How to look after your very own spiny leaf insect (extatosoma tiaratum), a unique species of stick insect from Australia! These are commonly found in pet stores all over the world, and are quite popular as pets.
Step 1: Things you will need
1: An enclosure of some sort- preferably a fly screen cage. If it is rectangular as most cages are, it should be placed vertically due to the insect's instinct to climb. As a general rule, the cage should be at least 3 times as long as the adult insect- Adult females grow to about 110mm long so I would recommend a 40 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm cage.
Stick insects are accomplished escape artists- so you must be careful not to leave any gaps and make sure there are no tears in the fly screen. (I didn't completely close the cage lid once, and all of my young insects escaped into the house- they took hours to locate)
2: A source of eucalyptus leaves- you must be able to access young foliage as well as older leaves. When collecting the leaves, make sure that nobody has sprayed any chemicals on the tree you cut branches from.
The leaves will be the insect's food. If you don't live in Australia, you can feed them on bramble leaves- although these will be hazardous to collect.
If you feed your insect on eucalyptus leaves, they will turn a shade of tan to camouflage against dry, curled eucalyptus leaves, but if you feed it on brambles it will turn green in order to better blend in to their environment.
3: A plant sprayer- an empty windex sprayer will do- as long as you wash it out VERY carefully (nothing kills a pet stick insect faster than cleaning chemicals)
4: A vase of some sort- to hold water and eucalyptus leaves. Doesn't need to be fancy- I use an old milk jug.
5: Newspaper- you will need 1 or two sheets of this every few weeks (the newspaper is to protect the floor of the cage from stains if it is made of wood and/or the need for cleaning)
6: A small tupperware that you are willing to wreck
7: A spiny leaf insect (quite obviously). You can often acquire one from your local pet store- if not, there are websites that will ship eggs or young insects to your house (I purchased mine from www.terrificscientific.com, a business in Sydney, Australia) I would recommend getting a female- the males have fully functional wings and can escape- although they are clumsy fliers that tend to crash into the nearest object when flying.
Step 2: Preparing the cage
To prepare the cage for your stick insect, lay two sheets of newspaper on the floor of the cage so that they cover the whole floor. Fill your vase with water, and stick several small eucalyptus branches in so that the cut-off ends are submerged in the water. Make sure that these branches have fresh leaves on them for the stick insect to eat. Then place the vase, leaves and all, on the floor of the cage. You are now ready to introduce your spiny leaf insect to its new home.
Step 3: Feeding and watering your stick insects
Spiny leaf insects are very low-maintenance pets. They will feed off the eucalyptus branches until they become too dry. When the leaves dry out, remove them, change the newspaper on the floor, and put some new leaves into the vase. You may also need to top up the water in the vase, due to evaporation and the branches absorbing the water. You will need to change the leaves every week or so.
Spiny leaf insects need fresh water every day, in the form of droplets sprayed on the leaves with your plant sprayer. Do NOT put a water dish in the cage, as the insects will not drink from it and might fall into it and drown.
Step 4: Breeding spiny leaf insects
If you have a male and female stick insect, they will probably mate and the female will begin laying eggs within a few weeks. When changing the newspaper on the floor of the cage, take a minute to collect any eggs that lie among the excrement. The excrement is dry, and smells like eucalyptus so you don't need to worry about it smelling bad. the eggs are oval, with a small orange lump on one end. they are easily discernible from the droppings which are cylindrical.
Note that parthenogenesis is possible in spiny leaf insects- the female can lay eggs without a male but they will be genetically uniform and identical to their mother and siblings.
Store the eggs in a tupperware lined with tissue paper (make sure that the paper has no harmful chemicals added). Once a day, remove the lid of the tupperware and lightly spray the eggs with your plant mister. drill several very small holes in the lid so that the moisture can escape, otherwise the humidity will result in fungal growth which can be harmful to the eggs.
If you can get it, coco-peat is also a good substrate for the eggs, and I would recommend it over tissue paper because it holds its moisture for longer. You can buy it in bricks from gardening stores which expand to form 5 or so litres of the stuff quite cheaply
The eggs will eventually hatch, although it can sometimes take more than a year for them to do so. check the tupperware every day when you spray the eggs for newborns- they will look like ant/scorpion hybrids, small black insects with curly tails.
You can house the baby stick insects the same way you house the adults, but add some young leaf growth to the cage as the babies wont eat the older growth until they are more mature. Make ABSOLUTELY sure that the cage you house them in is completely escape proof- you wouldn't believe how small a gap a baby spiny leaf insect can escape through. I keep my spiny leaf insect babies (known as nymphs) in a whole separate container which is more escape-proof than a fly screen cage.
After the nymphs' first molt they will turn brown and begin looking like miniature adults. This will take about 2-3 weeks. once they have had their first molt, they will be much larger, and they will no longer "run". At this stage you can introduce them to the main cage.
Step 5: Handling spiny leaf insects
Stick insects cannot bite, sting, or otherwise harm you, but female spiny leaf insects have spines on their undersides and legs that they may brush against you if they are handled roughly. All stick insects are delicate creatures, and should be handled carefully in order to prevent them from getting hurt.
To pick one up, place your hand above the stick insect (they have an instinct to climb) and gently nudge it from behind and below. This technique may not work with adult females, as they tend to hang upside down in one place and lay eggs. As a general rule, adult females should be handled with extreme care if you handle them at all.
Spiny leaf insects can also be picked up by very gently holding them between your thumb and forefinger on the thorax. This is helpful when removing fungal infection, as we will discuss later.
Step 6: Stick insect health
A veterinarian cannot do anything for a sick insect, but there are effective ways of reducing the risk of sickness:
1: Keep the cage well aerated (this wont be a problem if you have a fly screen cage). This will help keep the air in the cage clean.
2: Keep the insects and the leaves away from any kind of chemical. Chemicals can poison the insect, which usually results in death.
3: Only spray the leaves lightly- don't soak them as the insects do not need very much water.
This will help prevent fungal growth on the leaves, which can spread to the exoskeleton of the insect. If you see fungal growth on the leaves, check the body of the stick insect for fungus as well. If you see any (it will usually grow on the underside of the thorax) gently wipe it off with a damp paper towel. This will prevent the fungus from spreading to the internal organs of the insect which can cause death.
Step 7: Keeping other types of stick insects
Nearly all other stick insects can be kept in much the same way as spiny leaf insects- although in most cases the type of foliage needed will differ. Other popular stick insect species include goliath stick insects and indian stick insects. Note that Spiny leaf insects are also known as giant spiny/prickly stick insects and Macleay's spectre.