Ghosts in the Trees

Last night, I was reminded of how unusual some of the insects we raise here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center are to most people. I had set up a table in the grand hallway of the museum to promote our outreach program, cleverly titled “Bugs on Wheels.” As soon as I left the Butterfly Center’s doors, I had drawn a crowd that didn’t seem to subside for the entire evening!

I think what grabs most people’s attention are our exotic walking sticks, which we have been displaying for several years. As soon as people see our giant prickly stick, they commence with “what on earth is that?” type of comments, and I love to educate them!

Walking sticks belong to the insect order Phasmatodea or Phasmida. This name comes from the Latin word phasma, which means ghost. It refers to their amazing camouflage skills, which in the right setting, can make them vanish right before your eyes! These insects are all herbivorous and harmless, having no venom or large mandibles for biting. This makes them an easy target for insectivores! So they have come up with some pretty fantastic ways to protect themselves from predators. These insects have simple metamorphosis, so the immature nymphs, look like tiny versions of the adult. Here at the butterfly center, we raise 5 different species of exotic walking sticks. I’d like to share a little about each one with y’all!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
an immature female

The Giant Prickly Stick, or Extatasoma tiaratum, is one that really draws the crowds! The females are very large, 6 to 8 inches in length, and very fat! They range in color from light peach to dark red-orange. They are often – almost all the time, actually – mistaken for a scorpion. This is no accident, this species is native to Australia, the venom-capital of the world! They spend their entire lifetime hanging in eucalyptus trees feeding on the yummy foliage and easily folding themselves to resemble a dried up leaf.

If they are spotted by a potential predator, they will curl their abdomen to look remarkably like a scorpion. This warns predators that if they don’t want a nasty sting, they should stay far away. What a clever defense! Since they are, of course, completely harmless. They have a very soft exoskeleton which keeps them confined to the safety of the tree tops. If they need to do anything like lay an egg, they drop it to the leaf-covered ground. The females have small vestigial wings, but are incapable of flight. They can lay up to 1,000 eggs in their lifetime and can live a little over a year. The males are quite a bit smaller, very thin, and excellent fliers. They are equipped with much longer antennae than the female, which they use to sniff out a mate.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Spiny Devil

The Spiny Devil (Eurycantha calcarata), is a close neighbor of the prickly stick; they are native to New Guinea. These adorable stick insects have very different habits. They are equipped with a very hard exoskeleton that is covered in hard spines, especially the legs! Since they are a harder egg to crack, they are not as attractive to eager insect-eaters, plus, they put up quite a fight! They can use their legs as a weapon by squeezing with all of their strength. I can speak from experience and say, it hurts!

When threatened, they can put on quite a show, raising their abdomen and back legs. We like to call it “the handstand of pain!” Since the female has the freedom of reaching the ground, she uses the pointy tip of her abdomen (her ovipositor) to lay her eggs deep in the soil. The male and female look quite similar, both are wingless and they are nearly equal in size. Both sexes can live for about a year and a half as adults – not bad! The male does have one distinguishing characteristic, a single very large spine on his hind femur.

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emills1 Ouch!

They are very territorial and use this spine for fighting. They can seriously injure or even kill another male during combat. Still want to mess with these guys? Well, the males can also emit a very foul chemical that smells just like a skunk. However, they are usually pretty laid back.

The Phyllium celebicum or moving leaf insect is a breath of fresh air. These leaf mimics are petite, dainty, have no spines or smells, and are 100 percent cute! They inhabit the rain forests of Malaysia.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Since they have no other defense mechanisms, their camouflage has to be absolutely perfect, and well, see for yourself! They also spend their entire lives in the canopy, dropping their eggs to the ground haphazardly. The female, pictured right, has larger wings than the Giant Prickly Stick, but their only function is camouflage. The male is half the size of the female and he’s an amazing flyer! These live a little under a year and we love to have them around.

I actually noticed something very interesting from observing them. The outer 1/2 inch of the female’s body is only a layer of skin, and all of the organs are arranged down the very middle of the abdomen. This is important because I started seeing a couple of them missing chunks of their abdomen, but they didn’t appear to be injured. I’m sure they get nibbled on by several herbivores in the wild – it’s a pretty cool adaptation.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Sharing the same rain forest is the Giant Jungle Nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). They are spectacular, very large and beautiful. The females are bright green and usually 7 inches in length with a wide abdomen. They have small wings which they rub against their bodies to produce a hissing noise. Their thorax, abdomen, and legs have rows of sharp spines. When disturbed they thrash around violently and they also do “the handstand of pain.”

They spend most of their time in the trees and only travel to the ground to lay their eggs. The male is brown and only about 4 inches long. They have bright crimson hind wings and are very showy. They are always very nervous and thrash around a lot! This species is harder than the others to raise. They need high humidity and they take a long time to develop.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
a male

The eggs take around 17 months to hatch and the nymphs take over a year to develop into adults. This species can be very aggressive, but we always end up with a few that can be handled, they are very curious and active. 

The last resident of southeast Asia is the Annam stick insect (Baculum extradentatum). These look very similar to our native walking sticks. They are very slender and really resemble a twig. These are interesting little creatures. When disturbed, they will essentially go limp and flop to the ground. It’s really the only option for them since they are so defenseless.

