What's in a name: Phasmida


Stick insects are easier to find at night when they are most active. This one was fairly easy to spot against the brown leaves of Kahikatea in New Zealand

Have you heard of the Gary Larson owl-louse?  How about George Bush's slime-mold beetles? It's not common for the non-biology world to take notice of Linnaean nomenclature, but with more than 1.3 million named species on earth, there are more than just a couple of interesting scientific names out there.  Many insect monikers communicate information about the biology of a species, for example: their location, diet, or affect on humans.  Names can hold clues to physical appearance, or in the case of stick insects - their disappearance.

You can't see me!

Stick insects (or walking sticks) belong to the insect order Phasmida.  The Greek word phasma means 'apparition' or 'phantom' and it is an exceedingly appropriate descriptor for this group.  Many cannot fly, they're not especially fast, and they only bite plants.  To survive they play the ultimate game of hide-and-seek, and these large insects take camouflage pretty seriously:

I'm a stick!  A New Zealand phasmid on Mahoe

Nothing to see here, just some lichen.  Walking stick, Monteverde, Costa Rica

A pair of phasmids do synchronized stick impressions while mating, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Did you find it?  Just kidding, this is actually just a photo of some sticks, no phasmids here.

The naming system can also indicate which groups are related to each other.  Phasmida are one of the 'orthopteroid orders' and are closely related to grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids.  Other common orthopteroid groups include termites, earwigs, roaches, and mantids.  Many of those have pretty good camouflage, but the stick insects really can blend in with the best of them!

These are the orthopteroids you're looking for.  Like other orthopteroid insects, phasmids are 'heterometabolous,' their young look like miniature versions of the adults.  Here, a juvenile walking stick on Rangitoto Island, New Zealand.


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