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There are lots of animals in the world that are able to camouflage to stay concealed. But in the insect kingdom live some of the greatest masters of disguise; stick and leaf insects. You might not even notice them as you walk through nature, but they’re there!
What are Stick & Leaf Bugs?
The clue is in the name when it comes to stick insects and leaf bugs; these are small creatures that use mimicry to disguise themselves within the foliage. They resemble sticks or twigs and leaves respectively, but there’s not just one species of these fascinating animals.
Stick and leaf insects belong to an order called phasmatodea, which is sometimes called phasmida, and there are more than two and a half thousand species. Later in this article, we’ll go into a little more detail on some of the most common and interesting species.
Looking back at fossils, we can see that these creatures have inhabited planet earth for more than 40 million years. They’re in the same family of insects as things like mantids, grasshoppers, and cockroaches.
While stick insects are most common in tropical areas, they are actually found globally. The only exceptions are Patagonia and Antarctica. They were not native to some areas such as the United Kingdom but certain species have now been introduced. Leaf insects, on the other hand, are found exclusively in Asia.
Stick and leaf insects are herbivores meaning they largely eat plants. While the two come from the same family, it’s not uncommon for a stick insect to fall for the mimicry of a leaf insect so intensely that it will try to eat it. This is the main obvious difference between the two; one resembles a stick while the other resembles a leaf.
Favorite foods of the stick insect include leaves from the hawthorn, bramble, and privet but some species, such as the Indian stick insect also enjoy rose leaves. Leaf insects enjoy bramble leaves as well as oak.
How Did Stick & Leaf Insects Develop their Camouflage?
Stick and leaf insects have been shrouded in mystery for quite some time. It’s taken scientists a lot of hard work to find fossilized remains, but it’s now been accomplished. Researchers in Germany were the first to find the ancient remains of a leaf bug which they believe tells us that the climate used to be warm enough to sustain life for these creatures outside of their modern habitat.
However, taking a close look at this fossil, scientists have noticed that the genitals of the leaf bug are almost exactly the same as its modern counterpart. This demonstrates that leaf insects haven’t really changed that much over time.
Where stick insects are concerned, the oldest fossil was found in China and has been dated at 126 million years old. This means that these creatures would have walked alongside dinosaurs and it’s been suggested that they developed their mimicry skills as a way of preventing becoming a meal for early bird species and feathered dinos.
That said, their evolution didn’t happen overnight, and the oldest example of the modern stick insect was found in a fossil from 66 million years ago. Today, they use the adaptation of mimicry to conceal themselves from hungry birds and mammals.
The fossil found 126 million years ago appears to have wings that, when folded over the body, made the creature look like a long tongue. That would have been enough to have sent hungry dinos packing!
Types of Stick & Leaf Insects
With thousands of species of stick insects around the world, it’s no surprise that there are some weird and wonderful members of the Phasmida family. Let’s get better acquainted with some of them.
1. Giant Malaysian Leaf Insect (Phyllium giganteum)
The Giant Malaysian leaf insect lives mainly in the western parts of Malaysia in tropical regions. These are among the largest leaf insects, and fully grown adults can get up to 4.1 inches (10.5 cm). While the species was first discovered in the 80s, it wasn’t until 1994 that the first male was found in the wild.
Males usually have wings, whereas the females are flightless. Since there are so few males in the wild, it’s a blessing that the females are able to reproduce asexually. However, not much is known about how these animals breed in the wild other than the eggs can take up to six months to hatch.
When giant Malaysian leaf insects are born, they don’t look as they do when they are adults. What’s fascinating is that they develop their green coloration over time from the chemicals within the leaves in their diet.
2. Spiny Leaf Insect (Extatosoma tiaratum)
The spiny leaf insect goes by a lot of names; the Australian walking the, the giant prickly stick and even the Macleay’s specter. But whatever you call it, it’s still a fascinating animal, and it’s native to the continent of Australia. While it is largely found in Queensland and New South Wales, there have been specimens found as far out as Papua New Guinea.
These insects get their name because of their appearance, which resembles a spiky brown leaf. Although they’re actually a type of stick insect. They feed on a diet of eucalyptus leaves and will grow to around 7.9 inches (20 cm).
They use their mimicry as a first line of defense, but when they’re threatened, they’ll also adopt a scorpion-like posture to look more intimidating.
3. Moss Stick Insect (Trychopeplus laciniatus)
If you were to be standing near a moss stick insect hanging from a plant, you would probably struggle to identify it. These animals have the appearance of a stick that’s covered in moss, and it’s a very convincing disguise.
They’re found in the forests of Costa Rica and some other parts of Central America. The females have far better camouflage than the males, which are more slender and sleek in appearance and generally a little shorter. However, much like other species, it is only the males that have wings.
The moss stick insect breeds in a very unique way. Where most insects would lay their eggs in clusters, the female moss stick lays just one egg at a time. She’ll move around laying eggs on different parts of the tree and there’s a chance that they’ll fall off. Still the nymphs will hatch even if they’re on the forest floor.
