Every child has at one point been enamored by the idea of insects that do not look like insects — leaves that are alive, blades of grass that can move, bits of bark with a set of legs, and the all-time favorite in first-grade classrooms, walking sticks! These six-legged wonders are from the order Phasmatodea, but we in the circles of Arthropod husbandry refer to them simply as Phasmids. They are a delightful bunch of insects that make excellent pets and are fascinating on many levels.
The Wonderful World of Phasmids
Phasmids are closely related to grasshoppers and crickets, which can be noticed by their similar head shape and compound eyes. But unlike their cousins, they do not make noise, and they are strictly herbivores, meaning they eat primarily leaves. Many phasmids will, however, devour their old skin after they molt as an added boost of nutrients that they will benefit from in their new, soft body. Gross, but efficient!
They like a warm, humid environment, which is why most of them live in the heavily-forested tropics of Asia, South America, and Australia. There are over 3,000 species of phasmids on the planet, with approximately 150 living in Australia. Some 30 are even found right here in the United States, perhaps in your backyard!
Phasmids are interesting because they display such exaggerated sexual dimorphism (that is, the ladies and gents look very different from one another). The females are nearly always much larger than the male, sometimes two or three times as large! The males are slim, and usually equipped with wings, while the females only possess stunted flaps and are mostly flightless.
Phasmids are of great interest to scientists because they are parthenogenic, meaning that a female is able to produce offspring without ever meeting a male in her life. However, the eggs produced by parthenogenic mothers are always female, and are exact copies of their sole parent. In fact, in the case of the Indian stick insect (Carausius morosus), there has never been a documented male of the species in captivity.
The Indian walking sticks that we are all familiar with seem to be the typical phasmid shape and size, however, there are countless species of much larger and much stranger phasmids from all across the globe. These species include:
Types of Phasmids
Phobaeticus chani, or Chan's megastick, was only just discovered in the jungles of Borneo is 2008, and has since been described at the longest insect living on our planet. One specimen, held in the Natural History Museum in London, measures almost 2 feet in length from tip of abdomen to tip of antennae, with 14.1 of those inches being the body. Being that it is such a new species to science, little it known of its habits.
Extatosoma tiaratum, or the giant prickly stick insect, is a delightful crawler from Australia and New Guinea with a tendency to curl its abdomen over its back. Like all phasmids, they are harmless, and the curly "tail" is often perceived as being cute by onlookers. The males of this species have the ability to release a smell when they are threatened, but you may find it to be rather appealing - it smells like peanut butter or toffee!
Heteropteryx dilatata, or the Malaysian jungle nymph, is my personal favorite. The females of this species are the heaviest of all the phasmids, and can grow to a hefty 65 grams. They are a beautiful, flashy green, while the males are more subdued in all ways, and usually brown. These phasmids love to chow down on blackberry leaves and English ivy, and when they feel threatened they raise their back legs up in the air in a hand stand display.
Phyllium giganteum, or the great walking leaf, possesses arguably the most impressive leaf mimicry in the animal kingdom. The individual leaf bugs can have smooth, green edges so as to appear like a clean, new leaf, or it may have tattered, slightly browned edges to make it look like a weathered leaf. Some leaf bugs may even have false bite marks in their side to look even more like a piece a foliage. These are another phasmid species where, in captivity, a male has never been witnessed.
Achrioptera fallax are found throughout Madagascar, and are unique amongst phasmids in that the males are the ones that are more noticeable. The male Achrioptera is a sight to behold, with remarkable color that make him immediately identifiable even among those who are not experts. Hues of electric blue, reflections of green, flashes of red and bright orange wings mark him as one of the most beautiful of all phasmids, and indeed, among the most stunning of all insects.
Phasmids As Pets
Though perhaps unusual in comparison to a dog or a cat, phasmids have proven to be rewarding pets due to their simplistic care requirements and fun behavior. I have yet to meet someone who has not found it curious watching a phasmid devour an entire leaf in less than a minute, or smiled as a phasmid wiggled back and forth to mimic a leaf swaying in the wind. As far as insects go they are fairly long lived, many females sometimes living to be 3 years old. Unimposing and beautiful, phasmids provide a touch of exoticism and a taste of nature to any modern home or apartment.
Many phasmids, such as Carausius morosus, require only the most modest of living quarters, and can survive for endless generations in a Kritter Keeper filled with blackberry bush clippings. Others, such as the Extatosoma tiaratum, require larger houses and higher humidity. All do best at temperatures of at least 70 F. and benefit from a continuous supply of fresh greenery to munch on. Blackberry bush (bramble), oak, privet, hawthorn, and English ivy are all excellent foods for phasmids, but some may favor one type or the other. For example, Heteropteryx dilatata frequently enjoys English ivy, but Extatosoma tiaratum snubs it.
In Europe the keeping of phasmids is quite popular, and often goes hand-in-hand with the keeping of reptiles and other unusual exotics. Due to the ever-restrictive pet laws in North America, however, many of these beautiful insects are prohibited to import into the U.S. But restrictions are rarely enforced within the country, and there remains many successful breeders throughout the states. Phasmid owners and producers can be quite secretive about their whereabouts and collection, and it is best to treat them with respect and confidentiality.
If you are interested in locating phasmid breeders, it's best to start looking in groups of reptile breeders first. Many times they are one in the same, and their target audience is side by side. Attending reptile shows in your area will oftentimes bring you face-to-face with these delightfully amazing creatures, as well as any supplies you may need to care for them. Good luck, and happy leaf hunting!