Stick Insects: The Insects that Masquerade as Plants

Anyone has seen a stick insect at some point in their life. These insects belong to the ghost insects and are true masters of camouflage. They can perfectly adapt to their environment and look like branches or leaves. In this article, you'll learn everything you need to know about stick insects: what species are there, what do they eat, how do you keep them and how do they reproduce? Read on and get excited about these amazing animals.

What are stick insects and why are they so special?

Stick insects are a group of insects that belong to the order of Phasmatodea (Phasmatodea). Often also referred to as ghost insects, their name comes from the Greek word "phasma", which means ghost. This is because these insects often have a bizarre body shape that resembles plant parts. Some species look like sticks or twigs, others like leaves or even flowers.

Stick insects are very large compared to other insects. The largest species is the Australian walking stick Insect (Extatosoma tiaratum), which can grow up to 20 cm (~8 inches) long. The smallest species is the European walking stick (Bacillus rossius), which grows to only 3 cm (~1 inch) long. Most species, however, are between 5 and 15 cm long (~2 to 6 inches).

Stick insects are nocturnal and spend the day motionless on their food plants. Only in the darkness they become active and start to feed. As they do so, they rock back and forth slightly to imitate the swaying of a branch in the wind. However, if disturbed, they may also run quickly or drop.

A stick insect swinging back and forth looking like it is dancing
Source: Tenor

Different species of stick insects

There are over 3000 species of stick insects in the world, most of which live in tropical and subtropical areas. In Europe only 17 species are found, most of them in the Mediterranean region. The best known species in the world are:

  • The Annam walking stick (Medauroidea extradentata): This species is native to Vietnam and is also known as the Vietnamese stick insect. It is grayish brown to beige in color and has two small horns above the eyes. The females grow up to 11 cm long, the males only up to 7.5 cm (4.3 and 3 inches respectively).
  • The Walking Leaves (Phyllioidea): This subfamily includes several species that all look like leaves. They have a flat body with leaf veins and a serrated edge. The best known species is the walking leaf (Phyllium siccifolium), which comes from Southeast Asia and is green or brown in color.
  • The Australian walking stick (Extatosoma tiaratum): This species is native to Australia and is one of the largest stick insects in the world. It has a thick body with many spines and a broad head with large eyes.
A walking leaf on a real leaf
A walking leaf. Source: Sandilya Theuerkauf, CC BY-SA 2.5

What do they eat?

Stick insects are pure herbivores. They feed on the leaves of various shrubs and trees that they would also find in their natural environment. Among their favorite plants are rosaceous plants such as blackberries, raspberries, strawberries or wild roses. But they also like to eat oaks, hazelnuts or basil.

Stick insects are very picky when it comes to their food. They do not like variety and prefer to eat only one type of plant their whole life. This is because they adapt to the ingredients of their food plant and thus have a better digestion. It also allows them to improve their camouflage by taking on the color or smell of their food plant.

If you keep stick insects as pets, you must make sure that you always provide them with fresh greenery. You can either plant the leaves directly in the terrarium or place them in a vase with water. Make sure the leaves are pesticide-free and do not contain pests such as spiders. Change the food regularly before it wilts.

Stick insects on a chewed leaf
A stick insect has eaten away at a leaf. Source: Pavel Kirillov, CC BY-SA 2.0

How to keep stick insects as pets and what to consider?

Stick insects are low-maintenance and interesting pets that are well suited for keeping in a terrarium. They do not need much space and do not make noise or dirt. However, they are also not cuddly animals and should only be taken carefully on the hand.

If you want to keep stick insects as pets, you should consider the following points:

  • Choose a suitable terrarium.It should be at least three times as high as the length of your stick insect and provide enough space for plants and climbing opportunities. It should also have good ventilation and be protected from direct sunlight or heating.
  • Provide a comfortable temperature and humidity. Most stick insects are comfortable at room temperature, but some tropical species need a little more heat. Humidity should be between 50% and 80%. You can spray the terrarium with water daily to increase humidity.
  • Offer enough food to your stick insects.As already mentioned, you should find out beforehand which plants your stick insect eats and always provide them with fresh greens. You can also put a small bowl of water for them to drink.
  • Clean the terrarium regularly. You should cover the bottom of the terrarium with a moisture-absorbing substrate, such as potting soil or pebbles. You should regularly remove the droppings and molting remains of your stick insects and occasionally replace the substrate.
  • Leave your stick insects alone. Stick insects are nocturnal and spend the day motionless on their food plants. They do not like to be disturbed and may drop or shed their legs when stressed. If you want to keep your stick insect

How do stick insects reproduce and how do they develop?

Stick insects have different reproductive strategies. Some species need a mate to mate and lay fertilized eggs. Other species can reproduce without a partner by laying unfertilized eggs. This is called parthenogenesis or virgin reproduction. This produces only female offspring that are genetically identical to their mother. Effectively, they are clones.

Over the course of their lives, which last about a year, female stick insects lay up to three tiny eggs a day, which they drop on the ground. The eggs have a hard shell and look like plant seeds. They can even be collected by ants and hidden in their nests, where they are safe from predators. Within three to four months the larvae hatch, which are also called nymphs.

The larvae already look like small stick insects, but do not yet have sexual organs. They grow through several molts in which they shed their old chitinous shell and form a new one. Unlike butterflies, for example, they do not undergo metamorphosis. The number of molts varies from four to ten, depending on the species. After the last molt, stick insects are sexually mature and can reproduce.

Larva of stick insect
The nymph of a Sungaya inexspectata. Source: Drägüs, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0


Stick insects are fascinating insects that can teach us a lot about evolution and adaptation to different habitats. They are masters of camouflage and can adapt perfectly to their environment. They have different reproductive strategies and interesting evolution. They are also easy to care for and interesting pets, but they also require respect and responsibility.

I hope you enjoyed this article and now know more about stick insects. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment.

Stick Insects: The Insects that Masquerade as Plants
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Stick Insects: The Insects that Masquerade as Plants
Stick insects are fascinating insects that can camouflage themselves perfectly. Learn all about their diet, husbandry and reproduction.

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