4. Peruvian Firestick (Oreophoetes peruana)
The Peruvian firestick is found in forests in Peru and Ecuador, and it gets its name because of its bright red coloration. While this might not make it blend into the surrounding trees and plants, it does act as a warning to predators not to eat it.
Why would they listen? Well, this species of stick insect releases a white milky substance which causes severe irritation to predators and smells pretty bad too. Don’t say they didn’t warn you!
These stick insects feed on a diet mainly composed of various fern species in its tropical habitat. It doesn’t live very long and adults in the wild will typically survive for around four months.
5. Southern Two-Striped Walkingstick (Anisomorpha bupestroides)
Like a lot of stick and leaf insect species, the southern two-striped walking stick doesn’t only rely on mimicry as a form of defense. In fact, since this is a very dark colored stick, it stands out a lot more than its camo cousins, so instead, it emits a putrid-smelling liquid to warn off predators. What’s more, this stinky liquid can be very irritating, especially to the eyes.
This species is also sometimes called the musk mare, likely because of the smell it creates, or the devil rider. It probably takes this name from the fact that males can usually be seen riding around on the backs of females which are much larger.
These unique-looking sticks are found in the southeastern parts of the United States and have a varied diet of rosemary, oak, myrtle, rose, and many other plants.
6. Lord Howe Island Stick Insect (Dryococelus australis)
While there are thousands of species of stick insects in the world, some are rarer than others and the Lord Howe Island stick insect is one of the rarest of all. So much so that conservationists are fighting to stop it from becoming extinct. In fact, it has previously been believed to be extinct and none were seen for more than 80 years until the animal was rediscovered in 2001.
These stick insects are found exclusively in the Lord Howe Islands located in the Tasman Sea. They are sometimes called the tree lobster owing to their chunky appearance that isn’t all that dissimilar from its marine namesake.
The Lord Howe Island stick insect is also one of the largest, with fully grown adults measuring up to 7.9 inches (20 cm). The males tend to be thicker and shorter than the females, but neither have wings.
7. Chan’s Megastick (Phobaeticus chani)
If you thought the previous stick was long, check out this monstrous species from the island of Borneo. On average, these sticks can grow pretty big, but the record for the longest insect in the world is held by one specimen that measured more than 22 inches (56 cm)! This is kept at the Natural History Museum in London and was found in Malaysia. There are other examples of huge Chan’s megastick, including one that grew to 13.8 inches (35.1 cm), which seems to be around average.
This species of stick insect wasn’t discovered until 2008 and was named after the guy that found it; Datuk Chan Chew Lun, an amateur naturalist. However, they seem to be very secretive and mysterious animals, as only a small handful have since been found in the wild.
8. Pink-Winged Stick Insect (Sipyloidea sipylus)
Some people call it the Madagascan stick insect, although the pink-winged stick insect is now also found across Asia and some parts of Southeast Asia.
The species was discovered in 1859 and is one of the easiest to identify thanks to the pink-colored wings. This is also a popular species to keep as a pet and will grow to around 3.9 inches (10 cm) and live for up to 18 months. In captivity, it is only possible to keep females and even in the wild, males are much rarer.
When the pink-winged stick insect feels threatened, its natural colors allow it to blend into its surroundings. However, it also has a backup line of defense and will spray an irritating fluid at any predators that are brave enough to get close.
9. Jungle Nymph Stick Insect (Heteropteryx dilatata)
We’ve met the longest stick insect, but what about the title for the heaviest? That goes to the jungle nymph stick insect which can weigh up to 2.3 oz. (65 grams). The females are larger than the males and generally reach around 17 cm when fully grown. Males don’t get much longer than around 5.1 inches (13 cm) to 5.5 inches (14 cm).
As the name suggests, the jungle nymph prefers a jungle or rainforest habitat. They are found in Borneo, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia and there’s some suggestion that there could be a population on Madagascar.
Jungle nymph stick insects are bright green and have thick bodies that look more like a leaf. When the females are threatened and their camouflage fails, they will lift up their bottoms, exposing sharp spines that they use to attack would-be predators.
10. Green Bean Stick Insect (Diapherodes gigantea)
When I tell you that this stick insect looks like a green bean with legs, I’m not being over dramatic; that is, of course, where the insect gets its name. They have a bright green coloration and are found in the Caribbean islands where this color helps them blend into the tropical foliage.
Some people call them the lime green stick insect but in any case, these are chunky bugs that get as big as 6.3 inches (16 cm) in length. However, it’s the females that are typically larger and most males will only grow to around 4.3 (11 cm). The nymphs are usually just a centimeter in length and will often ride around on the back of an adult female.
Feeding on eucalyptus while they are young, green bean stick insects alter their diet to include brambles and other similar plants as they get older.
Scientists have been doing some research on the green bean stick insect and have discovered that they have an antibacterial microbe in their guts that is able to attack and kill bacteria even if the insect has not previously been exposed to it. This could be promising for future research around how microbes can kill bacteria.
