tree lobster came from ancient sunken island

justin goodman


            Long after the earth first salivated its brown stockings into existence, before bipeds slouched their way across the crusted webbing, tangled in the mutiny of time were creatures whose skin is known to us only because of soluble dyes. But this is not the story of Jay Matternes’ ink taxidermy, nor the ephemeral substantiality of the widely published. You will soon forget he exists.  


            24 million years ago, organisms recognizable as human first appeared on the planet. Not having Homered their own epoch yet, they dawdled about like any nude and landless thing. Where their ancestors (now clothed) would later begin a country that—even later—would become a colonizing force, there roamed equally nude and landless things. These were the creatures Jay Matternes had drawn the skin on. They were creatures of the Neogene Period.  

            Although Neo- means “new” and -Gene means “of a specified kind,” the only new things of a specified kind in the Neogene Period were the naked, landless bipeds that hadn’t self-identified as humanity yet.

            Our era was new-ish.

            Chalicotherium were the pronghorn-bodied, giraffe-necked, camel-faced deer of the time. However, they were odd-toed ungulates (unlike pronghorns, giraffes, and camels). They remain as genetic increments in tapirs, horses, and rhinos. If you were to watch one rubbing leaves into digestible matter with gummy lips, breathing heavily from porthole snouts, PVC thick tongue prodding out stupidly, sitting with the posture of a great ape, you wouldn’t think that though.

            These doofy animals, toppling the endless amounts of unknown grasses and familiar insects, would have been hunted by early humans had they yet invented mass travel and the need to prove their masculinity. Instead, you would find these grazers hunted by sabre-tooth tigers and packs of bear-dogs.

            Both of these are cute misnomers.

            If you were walking through Neogene America and stumbled across the plastic-y skin of a gutted Chalicotherium, gnawed bones visible around the desiccated skin of the forever dead, spots of unreal red having fled deep into a grass distantly related to your lawn, flies laying maggots out—like most insects, immortal and forgotten—and if your nausea is only overcome by the feeling that among the dark bark and bush there was the slant of cattish eyes watching preparedly for you, that would be the substance of sabre-tooth tigers. As on The Flintstones, Baby Puss avoids detection except when it can profit. Unlike Baby Puss, their teeth were calcium icicles.

            If, having nervously fled due to your instinctual paranoia at the sight of a murdered deer, you stumble over the bones of a younger Chalicotherium, this is perhaps more terrifying to you because of the thoroughness of the predator’s hunger. No bugs because no meat, and bloodless, as if they had licked the dirt clean for their peculiar form of ravenousness. That is the substance of bear-dogs. Likely you would see, as they swarm at you, that the only dogs they look similar to are Augustin Hirschvogel’s etchings of bro-ish mutts.

            When the sketched animal is no longer visible in the expressions of your mounted heads, we call them “reconstructions” and “restorations,” regardless of the names we give them.

            You Google Dinictis and find they’re colloquially named “false sabre-tooth cat.” You’re not sure whether this means they’re related to the tiger jeering at you from above—you had tried to make him smile because you’d felt bad you’d hunted him once your daughter scolded you—or if they’re a distant relative of your orange-white Persian, curled up against the heater. Had they tried committing identity theft? Was their blood between the “false” and the “true”? You’ll be happy to know that this name, like the head that never stops staring at your bald spot, was more a reflection on the person who made the mistake.


            Before New Zealand and Australia were caked in fraternal rivalry, they were connected. What remains are the joints tall enough to avoid being erased by the rising sea. Ball’s Pyramid, specifically. Of course, this is a signature. Its signer, Henry Ligdbird Ball, left it in 1788 and is remembered for two achievements. Mistaking landmasses for mirrors, and transporting the first kangaroo to England.

            We will come back to Ball’s Island.

            Not so far away, and named by the same Ball of pyramidal fame, is the lunular Lord Howe’s Island. After stumbling through bodies in the Neogene, having satisfied your historical interest about certain species authenticity via Wikipedia, you’re excited for a trip to an island named for a British admiral. Unlike Ball’s Pyramid—symbolic of the relationship between the naval officer and admiral—Lord Howe is unique, never having been connected to any island, its fauna consisting entirely of castaways. The most important of these animals was a gangly, thick-legged, running bug.


