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Phasmida (stick  and leaf insects)

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Ecdysozoa > Panarthropoda > Tritocerebra > Phylum: Arthopoda > Mandibulata > Atelocerata > Panhexapoda > Hexapoda > Insecta (insects) > Dicondyla > Pterygota > Metapterygota > Neoptera > Polyneoptera > Anartioptera > Orthopterida

Elongate stick- or leaf-like plant-feeding insects. The order includes the longest insects in the world, measuring over half a metre if you include the outstretched legs! .

 

Thunberg's Stick-insect Macynia labiata female. A common species in Cape Fynbos.

[photo by P. Brock ©]

Cape Stick-insect Phalces brevis female, on Rhus sp., also common in Cape Fynbos.

[photo by HG Robertson, Iziko Museums of Cape Town ©]

Laboratory or Indian Stick-insect female. An exotic species in South Africa, commonly found on ivy (Hedera spp.) in Cape Town gardens.

[photo by P. Brock ©]

The Phasmida (stick and leaf insects) are plant-eating insects often resembling sticks or broad leaves. They do not have their hindlegs adapted for jumping as in the closely related order  Orthoptera (grasshoppers, katydids, crickets and relatives). Whilst there are about 3000 species, only about 30 are leaf insects. The classification is covered in the Phasmida Species File.

In the daytime these typically long, slender stick-like insects remain remarkably well camouflaged in their habitat, commonly in woodlands, jungle or gardens. In fact, they may be present in gardens for years without being noticed. Go out at night with a torchlight and they are then active, walking about and feeding. Many are not the boring, placid twigs people imagine them to be. Some species have an amazing range of behaviour, including using spiny legs in defence, as well as chemical defences. They are prepared to shed a leg in an effort to escape (capable of re-growing later if the insects are pre-adults). A number of species are winged in at least one sex – sometimes the wings are brightly coloured and flashed open to startle a potential predator. In the absence of males, many species are able to reproduce by parthenogenesis (egg development without fertilisation) – a handy means of survival.

Eggs are often seed-like in appearance. They are usually dropped onto the ground, where knobs on the eggs of some species are attractive to certain ants. Some species glue eggs to branches, or deposit them in crevices. Despite good camouflage, predators such as birds and animals eat all stages of stick insects; hence females lay many eggs (over 2000 in some species).

Stick insects are the longest insects in the world:

Species Found in Maximum length 

from head to end 

of body

Maximum length 

including 

outstretched legs

Record
Phobaeticus kirbyi Borneo 328mm 546mm Longest insect in the world, based on head plus body length.
Phobaeticus

serratipes

Malaysia 278 mm 555mm Longest insect in the world if you include outstretched legs
Bactrododema hippotaurum Malawi 263 mm   Longest insect in Africa.
Bactrododema krugeri South Africa 226 mm   Longest insect in South Africa

Phasmids make excellent pets and are widely seen on display in zoos and butterfly houses. There is even a Group whose members are devoted to studying them!

Common stick insects of the Cape Town area

Stick insects found in South Africa

A total of 30 species of stick insects have been recorded from South Africa (see checklist), with at least nine from the Cape Peninsula (species described from the "Cape of Good Hope" could refer to anywhere from Cape Town and Grahamstown). Bactricia bituberculata  is a sizeable 170mm. 

Leaf insects are not found in South Africa, but one species, Phyllium bioculatum, is well established in the Seychelles.

Paul Brock has described six new South African species since 2000. There is considerable scope for enthusiasts to make studies on stick insects from South Africa – who knows, there may be another new species just around the corner.

Further reading

  • Brock, P.D. 2000a. Studies of the genus Phalces Stål. Phasmid Studies 8: 1-8.

  • Brock, P.D. 2000b. Stick-insects (Phasmida) from the Cape Town area, South Africa. Bulletin of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society 59: 2-13, pl. 00A-D.

  • Brock, P.D. 2000c. A Complete Guide to Breeding Stick and Leaf Insects. TFH Kingdom Books, Havant (ISBN 185279124-1).

  • Compton, S.G. & Ware, A.B. 1991. Ants disperse the elaiosome-bearing eggs of an African Stick Insect. Psyche 98(2-3): 207-213.

  • Le Feuvre, W.P. 1936. The Stick Insects of the Cape Suburbs. The Cape Naturalist 1(3): 80-86.

Links

Text by Paul Brock


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