Is My Stick Insect Playing Dead or Died?

Stick insects are exotic creatures with equally exotic and, sometimes, puzzling behavior. Not all stick insects have wings, and some that do can’t use them to fly since they’re too small for their bodies. They also lack venomous glands, they’re not poisonous and have no way of defending themselves.

These lacking departments have forced the insect to develop new evolutionary features to protect itself from predators. Its main defensive mechanism is camouflage, a system which includes appearance and behavior.

Stick insects both look and behave like sticks, which means they spend most of their time immobile. Like a stick.

This can confuse people who may have difficulties differentiating between dead insects, alive but immobile ones, or ones that only play dead. Today’s article aims to tackle this topic more in-depth to clear up some of this confusion.

Do Stick Insects Play Dead?

Yes, they do. Stick insects rely on their camouflage to avoid predators, but that may not always work. If whatever’s hunting the insect comes too close, it will enter thanatosis. This term describes the behavior of playing dead which is common against a variety of insects, reptiles, and even mammals.

The insect may fold its legs and paralyze, falling off of its branch. The pursuer will have difficulties locating the insect in the foliage below or simply avoid it since it prefers live prey. Whatever the case, the insect’s play dead behavior may increase its survival chances.

Unfortunately, stick insects can’t really differentiate between legitimate and false threats. This means that you may see your insect entering the thanatosis state in its terrarium sometimes out of the blue. Any loud sound, unexpected movement, or scaring it in any way may trigger the behavior.

It’s also worthy of remembering that stick insects may play dead for hours, sometimes alarming their owners.

How Do You Know if Stick Insect Died?

It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between a living insect, one that’s playing dead, and one that’s actually dead. General signs include:

  • Legs are Loose – The stick insect will either display folded or loose legs. It will also display a complete lack of reaction to touching.
  • Lost Color – Stick insects lose their camouflage coloring when they die. You may see your insect showcasing faded coloring, usually grey going white.
  • Not Moving – This isn’t a sign of death in and of itself. Stick insects typically don’t move much, a behavior which is exacerbated when the insect feints dead. But if your insect doesn’t move for hours, that’s a pretty good indicator that it may be deceased.

The problem is that, aside from the color changes, the insect will also display these behaviors when feinting death.

If you want to be positive, stimulate the insect’s mouth palps. These are small appendices located near the mouth, and they are very sensitive. The insect will reach to the touch if it’s still alive. The same goes for its antennae.

Use a small needle or a twig to touch its palps and antennae. If you don’t get any reaction from the insect even after repeated attempts to stimulate it, it’s most likely dead.

How Long Do Stick Insects Live?

Adult female stick insects typically live up to 18 months, while males won’t even get to half that, only reaching 6 to 8 months. Several factors will influence your stick insect’s lifespan, including:

  • Environmental conditions – The stick insect requires stable tropical temperatures and high humidity to help with the molting process. If not, the insect may die due to complications when attempting to shed its old skin.
  • Diet – As herbivorous animals, stick insects consume a variety of leaves. Feeding them their preferred food that they typically eat in the wild is essential to ensure their long-term health.
  • The species the insect belongs to – Not all stick insect species have the same lifespan. Some live longer than others.
  • Size – It’s a fact that larger insects live longer than smaller ones. Get a larger species if you want your stick insect around for as long as possible.

You should consider your stick insect’s natural lifespan to know what to expect. You can also identify the signs warning of warning of its impending death, which typically involve refusal to eat and awkward and sluggish movement. The latter may be trickier to spot, since stick insects typically walk in an unusual way. They tend to swing their bodies from side to side with each step, mimicking a twig moved by wind.

Its ‘death walk’ is different in the sense that the insect will struggle to move, showing difficulties traversing even the smallest areas.

Why Did My Stick Insect Die?

Stick insects can die for a variety of reasons since they are rather sensitive and fragile insects. Some of the reasons worth mentioning include:

– Poisoning

Stick insects are very vulnerable to chemicals like pesticides and insecticides. Even the smallest amounts could throw off their system and cause severe health problems along the way. The most common way that stick insects get poisoned is through their food.