            40 million years ago, organisms recognizable as phasmid first appeared on the planet. Despite their anorexic simplicity and ingenious camouflage, they are mostly known for David Hyde Pearce’s voice. They are unfortunately not British nor refined. They are “walking sticks” and “stick-bugs,” the only living things in the animal kingdom whose name accurately reflects their identity. Before stepping foot on Lord Howe’s (having read just half the Wiki page and so mistakenly preparing yourself for an island of HRH English that hasn’t been British-controlled since 1855), even before getting to your car to pick up your estranged daughter up from your ex’s house, you may feel a twig give an unusual amount. That twinge in the back of your neck is not only reality not giving way to your expectations. It is also the death rattle of a now dead stick-bug.     

            This is why your daughter decides to stay at her mother’s, maybe? Your remorse comes at the cost of a life. She’s the one who quoted Shakespeare; if you prick them, do they not bleed? And while her well-intentioned quotation is accidentally anti-Semitic (“Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions,” begins Shylock, intending the bleeder to at least be relatably bipedal and conscious), it still has the nameless appeal of truth.

            There was nothing you could do, unfortunately. Stick-bugs move before a perpetual yellow light. The structure of living doesn’t permit you to subtract time for potential life, and those sagging lids are the remainder and reminder. Just take comfort in that the older you get the faster it gets, since the future loses value over time. Our seconds are shorter than our thirds.

            But the Eocene gave way to the Neogene, and, in 1885, a scientist named Montrouzier would find and catalog the most important insect on Lord Howe Island. Those gangly, thick-legged running bugs, they were the stick-bug’s ancestors.

            Like most living things, this species of stick-bug had several names. There was the binomial nomenclature that the Swedish zoologist Carl von Linné created. He thought Latin, and the binomial format, so effective at individuating and organizing species that he renamed himself Carl Linnaeus. Carl was effective. Carl Jung is the only other Carl to have any substantial affect on a field of study. The stick-bug species, unfortunately, had the less enjoyable name of Dryococelus australis.

            Those too lazy to be inventive, but just active enough to make more work for themselves, stuck to “Lord Howe Island stick insect.”

            Whoever thought of “tree lobster,” however, was the greatest surrealist in history. This unknown parent perfectly misapprehended and absolutely understood a species that is more often scurrying on the ground than climbing branches, and more cricket than lobster. That one time you bonded with your daughter because you’d said “The Buzz” instead of “BuzzFeed,” her sitting you beside her on her bed and skimming through the listicles, taking silly quizzes with you, and you understanding it. Whatever it was, here it was.

            Everything’s happening at the same time, though; your thoughts, that 18-wheeler advertising Capri Sun, that sign-holding Spaniard begging passerby for money for his kids, just as you had gotten off the phone with the divorce lawyer for the first time right before she sat you down to show you The Buzz. Just as the entire time the Neogene deer were mauled into extinction, the tree lobster bounded upwards into existence.

             Unlike hominids, they would not go on to form colonizing nations or to name pieces of rock in their phasmid antennae language in finder’s keepers fashion or to remove entire classifications of animals with a whimsy last observed in the 18th century Swedish zoologist when he developed them. The tree lobster was, in fact, brutally extinguished. On accident.

            Not on accident in the way your daughter was accidentally anti-Semitic. That was you looking too hard into it. In the way you were caught cheating on your wife, and all that’s left for you is a regretted tiger head looking at the remains of a trichotillomaniac. That was you not looking hard at all.


            The British S.S. Makambo ran aground for 9 days on Lord Howe Island in 1918. Likely a crew member or two, as they repaired the damages and mourned the ship’s one casualty, Miss Readon, spotted a familiar black ball of fur and wished it good riddance. One probably had seen it in his periphery when the ship was sailing but, busied, uninterested in a harmless pest, went on his way and forgot about it. He had forgotten that Rattus rattus nearly wiped all of Europe clean. Despite their childish nomenclature, he would never realize that they’d wipe out tree lobsters by 1920.

            There’s a lot to be said about the symbolism of reflection.

            After two years of tiny genocides, scientists decided that something had to be done about the rats. They were efficient murderers, not to mention voracious, and, without predators, were thoroughly destroying the ecosystem of Lord Howe Island. Predator. That was the solution. All they needed was to introduce a species that hunts black rats and they’d create a balance of powers. Researching and researching later, they decided on nearly 100 Tasmanian Masked Owls. White like doves, peace would reign again!


            Here is a list of animals the two species removed together:

            1.     Lord Howe Island Thrush

            2.     Lord Howe Gerygone

            3.     Lord Howe Starling

            4.     Lord Howe Fantail

            5.     Robust White Eye

            6.     Lord Howe Boobook

            7.     Tree Lobster


            Black rats and Masked Owls still thrive on the island. The S.S. Makambo would be acquired by the Japanese in 1939, renamed, and sunk forever five years later off Thailand’s coast by the British. All the sailors of the once S.S. Makambo likely died at the hands of the more notorious SS during the war.


