September 25, 2021

Ball’s Pyramid and the Lost Continent of Zealand

Ball’s Pyramid is a tooth shaped rock off the east coast of Australia. It is part of a submerged continent, and home to the world’s rarest insect.

Henry Lidgbird Ball
Henry Lidgbird Ball

Henry Lidgbird Ball was a British naval officer, who served in the First Fleet.

Well regarded by Arthur Phillip, head of the expedition, he was given command of the vessel ‘Supply’. The fleet arrived in Australia in January 1788, and a month later, Ball was charged with taking the first settlers and convicts to Norfolk Island. A smaller colony was to be established there.

Along the way, Ball discovered a previously unknown island.

Location of Lord Howe Island
Location of Lord Howe Island

Approximately 600km off the east coast of Australia, Ball came across a crescent shaped chunk of land.

The island was only small; 10km long, and a maximum of 2km wide, likened to the size of a ‘boat’ by one’s of Ball’s crew. But it was lush with vegetation and birdlife, and featured a number of picturesque bays.

Ball took a landing party ashore, claimed it for England, then explored the surrounding area. A number of tiny satellite islands were also identified.

Twenty kilometres southwest, the expedition stumbled across something even more spectacular.

The first sketch of Ball's Pyramid
The first sketch of Ball’s Pyramid

Jutting straight out of the sea was what looked like a giant, jagged tooth.

560 metres tall, but only 1000 metres wide, this remarkable rock pinnacle towered vertiginously over the surrounding ocean. Rough seas buffeted the base, making a landing impossible, but Ball was struck by the formation’s dramatic appearance, and his crew made several sketches.

Returning to Sydney, Ball reported his discoveries. He would name the island, Lord Howe Island, after Richard Howe, then First Lord of the Admiralty. His second discovery, the rock spire, he would name after himself: Ball’s Pyramid.

Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island

The colony on Norfolk Island was small, and its early years even more difficult than those endured in Sydney. Struggling towards self-sufficiency, it needed to be frequently resupplied.

Ships sailing to and from the east coast of Australia would regularly stop at Lord Howe Island, taking advantage of its sheltered anchorage, and plentiful wildlife.

Lord Howe Island was home to many native bird species, whose prior lack of human contact made them easy prey for hungry sailors. Some of the vessels also left goats and sheep on the island, to allow them to breed and provide fodder for subsequent landings.

The original chart of Lord Howe Island
The original chart of Lord Howe Island

Commercial whaling ships also used the island.

Before agriculture took hold, whale oil was Australia’s biggest commercial export, and the southern seas a fertile hunting ground. A makeshift whaling camp was established on Lord Howe Island, which evolved into a permanent station, in 1834.

Kentia Palm: popular in gardening
Kentia Palm: popular in gardening

A small number of settlers would also make the island their home.

In the second half of the 19th century, farms were established, and the cultivation of different crops attempted. Some of the settlers also cultivated the Kentia Palm, a plant native to the island.

Kentia Palms were much smaller than other palm species, and were used in gardening. They became fashionable for a time in Europe, and were harvested for export. Queen Victoria was said to own several.

The Lord Howe Island Phasmid
The Lord Howe Island Phasmid

By the end of the 19th century, Lord Howe Island’s use began to evolve in a way that pointed to its future.

Visitors were attracted to the island’s pristine environment and spectacular scenery, and a nascent tourism industry commenced. From the 1880s, ships brought visitors to and from Sydney once a week, while hotels and other infrastructure appeared on the island to accommodate them.

Scientists also began to examine the island, drawn by its unique species of flora and fauna. Among these: Dryococelus Australis, also known as the ‘Lord Howe Island Phasmid’.

This was a large stick insect, the largest yet discovered, growing as long as 12 centimetres. The phasmid was jet black, with a segmented body and thick, knobbly legs. The species was previously unknown, and thought to be only found on the island.

Lord Howe Island Gerygone: one of several species driven to extinction by rats
Lord Howe Island Gerygone: one of several species driven to extinction by rats

Whaling declined in economic importance in the 20th century, and Kentia Palms went out of fashion (although the remain a nursery staple), but life on Lord Howe Island otherwise continued. The small number of permanent residents now focussed on tourism.

The island’s significance was recognised as the NSW government began adding environmental protections; a marine preserve was created in the surrounding waters, and restrictions placed on economic development on the island itself.

But this did not stop some environmental degradation.

Rats were inadvertently brought to the island on a cargo ship, and quickly wreaked havoc on the island’s fauna; several species of bird were driven to extinction before the rat outbreak could be brought under control. The Lord Howe Island Phasmid was also decimated.

The last phasmid specimen was sighted on the island in 1920, and it was declared extinct in the years following.

Perilous: climbing Ball's Pyramid
Perilous: climbing Ball’s Pyramid

Ball’s Pyramid had proved to be a popular draw for tourists, but its imposing height eventually drew a different type of visitor. As climbing grew in popularity in the 20th century, adventurous mountaineers set their sights on becoming the first to the top.

Climbing the pyramid posed several significant challenges. There was no bay or landing place for a boat, so climbers usually had to swim to shore, and clamber over rocks, often in rough seas.

