. That did stimulate more interest.

“The giant earwig was very much a flagship for endemic invertebrates, and something that would capture the general public’s imagination, having an earwig over three inches long.”

Even the most glamorous of St Helena’s invertebrates are no match for the marine iguanas of the Galapagos in terms of public appeal, admits Dave. “But they can be flagships for protecting the habitat, which has a knock-on for other species.

“That is being done on The Peaks. But it’s a slow process.”

Dave supported the recent idea of choosing a new national flower in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. It makes a poor symbol for St Helena’s efforts to protect the endemic plants that are unique to St Helena.

“St Helena has suffered more than most from introductions having a negative effect on the native flora and fauna,” he says. “So I would support it being an endemic.”

And what about a national invertebrate?

“I hadn’t thought about that. Certainly highest in our mind is the spiky yellow woodlouse, because it does still exist. We might have considered the giant earwig before but I think we are too late.

“It will be 50 years next year since the last definitive living specimens were collected. But we never know: it might still reappear.

“A species of snail from the Seychelles was declared extinct in 2007 but was found this year, alive.

“Maybe there are some earwigs clinging on there somewhere. But they will only survive if we reinstate those habitats.”

  • Dave had strong praise for his namesake Dave Pryce, who has been assessing the state of St Helena’s 400-or-so endemic invertebrates for the Bugs on the Brink project – and who warned that he expected to submit a formal proposal to declare the giant earwig extinct. But there were concerns about whether there would be enough funding for him to continue his work on the island, especially his efforts to conserve the spiky yellow woodlouse.

SEE ALSO: Rare island woodlouse ‘is just hanging on’

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