st helena earwig_2014_11_18

Once upon a time, on one of the most remote islands on earth, there lived the king of all earwigs. At almost eight centimetres (or three inches), it overshadowed others of its kind. But since it mostly spent its days burrowed snugly under rocks, emerging only at night and only after some rain, it bothered almost no one and no one really bothered about it. And then along came humans and removed the earwig's rocky shelters, and with the humans came hungry, earwig-eating rats and spiders and centipedes. And slowly, the earwig disappeared and was no more.

That, in a nutshell, is the sad story of Labidura herculeana, also known as the St Helena giant earwig. The species, endemic to the tropical island from which it got its name, was first described by a Danish entomologist in 1798. In the centuries that followed, its habitat came under increasing pressure: the stones the earwigs liked to burrow under in the dry season were removed for use in the construction industry, and introduced predators like rats, mice and centipedes launched an earwig-eating onslaught.

The last time the St Helena giant earwig made an appearance was in May 1967, when a Belgian research expedition managed to unearth 40 survivors in a protected area of the island known as Horse Point Plain. There have been no sightings since, despite several search efforts.

And now, the IUCN, the global conservation authority whose unenviable job it is to make such announcements, has made it official: the St Helena giant earwig is extinct.

And the earwig is not the island's only extinction casualty in recent decades. In 1994, the world lost the last wild St Helena olive (the last plant in cultivation died in 2003).

Top header image: Martin Sharman, Flickr (modified)