The most interesting thing about this species is that they can be completely parthenogenic. This means that the females can reproduce without males. We do have males in our populations and it is a full time job making sure we don’t have too many individuals. They are egg-laying machines. Their life span is about a year and males and females look very similar, but the males are much smaller.

These walking sticks are some of the most amazing insects I’ve worked with. I’m so impressed with their diversity and beauty. Next time you see them in the Entomology Hall or in the Grand Hall, come by and see them, you’ll certainly be amazed!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
male
Baculum





Mantis Madness

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
So tiny I almost couldn’t focus

One of my favorite parts of this job is raising baby insects. It may not be like raising a baby, or even a cat or dog, (sometimes you have to feed them living things) but it is still very fun and rewarding. Plus, baby insects are really cute as you’ve seen from my previous posts. This week, the stork brought us about 100 Giant Asian Mantis nymphs. They are so cute.

Giant Asian Mantids (Hierodula membranacea) are a species of very large, impressive mantids from Southeast Asia. They are typical-looking and resemble some of our native mantis species, but are much larger. They come in a wide range of beautiful colors, such as bright green, yellow, orange, grey, pale peach, or brown.

They are quite voracious and will go after a wide variety of prey.  The adults are of one of the few species that will even eat a pinky mouse (shudder). Mantids are known as ambush predators. This is why they have camouflage coloration, which helps them hide from their predators and prey. They are not equipped for running after prey, so they have to be able to lunge and grab things very quickly. Their characteristic “praying” front legs are equipped with lines of teeth or spines to grab and hold on to squirming animals and they are very strong. Mantids also have excellent vision.  Predators in the insect world need to have accute vision to be able to see potential prey moving and flying around them.

Violet is the proud mother of these babies. She is a gorgeous specimen, bright peach colored with light violet eyes (hence the name). She is the first mantis we’ve been able to take out for Bugs on Wheels. While others may freak out and jump, fly away, or bite your hand thinking it’s a really fat cricket, Violet just climbs up and looks around curiously. It’s like she trusts us, or, just knows that we take care of her and provide her with food. We will be so sad to see her go some day, but I feel great knowing I’m raising her babies and hopefully one of them will be as special as she is.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
Violet, posing for the camera

Raising baby mantids is really fun and easy, and it can be a great science experiment for home or the classroom. Mantis egg cases are available for purchase from a few web sites, like Insect Lore and Carolina Biological Supply, or some garden centers and nurseries. You can release most of the babies into your garden and keep the rest to raise yourself.

Once the babies hatch, they can be fed flightless fruit flies which are available from Fluker Farms.  They should be kept in a container with a mesh lid and plenty of small sticks and twigs. They need to have several places to hang from so they can molt. They should be fed fruit flies at least 3 times a week and sprayed with a fine mist of water a couple of times a week.

Once they get bigger, you can move on to feeding them small crickets, then bigger crickets and so on. If you have several, be sure to separate them as they get bigger, so they won’t eat each other. When they have made it to adulthood, you can release them into the wild, so they can start the cycle over again. 

Watching insects complete their life-cycle is really an amazing experience and it can teach you so much – maybe even mom and dad will learn something. I will leave you with this video of Violet’s green sister catching her meal. Happy bug watching.
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Learn more:
Katydid!…did she?
Big Beetle Bonanza
Vinegaroon gives birth to…grasshoppers?

Insect (relative) Insight: Centipedes and Millipedes

This month, I’d like to shed some light on two of our favorite insect relatives – both of which are often misidentified, misunderstood, and all together mixed up. The time has come to clear up some misconceptions about these very long, many-legged creatures. Laurie and I are often suprised at how many people don’t know the difference between a centipede and a millipede, and we feel it is very important.

Centipedes and Millipedes are Arthropods which which belong to a group called myriapods, meaning “many legs.” They can be found in all different types of environments on nearly every continent on the globe. Both have bodies consisting of a head, which bears chewing mouthparts, and a long trunk made up of several segments. That is where the similarities end.

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Sonoran Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

The word Centipede litterally means “one hundred feet”. In reality, they can have anywhere between 30 and 346 legs with one pair of legs per body segment.

A Centipede’s legs originate from the side of their flattened body, which helps them move quite swiftly. They are nocturnal predators that spend their days hiding under rocks or logs. During the night they emerge to hunt for their prey, which consists of mostly small insects and other bugs, however, some larger centipedes may be able to take down frogs, lizards, or even mice!

Centipedes have a pair of poison fangs directly beneath the head which they use to inject venom and paralyze their prey. They rarely bite humans, but will do so to protect themselves if handled. Most centipedes are of little concern because they are very small with mild venom.

In Texas, however, we do have the giant sonoran centipede, Scolopendra herosThis centipede can reach 6 inches in length and has sizeable jaws that pack quite a punch. The venom can cause  enough pain and swelling to land you in the hospital and can be very dangerous to small children or individuals that are sensitive to insect toxins. The best idea is never to handle a centipede of any size. Here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we have 3 giant centipedes: Sonny, Steve, and Sam, who are all on display. They’re fun to watch and take care of and I’ve been working with them for a very long time so I know how to handle them and have never been bitten (knock on wood.)

