Master of Disguise

The walking leaf is a master of disguise. They use camouflage as their main feature of defense. You may be looking right at one and not even know it, as they can look exactly like a leaf on a tree. The level of detail in their disguise is amazing, as they will even have dark or aged edges, with places that are notched out to perfectly mimic bite marks that any real leaf would have. To add to their realistic disguise, they even move back in forth in a motion that would look like a leaf blowing in the wind.

The leaf insect is part of the Phasmid or Phylliidae family. This would put them as close relatives to cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers and praying mantis. Although many insects in its family species are considered pest control issues here in Nashville, Tennessee, the walking leaf is not. They primarily live in Australia and Southeast Asia. So we probably won’t be seeing one any time soon in Tennessee unless it is a pet. Yes, many people find this insect so interesting to look at, they keep them as pets.

They range in size from 1” to over 4” long, and as with many insect varieties the male is typically smaller then the female. Both the female and male leaf insect has front and rear wings but only the male can fly when under attack. Some species also have spikes on their hind legs that can help deter predators with a painful kick. So, if their camouflage is detected they really only have one line of defense.

Some leaf insects can reproduce without mating. The process is called parthenogenesis and when this method of having young happens, only females are born. It requires fertilization from a male to produce eggs that contain both male and female. Unlike many other insects they do not have a birth cycle that includes egg, larva and pupa like wasps, flies or ants. Depending on the species, the leaf insect lays eggs that can remain underground for one to three years or can be laid at the top of a tree and hatch in two to ten weeks. The eggs that are laid on the ground have a knob that looks like plant seeds that attract ants. This would seem to be the end of the life cycle for this new leaf insect. However this is still all part of the many stages of disguise that this interesting insect uses to survive. The ants see what they think is a seed, take it underground to their nest and eat only the knob. This leaves the egg completely intact for the leaf insect baby to develop. Being in the ant nest, they are in a very safe place, as they are then protected by the ant colony from any other possible predators. When hatched they resemble a very small adult leaf insect, also very easily confused with an ant. So, the babies can blend in with the ant colony until they can make their way out and begin their new life. The babies look brown in color when hatched, they then climb up the nearest tree and begin to feed on leaves which turns them green. Since they are herbivores and feed on the local plant life where they are born, their color resembles the habitat that they hide in.

The new females can lay eggs only a few weeks after becoming an adult. Also depending on the species, it can lay one hundred to one thousand eggs at one time. Their short lifespan of six months for a male and eighteen months for a female, still make for a very active birth cycle to ensure the continued life cycle.

The leaf insect shows that it is a master of disguise from egg, to hatching and eventually an undetectable leaf on a tree. It is truly an amazing camouflage artist.