All legs

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

Readers who have followed my blog for a while may have noticed I haven’t posted anything on moths in a couple of months. Part of this has been that there’s just been so much else to catch my interest I haven’t gotten back to them. However, part of it was also that I broke my one and only mercury vapour bulb shortly after moving in to the new house. The mercury vapour is a very bright bulb that projects light in the ultraviolet spectrum and draws moths in like crazy. Nothing else really compares. I tried running my trap with just a blacklight in it, but didn’t catch very much. It has been a bit of a headache trying to replace the bulb from out in the middle of nowhere. The first set of bulbs I bought off eBay turned out to have the old-style mogul screw base used in security lights (rather than the standard, smaller one that all household bulbs today have), which of course didn’t fit my trap. It took me another few weeks to remedy that situation, and another purchase off eBay to get converter sockets that make a mogul bulb fit a household base (would you believe Home Depot and Rona don’t carry these?). But they arrived this Wednesday – hurrah! – and I’ve run my trap the past couple nights. We’re well past the peak moth period, which is June and July, but there are still lots of interesting species flying right now.

This morning, in a rush to get ready to go out for a training session for Elections Canada (I signed up to work at one of the polls during the election next Tuesday), I only had time to turn off the light and move the trap around the corner where it’d be out of the sun. So I wasn’t really looking at much, and if this guy had been anywhere else other than smack in the middle of the beige siding, I probably wouldn’t have noticed him. But there he was, presumably drawn in to the light during the night.

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

It’s a stick insect, of course, a Northern Walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata). Walkingsticks belong to the order Phasmatodea, which contains some 3000 species, most of which are tropical in range. In North America there are 33 species, all of which, except one, are wingless. The Northern Walkingstick is found through most of eastern North America, from southern Canada south to Florida, and as far west as Arizona and Alberta. It’s usually found in hardwood or mixed forests, so it’s no surprise to see it here, given that the region is nearly one continuous hardwood forest.

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

These guys are amazing insects. They’re not commonly seen; in my three decades I could probably count the number I’ve seen in the wild on one hand, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen one that I don’t know how many digits I’d be able to put up. So I was doubly excited to find it, both for its cool factor and its apparent rarity (it’s not actually all that uncommon, but appears rare because one rarely sees one).

Many insects have evolved body structures that camouflage them, but the walkingsticks and stick insects have taken it to an extreme. Their bodies are thinner than pencil-thin, and the joints resemble the bumps on a twig. Their legs are tiny and delicate, and extremely long. While their body is brown, their legs are green, kind of like the leaf petioles or young sapling twigs that stem off a main twig. When at rest they often align their forelegs, and sometimes their back legs, straight out in line with their body as in the first photo, to increase their disguise. A few tropical species look like walking leaves, rather than twigs.

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

Although stick insects, like all insects, go through metamorphosis, theirs is a “simple” metamorphosis, where the larval and pupal stages have been dropped. Baby walkingsticks hatch from their eggs resembling miniature adults, only green, and simply grow bigger as they age by shedding their skin, eventually becoming brown. Grown adults are sexually dimorphic, with males being considerably smaller than females – males may reach 7.5 cm (3 inches), while females can grow to 9.5 cm (3.75 inches). Females have a more swollen look than males, and I suspect the twigginess of this individual makes it a male, but the pincers at the end of the abdomen confirm it (they’re used in mating).

Females of this species will lay their eggs in the leaf litter of the forest floor (BugGuide.net says they “drop eggs singly”.) In the spring these eggs hatch and the nymphs reach sexual maturity by late summer or early fall. There are a few species of walking stick that reproduce through parthenogenesis – that is, there are no males, and the females essentially lay eggs that are clones of themselves. Even more amazing, walkingsticks are often able to regenerate lost limbs during larval stages, something most insects are incapable of doing.

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

The walkingstick’s face looks much like just another knob on the end of the twig. Their entire body design is built around blending in with their surroundings. They feed primarily on the deciduous leaves of hardwood trees, particularly oak and hazelnut, also rose and apple. Nymphs apparently have a different dietary preference, favouring sassafras, raspberry, and black cherry. In years of high walkingstick abundance they have the ability to severely defoliate their food trees. Their simple dietary requirements make them an easy bug to keep and breed in captivity, where they may live to about a year old.

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

After posing the insect on a number of branches and trunks where he was easily seen, I placed him in the foliage of an aster, now nearly done blooming. This is where his camouflage really kicked in, and he all but disappeared into the plant. Walkingsticks are generally slow movers (as are the twigs they mimic), though they can really boot it when they want to (as I discovered while trying to move him from one spot to another). They sometimes sway gently as they move, hypothesized to either mimic swaying branches, or possibly aiding in their visual detection of their surroundings by differentiating close objects from the background (something characteristic of simple insects).

Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata

I left him resting in the aster, where he was well-hidden. Hopefully they’ll be a frequent sight around here! It does make me think back to a few small, thin, green little bugs that we had hanging around the house back in August and didn’t know what they were. I wonder if they could have been young walkingsticks?

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7 responses to “All legs

  1. When my parents had their home in rural Castleton, I remember one visit when walkingsticks seemed to be raining from one of the trees, but never saw any again after that. This must have been one of those years of abundance you mention.

  2. Those are the insects that really make me “rethink” the whole insect kingdom: its easy to “write off” an ant or bug of that size and stature, but the stick bug makes me take pause and recheck my assumptions.

  3. Walking sticks are fascinating creatures. Your images are great, and your description, very detailed. I didn’t know some make clone babies. So, that image of the stick in your palm, is that insect laying on its back? Or is it holding onto the camera lens?

  4. themarvelousinnature

    That would’ve been something to see, Lavenderbay!

    They are cool insects, Robert, and neat to think of how the bug evolved into that shape.

    Thanks, Zhakee. The one on my palm is actually just sitting there as a normal insect would, just its legs are so long that they go waaaay up over its head before coming down to grip my skin.

  5. Pingback: The best of 2008 « the Marvelous in nature

  6. A friend and I were hiking a microclimate in our hometown one day and I had happened to look at him and say wouldnt it be cool to find a stick insect as I motioned towards what I thought was a regular stick. Lo and behold (sent me jumpin 5 feet in the air) was a Northern Walkingstick that had surreptitiously found its way to the exact point where I had chosen to make my remarks focus. We proceeded to go bananas over this discovery and were gifted with not one but 5 total in the surrounding area, including a mating pair! I live in southeastern Connecticut and I am a studying Wildlife sciences major.

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