While out on a hike recently, I came across a neat discovery of a moving stick. What could it be? A northern walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata)! Not just one, but about six of them gathered together on a small sapling. I rarely find this insect, and was surprised to see multiples in one spot. They are a flightless insect that mimic the appearance of small tree branches. These insects can be big or small, but it really depends on male versus female. The females are bigger than the males, but only by about 0.75 inches. Picture it: female walkingsticks have an average length of 3.75 inches; males grow to be 3 inches.
Walkingsticks are herbivores, and one of their favorite greens is oak leaves, such as white oak (Quercus alba) and black oak (Quercus velutina). If you have an oak tree, keep an eye out for this slick stick insect. As walkingsticks are nocturnal, they feed mostly at night. Even with their amazing camouflage skills, they do have predators; mostly birds, lizards and small mammals like chipmunks, crows, blue jays and skinks. These tiny creatures are delicate, but they can actually break limbs off to survive. That doesn’t harm them though; walkingsticks can regenerate their broken limbs. Another way they can defend themselves is to eject a foul-smelling scent and give themselves a disgusting taste in order to deter predators.
Female walkingsticks lay eggs from tree tops and they land among leaf litter on the forest floor. With the eggs being dispersed in different places, it helps increase chances for survival. The eggs have a hard covering and mimic the appearance of seeds. Ants will often carry them back to their nest and feast on the hard shell and then they leave the rest of the egg behind. Therefore, the egg stays protected until it hatches. Eggs are usually laid in the fall, and then by spring, the nymphs emerge from their eggs. As young walkingsticks grow, they molt and will eat their skin so that they cannot be easily discovered by predators.
There are different species of walkingsticks all across the world. In 2016, the new world record for longest insect was discovered in southern China. Called Phryganistria chinensis Zhao, this insect is nearly 25 inches long! Its young clock in at nearly 10 inches long! In comparison, the stick insects found in Ohio and Hamilton County only grow to be around 3.75 inches. I feel we should consider ourselves lucky that we are one of the fortunate places to have these fascinating insects.
Nature Interpreter, East Region