Keeping Spiny Leaf Insects as Pets: Phasmid Facts and How to Care for These Kid-Friendly Bugs.
Keeping Spiny Leaf Insects as Pets
Spiny Leaf Insects are becoming increasingly popular as pets. Not only are they fascinating to watch, they are very easy and inexpensive to care for and do not take up much room. Also, they are prolific breeders and the females can live for 18 months – a tad longer than your average goldfish.
My son, fascinated by bugs, was given some Spiny Leaf Insects for his eighth birthday. We bought them from the local pet shop. However, if you're a bit more savvy than we were, you can probably find someone in your local area willing to sell some to earn extra pocket money, at a fraction of the price they charge at the pet shop.
We now have two Spiny Leaf Insects. One is large – about 13 cm (5 in) long, and the other, who has doubled in size since we got her three months ago, is about 5cm (2 in) It has been fascinating to watch her grow, and she has just shed her first skin, which they eat after shedding! (See the bottom of this hub, to see photos of her eating her second shed skin - updated Sept 10.)
Spiny Leaf Insects are not a true leaf insect but a species of stick insect. The Spiny Leaf Insect is otherwise known as the Giant Prickly Stick Insect and Macleay’s Spectre. It is native to Northern Queensland.
Phasmids are insects that eat leaves and look like leaves or sticks.
There are around 3,000 different species of phasmids in the world, and 150 different species in Australia.
The female Spiny Leaf Insect can be distinguished from the male by the small spikes on her body, although in very young insects these are hard to see.
Choose female Spiny Leaf Insects as pets if possible for the following reasons:
- The female lives for 18 months, whereas the male only lives for around 6-8 months.
- Females grow to 20cm (8 inches) , males to 11cm (4.3 inches).
- Females do not need a male to reproduce. The interesting thing is that without a male to fertilize the eggs, all the eggs she lays will be female. This is called parthenogenesis. They can lay thousands of eggs during their life span. We have only had our insects for three months and the large insect has laid at least 70 eggs during that time.
- Male Spiny Leaf Insects can fly. Females can’t, so if you need to take them out of the cage they can’t get too far!
Stick insects aren’t affectionate pets. They will tolerate being handled, but be careful not to hold them by their legs which can easily become detached! Hold from the body. The spikes on the female Spiny Leaf Insect are not dangerous, just a fraction uncomfortable, and the insects do not bite. I recommend teaching your kids to enjoy watching them without touching. When I change the leaves I keep the branch that the stick insects are on in the cage until they have moved on to the fresh leaves. I have never had to handle them at all.
Some other stick insects, such as the American Walking Stick and Pink Wings have a defensive chemical spray which can be painful and cause temporary blindness, so be sure of the kind of stick insect you are buying.
These Spiny Leaf Insects are really interesting creatures to watch. Their heads seem to be around the wrong way, and when they eat it looks as if their head is splitting in two. My son has their cage next to his bed and at night, when it is very quiet, he can actually hear the large one munching! When they are disturbed, they sway from side to side, like leaves in the breeze.
The pet shop where you buy your stick insects will most likely sell the appropriate equipment for them.
You will need:
- a terrarium or appropriate enclosure to keep them in. A decent-sized enclosure is recommended as they need to move around and climb to get to leaves. Ours is around 12 inches high, and 13 inches wide, although I have since heard that vertical cages are best. It needs to be aerated. Ours has a mesh top, although I'm not sure how we're going to stop the nymphs from escaping once they hatch! Our cage also comes with a lock, which is handy if you have small children who may like to take them out without adult supervision.
- a small vase filled with water to keep the branches in to make them last longer.
- a couple of study sticks at diagonals across the cage for the stick insects to climb on.
- some lining for the bottom. Our cage came with some tan bark, but I have also heard of people using shredded paper.
- a spray bottle for misting the leaves. We have a spray bottle from the gardening section of the supermarket that releases a fine mist.
Caring for Spiny Leaf Insects
- Their leaves need to be changed every few days to a week, depending on how dry they get. If you have eggs, it's a good idea to leave a couple of soft young leaves on the ground as well in case the eggs hatch. Otherwise you can cut the edges of a leaf to release its scent and make it more appetizing to nymphs. Apparently the nymphs not eating can be a problem when breeding stick insects.
- Spiny Leaf Insects, or indeed any of the species of stick insects available as pets eat leaves. The Spiny Leaf Insects eat eucalyptus leaves, but can also eat Rasberry and Rose bush leaves and Hawthorn and Wattle tree leaves. We have only ever given them eucalyptus leaves.
- There is differing opinion about how often you need to mist your stick insects. The pet shop told us twice a day, but others say once a day and others say several times a day! We have been spraying twice, and they seem to be doing fine. When I say spray, I mean a light mist. It moistens the leaves and adds some humidity to the tank - their native environment is tropical North Queensland, after all.
- The bottom of our cage is lined with tan bark, and according to the pet shop owner, the droppings do not need to be removed as they just break down over time. Again, I have read different opinions about this on the web, but our insects seem to be doing fine so far. It is recommended to also keep some common woodlice in the cage, as they keep down any fungus caused by excess moisture.
Breeding Spiny Leaf Insects
Spiny Leaf Insects just drop their eggs into the ground. You can see the egg present in the adult insect for a couple of days before it finally drops.
The eggs resemble unpopped popping corn kernels in shape but are brown and white and slightly smaller. They have a sticky bit on the end, called a capitulum which is attractive to ants. This is for a reason – in the wild, ants collect the eggs and carry them into the ant nest where they are kept safe from other predators. When the nymphs hatch, they resemble little ants with red heads and are able to safely escape. We found out how attractive the eggs are to ants when we put the stick insect cage outside on a table one day. Within two hours there were about fifty ants scurrying around the cage, even though there had been no ants in sight when we put the cage out there!
I have found varying opinion on how to care for the eggs. The man from the pet shop assured us that it is fine to leave them on the bottom of the cage, whereas other sources on the internet recommend removing the eggs and keeping them in a separate container on a bed of sand or tissue paper. Ours are still on the bottom of the cage. None have hatched so far, but that is not surprising - they can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years to hatch.
Photos of our Small Spiny Leaf Insect Eating her Second Shed Skin - Sept 2010
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P&K Pets Info Sheet #11 www.pkpets.com.au
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