Congratulations to Sharon Weizenbaum, Beth Herr and David Ascher for correctly identifying the Mystery Photo as the tip of the abdomen of a Common Walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), also known as Devil’s Darning Needle, Devil’s/Witch’s Riding Horse, and Prairie Alligator due to its unusual shape. While the Common Walkingstick is a mere 3” long, the largest North American species can grow to 7” and one tropical species may reach 14”.
The Walkingstick lives up to its name – it is easily mistaken for a twig with its slender body and legs. By remaining motionless during the day (or gently swaying in the wind like a leaf or twig would), and feeding on the leaves of various deciduous trees at night it avoids many predators with its physical and behavioral adaptations. The practice of using both camouflage and mimicry is referred to as crypsis.
Both the male and female Walkingstick possess a pair of appendages at the tip of their abdomen known as cerci. The cerci on a female are short and straight, while those on the male are longer and curved. They are sensory organs, but in addition, the male uses his cerci to grasp the female when mating with her (see inset). According to entomologist Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer, the cerci are very effective, allowing the male Walkingstick to clasp the female for many hours (weeks for some species) in order to prevent another male from mating with the female.
This is the time of year you are most likely to notice Walkingsticks, as this is when they are maturing and reproducing. Females drop their eggs to the ground from the canopy and because a portion of the outside (capitulum) of each egg is edible (like the elaiosomes of many spring ephemerals), ants carry the eggs below-ground to their nests and eat the capitulum, leaving the intact eggs to hatch and develop.
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In an effort to look even more like a stick, this wingless common walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), the only species of walkingstick in the northeast, has stretched its front pair of legs out straight in front of it, to either side of its two long antennae. In addition to being very well camouflaged, some species of walking sticks will rock their bodies side to side, resembling a twig swaying in the breeze. Worldwide, walking sticks range in length from an inch to over a foot and are often green or brown. Those in New England are usually about three inches length. Walking sticks are herbivorous, consuming the leaves of trees (often oaks) and shrubs, but we rarely see them, due to their camouflage as well as their nocturnal habits.