Many people will gather their leaves from unverified areas which have been previously treated with pesticides and other chemicals.

These are not visible on the leaves’ surface and sometimes permeate the leaf. The same happens with plants growing on the side of busy roads, which will absorb fuel fumes, making their leaves unfit for stick insects.

It’s worth noting that stick insects are apt at detecting leaves unfit for consumption, but that’s not always the case. To minimize the risk of poisoning, always get the leaves from safe areas and always clean them with water before feeding them to your insects.

– Dehydration

Stick insects get much of their water from their food, but they still need extra water to remain healthy. Many stick insect owners will provide their insects with water bowls that will remain virtually untouched. Stick insects drink their water off of the leaves they’re eating.

Be sure to spray their habitat with plenty of water during the day. This will provide them with drinking water and increase the humidity levels in the enclosure, making your stick insects more comfortable overall.

– Disease

Fortunately, there are no known diseases specific to stick insects. They also appear to be impervious to a lot of the diseases that plague other insects, so that’s the good news. The bad news is that other things can kill them, including various chemicals, like I’ve already mentioned.

Aside from that, fungal infections are also common health issues, often related to unclean habitats. Stick insects don’t require too much maintenance, but a bare minimum is necessary. Clean their poop once per week or every 2 weeks, remove dead leaves, and make sure you prevent mold accumulation.

The latter is common due to the higher temperatures and humidity levels in their enclosure, and it’s the main trigger for fungal infections.

Fungal infections appear as black patches on the affected area and can become deadly in some cases. If the stick insects develop a fungal infection on one of its limbs, quarantine it, clean its environment, and wait it out. It will most likely lose the limb, which will grow back following subsequent molting phases.

The only reliable treatment consists of cleaning the insect’s enclosure, providing fresh food, then waiting and hoping. If you have more than one stick insect in the enclosure, quarantine the sick immediately since fungal infections spread to other insects fast.

– Mate Aggression

Stick insects are solitary creatures that don’t really like to live in groups. They have no meaningful social behavior, but aren’t really opposed to share some space with other stick insects. This allows you to keep several stick insects in the same enclosure.

Problems will, however, begin to arise if the enclosure is too tight, providing insects with insufficient space. When that happens, they can get fidgety and aggressive and can fight and kill each other. Even if the fighting doesn’t result in immediate death, they can still injure themselves, resulting in infections down the line.

Some even claim that stick insects eat each other, but that’s sporadic behavior since stick insects are exclusively herbivorous.

To prevent this issue, provide your stick insects with sufficient living space. Fortunately, they don’t require too much since they aren’t exactly the most active creatures in the world. As a general rule, one stick insect requires a living environment 3 times higher and 2 times wider than its body length. If you have 2 or more stick insects, the enclosure’s measurements should grow accordingly.

– Old Age

Stick insects will still eventually die of old age even under optimal living conditions. You can tell that your stick insect’s time has come by assessing:

  • The species’ profile – Stick insects have varying lifespans depending on their size and the species they belong to. Check the species’ spreadsheet to find out its average lifespan, and you can calculate its approximate time of death.
  • Counting the molting phases – Stick insects will molt around 6 to 9 times throughout their lives. So, after the 6th molt, the insect’s counter may stop at any time. If the insect is larger, it will most likely go beyond 6 molts.
  • Behavioral changes – The stick insect will display specific behavioral changes when their time is up. They might stop eating and showcase difficulty moving around their environment. They will also be less responsive to touch and outside stimulus, at which point you know something is up.

How to Dispose of a Dead Stick Insect?

The answer is entirely up to you and how you view your stick insect. Some people treat them as generic pets, while others consider them part of the family. A lot of insect owners will bury them, which is a good way of preventing other family pets from finding and eating them.

The good news is that there’s not a lot of digging involved.

Conclusion

Stick insects are adaptable creatures capable of displaying fascinating behavior. So long as you provide them with a clean enclosure, proper and healthy food, and adequate temperature and humidity, your stick insects will thrive.

Just make sure you check their habitat for signs of mold. This is the primary reason for insect death via fungal infection, aside from low humidity leading to molting difficulties.

Stick Insects   Updated: January 20, 2022
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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