11. Common Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata)
The common walking stick is one of the species of stick insects that are native to North America. They are found in forests where they will primarily feed on a diet of hazel and oak leaves. They’re found all over North America and are the only stick insect species that is native to Canada. Although it’s only found in some parts of the country, such as Quebec, Alberta, and Ontario.
Common walking sticks are sometimes called northern walking sticks and are closely related to the grasshopper. They are brown in color and the females tend to be bigger than the males. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a male hitching a lift on the back of a female.
These stick insects live for around 12 months in the wild and like many other species are able to drop a limb when they are attacked.
12. Indian Stick Insect (Carausius morosus)
It’ll hardly come as a surprise to find out that the Indian stick insect is found in India, more specifically, Tamil Nadu.
This is one of the most popular species to be kept as a pet and has that typical stick insect appearance that we’re all familiar with. For this reason, Indian stick insects are now found in the wild in locations all around the world, including the USA, Europe, and even South Africa due to accidental release.
Females can grow up to around 3.9 inches (10 cm) and do not have wings. They’re brown in color, and when they are attacked, these amazing insects will even play dead, making their bodies rigid.
They feed on a wide range of plants, including hawthorn, privet, rose, bramble, oak, and hazel, and are incredibly easy to take care of, which is one of the reasons they’re such popular pets. However, do keep in mind that they are, like many species, nocturnal so they won’t be hugely active during the day.
13. Black Beauty Stick Insect (Peruphasma schultei)
The black beauty stick insect is among the rarest species in the world, and it’s only found within a space of around five hectares in Peru. It typically lives in mountainous or volcanic regions, but it can be kept in captivity.
As its name suggests, the stick insect is black in color and this helps it to blend into the surrounding rocks. However, they also have red and yellow markings around the mouth as well as red wings. But camouflage isn’t their only line of defense as they’ll spray an irritating liquid from glands in their heads when they feel threatened.
The species was only discovered in 2005, but as of 2018, it has been described as critically endangered and numbers are sadly continuing to decline.
14. Phyllium bilobatum
The Phyllium bilobatum was first discovered in 1843, but it’s one of the species of leaf insect that we know little about. The insect is found in both the Philippines and Malaysia but some of the specimens from the latter could be confused with other species like the giant Malaysian leaf insect.
However, they’re significantly smaller, with adults not getting much larger than 2.8 inches (7 cm). You can tell the males from the females as their bodies tend to be much more slender. Again, as with many other species, the females are flightless.
In terms of defending itself, the Phyllium bilibatum’s main trick is mimicry with its appearance that makes it look like a leaf. However, when these creatures are attacked, they are also able to emit a smelly substance to serve as a warning to predators.
How Do Stick & Leaf Bugs Regrow their Limbs?
While stick insects do camouflage very well, there are times that they’ll fall victim to predators. But they still have one more trick up their sleeves and that’s dropping a limb. Should a hungry bird grab the bug by one of its legs, the stick insect can use its muscles to break the joint and the leg will fall off, allowing the creature to escape.
Of course, the stick insect would be more vulnerable with a missing limb, but nature has a way of putting things right. Juvenile stick insects molt as they grow, and if they’ve shed a limb then this will regenerate the next time they molt. Typically adult stick insects cannot regrow their limbs, but there have been cases where they’ve been able to force a molt.
When the new limb comes through, it’ll usually be smaller than the one that was lost.
Can You Keep a Leaf & Stick Bugs as Pets?
Cats and dogs might be the most common pets in the world, but they’re not for everyone. Having a unique and interesting pet is the desire of many, but what about stick and leaf bugs?
It is possible to keep a stick insect or a leaf bug as a pet in the United States, but there are some laws that you’ll need to keep in mind.
- You are only permitted to keep stick insects and leaf bugs that are native to the USA, as non-native species are considered to be a pest.
- If you wish to import a particular species of stick insect or leaf bug then you must acquire a permit from the US Department of Agriculture. You usually won’t find stick insects for sale in pet shops and normally have to go to an online reptile dealer. Ensure that whoever you are purchasing from abides to all the relevant laws.
- Should your non-native stick or leaf insect produce any eggs, these should be burned or crushed. Keep in mind that while only around 1 in every 1000 sticks are male, females do not need a male to lay eggs.
- There may be local or state laws that limit what you can and can’t do in regard to keeping a stick or leaf bug so it’s important to contact your local authority for advice before buying your pet.
During the day, stick insects don’t do much but, being nocturnal, they really liven up at night. They’re an ideal pet for kids as they’re easy to care for and live off a diet of fresh leaves. Plus, they have a gentle temperament and don’t bite. The only thing you should consider when buying them for a child is that they’re very delicate creatures and should be handled with great care.
You’ll need at least a 15 inch (38 cm) tank for your stick insect and it’s important to ensure that you use the correct substrate. Moreover, it’s essential that you find out what temperature and humidity your specific species needs and keep the enclosure within those parameters. Once your stick insect housing is set up, this will be a very low maintenance pet.
As I mentioned, importing stick insects requires a permit but some of the most common ones to be kept as pets are the Indian stick, the giant prickly stick, and the Annam walking stick.