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Giant African Millipede

Millipedes on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. These gentle creatures have a rounded body much like a worm. The word “millipede” means “one thousand legs.” They don’t really have that many, but for each segment on a millipede’s body, there are two pairs of legs. These guys can have anywhere from 80 to 400 legs! Millipedes are harmless detritivores which move very slowly. They live in the soil and feed on decaying organic matter and sometimes the roots and stems of small seedlings.

Their main defense is to roll themselves into a tight ball covering their more vulnerable parts. Some species can also emit a foul-smelling defensive liquid which is not usually harmful to humans.

Our native millipedes are very small, but some, such as the Giant African Millipede, can reach 12 inches in length and live up to 7 years. We have about 7 Giant African Millipedes, 4 of our largest are on diplay. Millie, goes to schools with us for our Bugs on Wheels program. The children have called her everything from a snake, to a worm, to a snail, to a caterpillar, and of course, a centipede.

Well, I hope you’ll find this helpful next time you see one our funny long-bodied friends, and come and see our giants on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology.

Katydid!…Did she?

Olive – a Giant Long-Legged Katydid from Malaysia – was with us for only a few days, however, she left us with a precious gift; her eggs! Now, will those eggs hatch? We’re keeping our fingers crossed over here that we’ll soon be seeing some cute little katydid babies! This insect has quickly become my favorite among our exotic insects here at the Butterfly Center since it’s arrival just a couple of years ago. 

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Bob and Me

Our first was Bob – he arrived in January of 2006. We had never ordered anything like him before, so I was excited to see what he would look like. Well, it was a probably the biggest bug I had ever seen! At first I was hesitant to try to touch him, but I held my hand out and he just climbed right up there, waving his extremely long antennae all around! I was shocked that an insect of his size (roughly 6 inches in length) would have such a friendly demeanor.

I started to handle him more and more, and eventually we included him in our Bugs on Wheels program. The kids absolutely flipped out when they saw him and were so excited to touch him! I was lucky enough to find him a mate, Momma, who produced 103 eggs! Raising these impressive insects was a very interesting experience.  Out of 103 eggs, 99 hatched, which was amazing! The nymphs (immature individuals) were very fragile and faced many challenges with molting (shedding of the exoskeleton). Out of 99 babies, 13 katydids made it to adulthood. Considering the factors affecting their growth, I felt pretty awesome about that. They were featured in the Frogs: A Chorus of Colors exhibit and 3 of them are still with me! They are officially retired old fogeys, but still alive. They are going on 2 years, which is remarkable for an insect!

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Katydid Eggs

Since all we had was a few retirees sitting around, we needed some young ones for Bugs On Wheels and display in the Insect Zoo. That’s when we got Olive. She arrived along with 3 males: Milo, Otis, and Steve, but died 3 days after her arrival. So, it was a wonderful surprise when I discovered 33 eggs a couple of weeks ago! I am taking care of them and hoping that they will hatch soon, keep your fingers crossed. We want to always have this amazing animal around to share with people!

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Katydid!

Now if, you’re wondering…What is a katydid? Katydids, also known as long-horned grasshopper or bush crickets,  belong to the order Orthoptera which also includes grasshoppers and crickets. These insects are all characterized by long muscular hind legs, 2 pairs of wings, and the ability to produce noise. 

Katydids look much like a grasshopper, but are more closely related to crickets because of the way they make all that noise. Katydids and crickets rub one wing against the other while grasshoppers rub one leg against one wing. All katydid are mimics, most have leathery green forewings to help them resemble green leaves, but some mimic dangerous arthropods such as spiders or ants.

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Notice the long antennae

Katydids are sometime called Long-horned grasshoppers because of their long antennae, which can be twice the length of their body. These long antennae help the katydid at night by acting as touch receptors, allowing them to feel, as well as smell, the environment around them.

They are nocturnal animals, remaining motionless during the day to avoid their predators. They’re very often attracted to lights at night, so you may have seen one on your front porch.

These insects have what is called simple metamorphosis which is different from that of a butterfly. The baby insect hatches and looks just like the adult, only tiny. This baby is called a nymph, instead of a larva. After several molts, the insect reaches it’s full size and if wings are present, they will be fully developed. The female lays eggs, one at a time, in several different substrates, including soil, plants stems, or tree bark. They are usually cleverly disguised as seeds to throw off potential predators. 

Katydid on a rose

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 A common Texas Katydid

There are over 6,000 described species of katydid that live all over the world, with half of them live in the Amazon rainforest. Katydids are very common in Texas and are usually a couple of inches long. Our Malaysian Katydids are arguably the largest Orthopteran species in the world!

It is such an amazing insect, you should come and see Otis sometime on display in the Entomology Hall. Milo is the one we have now for Bugs on Wheels. He, like the others, is so wonderfully calm as hundreds of children pet him several times a week. This is truly a spectacular creature!

So, if you find some time, say a little prayer for Olive’s eggs!