Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 9, 2009

Dead Stick Walking

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:51 pm

There are over 40 species of Walking Sticks in North America, but I’m pretty sure that the one I encountered was the so-called Northern Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata).  It helps to know that this is one of the commonest regional types and that it has been previously recorded in Michigan. Thomas Say, the great nineteenth century naturalist, named this particular species back in 1824 (along with thousands of other insects announced for the first time in his American Entomology). The different types all look pretty much alike to the untrained eye. When walking sticks aren’t walking, they are hard for any eye – trained or untrained -to see. Their combination of cryptic coloration, slender form, and slender habit all contribute to their ability to blend in and disappear. The stick insects are classified as Phasmids – a word based on the Greek “phasma” which means “spectre” or “spirit.”

The only reason I spotted this free spirit was that he was unsuccessfully attempting to mimic a black wire fence. Frankly he stood out like a sore thumb because fences are apparently not within their talent sphere. He was in proper protective pose when first encountered (see here)with the antennae and first pair of legs extended straight out from, and in line with, the rest of the body. The remaining two leg sets were set out at perpendicular angles somewhat imitating the angles of the wire.  Normally it is instinctive habit among these creatures to freeze into this position and let their coloration do the rest. Sometimes they will even rock back and forth in a rythmic manner as if blowing in the wind.

Once touched, however, they give up the cryptic thing and become running sticks. This one, although not breaking any land speed records, did well – considering he was formerly a dead stick! I fetched him (that’s what you do with a stick) and allowed him to circle around, over, and around my hand before transferring him to the security of a hanging grape leaf (see above and here). Once back onto a natural substrate, he stopped moving and began to consider a return to stick form. This allowed for some time for a little close observation before letting him resume his spectral life. 

It’s hard to see, but walking sticks are related to crickets and mantids. If you look real close you can kinda see it in their eyes. Apart from revealing itself as a Northern Walker, this individual displayed the proper traits of a male. The brownish coloration is typical of the gender as are the pair of mating claspers (see here) at the tail end. The head end (see below) is not much different from the rest of the body except for the presence of a pair of beady eyes and extremely long hair-like antennae. Females are much plumper than the males (no commento) and tend to be greener as well.

Sticks are forest insects. They feed on a wide variety of leaves, including tree and grape leaves, and spend nearly all their time in the tree tops until they die, along with the leaves they feed on,  late in the fall. About the only time that these sticks are on the ground is when they hatch out of their eggs in the spring. The females do not descend to the ground in order to lay those eggs but instead elect to drop them there from a great height. Each tiny egg is a shiny black & white capsule that looks like a miniature version of a dried bean.  It is said that when a large population of walking sticks are laying, the dropping eggs sound like raindrops on the dry forest floor. You could say that the sticks are planting themselves.


  1. Those are so cool. Even close up, they still look planty!

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — September 10, 2009 @ 8:30 am

  2. Fascinating post! I enjoyed the whimsical writing as well as the factual info!

    Comment by Ellen — September 10, 2009 @ 10:13 am

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