They then faced a sheer climb up from the water line. The weather was often bad, cold and wet, and prone to change at short notice. Shelter was limited.

Sydney Morning Herald reports the first ascent of Ball's Pyramid
The Sydney Morning Herald reports the first ascent of Ball’s Pyramid

Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith was among a group of climbers that came close to summitting in 1964.

Their five man team was within sight of the top, before a shortage of food and water forced them to turn back.
The Pyramid was finally conquered the following year when Bryden Allen, John Davis, Jack Pettigrew and David Witham reached the summit, in February 1965. Other members of their party summited the following day.

But Smith’s failed expedition in 1964 did make a startling discovery.

Ball's Pyramid
An unlikely home for an endangered insect

During their attempt, a member of their party found the body of a dead Lord Howe Island Phasmid.

Subsequent climbing parties would find others. Due to its remote location, and small size, Ball’s Pyramid seemed an unlikely new home for the insect. But scientists wondered: could the phasmid still be alive there?

Expeditions were sent to try and find living specimens, but without success.

Lord Howe Island Phasmid
Not extinct

It was not until 2001 that the presence of live phasmids was confirmed.

A team of entomologists discovered a small population living in a bush in a rocky crevice, approximately 100 metres above the waterline. Another climbing party would discover more insects, living closer to the summit, in 2004.

While this was an exciting find – the rediscovery of a species thought extinct for 80 years is an exceedingly rare occurrence – the phasmid population on Ball’s Pyramid was small, and vulnerable. It was estimated that there may have been as few as 9 adult insects surviving, making it the rarest known insect species in the world, at the time.

To help the species survive, a pair of phasmids was captured and taken to Australia. These were successfully bred in captivity, and there are now approximately 700 of the insects in Australia. Scientists ultimately plan to return them to their original environment, on Lord Howe Island.

Ball's Pyramid: fragment of an ancient volcano
Ball’s Pyramid: fragment of an ancient volcano

Ball’s Pyramid was also of interest to geologists.

It is often referred to as a ‘volcanic stack’, meaning that it was thought to have once been part of a volcano. In fact, scientists think both Ball’s Pyramid, and Lord Howe Island, were both part of the same enormous volcanic structure, long eroded.

The two pieces of land are connected in another way. Beneath the waves, on the ocean floor, they both stem from a much larger landmass that stretches thousands of kilometres in each direction.

This submerged chunk of land is so large, and unusual, some scientists actually think it is a lost continent.

Map of Gondwanaland
Map of Gondwanaland

550 million years ago, most of Earth’s land was joined together in one giant mass called ‘Gondwanaland’. This began to break up about 180 million years ago, driven by the movement of the tectonic plates, during the Jurassic period.

Along the eastern side of Gondwana, the land that would subsequently form Australia and Antarctica. And, adjoining them, a thin sliver of land, largely submerged, that is now often referred to as ‘Zealandia’.

Zealandia's position relative to Gondwanaland
Zealandia’s position relative to Gondwanaland

The tectonic plates are a 20th century discovery, although their existence was theorised earlier.

Detailed study of plate tectonics only commenced in the 1960s, as boats dragging radar and sonar arrays began criss-crossing the world’s oceans. Later, satellite imagery would help further our understanding.

A large landmass in the southern pacific was detected using these methods; a massive, irregularly shaped swathe of rock, standing out clearly above the ocean floor, but still mostly submerged.

This geological feature connects New Zealand, New Caledonia and Fiji, as well as Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid. They are effectively the mountains, of a giant, underwater landmass.

During a study of the region in 1995, American geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk was the first to call it a possible lost continent. He also proposed a name for this area: Zealandia.

Diagram showing size and position of Zealandia
Diagram showing size and position of Zealandia

There are six widely accepted continents; North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Antarctica. Even here debate continues: some people also include Australia.

But there is broad agreement over the traits a continental land mass should have, to separate it from other types of land. It needs to have a thick crust, much thicker than the seafloor, normally around 40km in depth. And it needs to be made up of a mixture of rock types, both igneous and sedimentary. It also needs to be of a significant size.

Using these criteria, a number of scientists argue that Zealandia should be counted as a continent in its own right.

Satellite image of Zealandia
Satellite image of Zealandia

Zealandia is large enough, measuring roughly 5 million square kilometres, and also features a mixture of rocks.

The primary issue is the thickness of Zealandia’s crust. At roughly 20 km in depth, it is double the thickness of non-continental crust, but only half that of the other continents. This in itself is something of a mystery: scientists are unsure how this in-between thickness was arrived at.

Also debated, whether more of Zealandia was ever above the surface of the ocean for an extended period. And, if it was, what sort of animals may have lived there? Dinosaurs? Early humans? These are both considered possible.

The location of Zealandia, lying below some of the world’s most remote and treacherous seas, makes more direct research difficult.

The debate continues.

Ball's Pyramid and Lord Howe Island
Ball’s Pyramid and Lord Howe Island

Ball’s Pyramid and Lord Howe Island are now both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Strict environmental protections are in place, governing the islands, and visitor numbers are restricted.

Climbing has been banned on Ball’s Pyramid since 1982, although occasional expeditions are allowed via government permit.

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