             The divorce wasn’t pretty, but at least it ended quickly. You were pulling out your hair while you nodded. Not amiably, just in a friendly manner. You were shaking inside with the inexpressible that you still can’t identify. Your daughter can, your ex can, your therapist can as she judges you behind her questions, but it’s like seeing a species considered to be extinct ages ago in person for the first time, as a corpse.   

            On the island of the man who brought the first kangaroo to England, on the jags that escaped the hungry water millions of years up to 1964, climbers found the weightless bodies of tree lobsters. While a degree of catharsis is involved in the idea of scientists climbing a mountain to find a once thought-to-be extinct species dead, like a dog leaving a vindictive gift, the climbers were probably professional mountaineers who happened to have a camera. Still, it excited the hopes of scientists who kept searching without luck. How had the bodies gotten there? Perhaps they had been wrong before. Now they were right and some raggedy bastard of a seagull had gotten to it.

            She’d told you time and again not to call her new boyfriend a “raggedy bastard of a seagull.” So you don’t say it. Whenever he speaks, you hear their shrill call nonetheless.

           She had stopped calling your now ex-girlfriend a harpy once she got to know her. It was always her aim to shout from the Sinai; that is her moral high ground. Yet your now-ex even told you she left because she, more than anything, had needed the mother figure she’d never had to tell her to go back to college. So you suspected that your ex-wife had said something—said what, who knows—leaving you in the unjustifiable position of begging. Even if you could have kept her, would you really have felt good about it?  

            It took over 40 years for anyone to return to Ball’s Pyramid. On the way up, the researchers found crickets. Which proved their initial hypothesis that the amount of vegetation supported a lot of insects. What spirited them after they found nothing and descended the mountain with a sense of failure in success was what everyone has to get to before being able to look up again. David Pridell and Nicholas Carlile found shit.

            Returning later that night, the scientists found 24 tree lobsters.    


            The process of return is, for most things revived, reskinning. Scientists, rapt in the “how could we be so stupid” of finding the overlooked, find these occurrences so miraculous that they even kept a Biblical connotation in a field which has been slowly purging them since the ‘90s. Few species experience the Lazarus effect. No one is certain why any do.

            You always keep that photo of your family tucked in your breast pocket. You were always a man of preparation, button-up chosen the night before. Your last hunting expedition was mapped out before you landed on the continent. That you don’t have a single word planned as you decide to walk to the door of your ex-wife, estranged daughter, and strange man, to begin a reconciliation process that may fall through is as crazy as coming as a suicide bomber. You didn’t call, haven’t changed, and the bald spot on your head feels like a tumor. You’re sitting in their driveway looking at a photo too old to be real, it seems. The curtain moves.

            The tree lobster has escaped extinction. They can’t go home yet, but they haven’t been home since 1920 anyway. Is it their home anymore, sculpted by rats and owls?

            One theory as to how such divine science occurred on Ball’s inferior island is that tree lobsters came from an ancient island, now vanished by ocean, from where they migrated to both Ball’s and Lord Howe. Even the earth cannot remove the lucky ones from the earth.


            When she opens the door you can see dismay mostly, maybe scorn, maybe pity, but a humming in her eyes says something else. She frowns for enough time that you both feel that eternity has passed and that you’d prefer such a time to pass so that, instead of a pumping heart falling to your stomach, your bones might fall to the cobblestones, turn to dust, and take off. Then she becomes someone you thought was dead. She becomes someone who smiles. Still guarded, but hopeful. She pulls the door back so you can enter. And you wonder if you’ll find yourself suddenly in a strange new family photo, her with her new man. Or if, for the rest of life, you’ll simply change the shape of what was as you stare, moribund, at a photo increasing in age.


            The Neogene Period was a segment of the Cenozoic Era. Etymologically, Neogene and Cenozoic mean the same thing. New life and new life of a specified kind. New life is packed into new life. The Cenozoic Era, sadly, is more of a cenotaph. A vault of references, somewhere to paint the walls with the hope of getting at what it was that walked around once. Suppose the only hope is that cenotaph doesn’t share Cenozoic’s roots.


Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. His film, book, and music reviews have been published in Red Carpet Crash, Cleaver Magazine, and InYourSpeakers, respectively. Other work has been published in Italics MineCounterexample Poetics, and 352 Degrees. Take a look at his website here.