Is it a leaf or an insect? You could say it’s both, as it’s a leaf insect! With the perfect camouflage for its native environment, this insect is very difficult for predators to spot, especially when it’s enjoying its favorite leaves as food. No wonder it’s a thriving species!
There are many leaf insects found around the world, and here in the Philippines, we have a leaf insect that was discovered by a Filipino. This species of leaf insect found in the Philippines is the Phyllium ericoriai, named after Filipino discoverer Eric Oria. It was initially found in cultivated guava and mango trees.
There are many more leaf insects in the Philippines waiting to be discovered, and Eric has found a few more species of leaf insects that are yet to be described. Animal Scene’s Nyza Ho discusses the first one in this article.
The leaf insect comes in different colors depending on their environment. They generally look like leaves at first glance, and both predators and humans can be fooled by their camouflage.
Their ability to change color is made possible by the chromatophore present in the bodies of leaf insects. This chromatophore is a pigment-bearing cell that changes color by expanding or contracting. The chromatophore is also found in other color changing animals and bacteria. Its presence proves that the leaf insect can see color for it to be able to mimic the color of its environment.
Phyllium ericoriai shed their skin to allow for growth. Males and females look different when they reach adulthood; the males have wings while the females do not.
The Difference Between the Sexes
Males and females differ in general appearance and size when mature. Males grow up to 55-60 millimeters (mm). They have slimmer bodies than females and they have wings which enable them to fly and search for mates.
Females are bigger, reaching 75-80 mm in length, with wider bodies than males. Females also have wings but are unable to fly because of their size.
The sex of juveniles can be differentiated after their third molt. The end of the female’s body is more rounded than that of a juvenile male leaf insect.
Phyllium ericoriai start out as eggs and hatch into nymphs; this is called their first larval stage or L1. They molt 5-6 times as juveniles then turn to adult leaf insects; at this point, they able to breed and produce their own progeny.
Males can fly and search for females to mate with, but females can reproduce on their own without a mate by creating clones of themselves. This is called “parthenogenesis” and the process results in all-female offspring in the absence of a male to continue the existence of the species.
On the other hand, eggs laid by a mated female will produce both male and female leaf insects; these offspring females will not be clones of the mother.
Eggs hatch within 4-8 months after being laid, depending on the environment. Adult leaf insects live for 6-9 months after their ultimate molt to adulthood. Males live slightly shorter lives than females.
Like the insects themselves, the eggs have camouflage, making them look like germinating seeds.
Keeping Leaf Insects
Leaf insects have been successfully kept in captivity by entomologists, insect keepers, and enthusiasts. Since they are native to the Philippines, they can survive in captivity, so long as they are given proper food and shelter. This species can be kept in a vivarium with a small live guava tree inside. The guava leaves will be the leaf insect’s food and shelter as it is also a place for it to hide when at rest.
The leaf insect may not seem like it but it is a voracious eater of leaves. They spend most of their time eating their favorite leaves while camouflaged in trees and plants.
Regular misting will also be needed, for leaf insects drink the droplets left on the leaves. They have huge appetites for their size and can consume plenty of leaves in a day.
Leaf insects can be kept together as long as there is enough food and moisture for everyone; otherwise, they will compete for food and water and may eat one another if there isn’t enough.
More leaf insects in a vivarium means that more cover will be necessary to avoid conflict among individuals. It is nice to observe them changing color to adapt to their surroundings when necessary.
They can also be handled safely as they don’t bite. You just have to take extra care when handling a leaf insect for they are a very delicate species. They are able to jump short distances and crawl quickly.
The leaf insect can also “dance.” This dancing movement is displayed when the leaf insect is threatened or when it knows that it has been found by a possible predator.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s July 2017 issue.