Walkingsticks (Stick Insects)

Diapheromera femorata, Megaphasma denticrus, and others
Family

Five North American families in the order Phasmida (sometimes Phasmatodea) (walkingsticks)

Description

They look like walking sticks: They are perfectly camouflaged to look like brown, tan, gray, or green twigs. The legs, body, and antennae are long and slender. The legs are all roughly the same length. All Missouri walkingsticks are wingless.

The northern walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata) is very slender, and the antennae are two-thirds the total body length. Males are brown and can be 3 inches long; females are greenish brown and can be 3¾ inches long. The pincerlike circi at the tip of the abdomen are not segmented. Immatures are green.

The giant walkingstick (Megaphasma denticrus) is the largest insect in North America, with females up to 7 inches long. The middle and hind legs have spines. Males have a single, large spine on each hind leg.

Size

Length: to 2 inches or more (varies with species; female giant walkingsticks reach 7 inches).

Habitat and conservation

Walkingsticks are perfectly camouflaged for a life in trees and shrubs. They not only look like twigs but also sway their bodies to mimic the motion of branches in a breeze. Adults are mostly nocturnal, feeding at night and resting during the day. We rarely notice walkingsticks unless they venture onto buildings or sidewalks. Because they eat tree leaves, any occasional peaks in walkingstick populations can defoliate trees. Unless this happens repeatedly, the trees usually recover.

Foods

Walkingsticks chew tree leaves. In Missouri, they “stick” mostly to deciduous trees such as oaks, locusts, walnut, and cherry. Our most common species, the northern walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), prefers the foliage of oaks and hazelnut. With Missouri’s many oak-hickory forests, it is no surprise that species is common here.

image of Walkingsticks Stick Insects Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common. Globally, there are thousands of species of walkingsticks, but a great majority of them are restricted to tropical regions. There are only about 30 species in North America, and most of those are found only in our southernmost states. Walkingsticks used to be grouped with grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids in the order Orthoptera, but they have been given their own family.

Life cycle

The walkingsticks that live in Missouri, unlike their tropical relatives, must cope with freezing temperatures. They do this by overwintering as eggs. The adults die when it freezes. In late summer and fall, after mating, the female drops eggs, one by one, into the leaf litter below her. The eggs hatch in spring, and the young climb into the trees above them. Like other insects, they molt through a number of immature stages before a final molt in which they emerge as sexually mature adults.

Human connections

When their populations suddenly peak, walkingsticks can defoliate trees to the point of having an economic impact. Otherwise, most people are scarcely aware that walkingsticks exist, until they encounter one in a place — like the hood of a parked car — where the twiglike camouflage doesn’t work.

Ecosystem connections

As leaf-eaters, walkingsticks “pinch back” foliage, encouraging new leaves and buds to sprout. When populations are large, this natural form of pruning is more dramatic. Their wonderful camouflage is an indicator that many predators — most likely birds — will eat walkingsticks when they find them.