Story: Stick insects

Phantoms of the forest, these strange insects are well camouflaged. They look like twigs or leaves, and during the day they stay still or sway like foliage in the wind. Although hard to see, some species are common in gardens throughout New Zealand.

Story by Steve Trewick
Main image: A variable stick insect

Story summary

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Stick insects belong to the insect order Phasmatodea. The names comes from the Greek word ‘phasm’, meaning phantom.

Stick insects in New Zealand

New Zealand has about 20 species of stick insect. The most widespread species are the variable stick insect (eight species, genus Acanthoxyla) and common stick insect (Clitarchus hookeri, which live in gardens.


Stick insects are hard to see because they look like twigs or leaves. They have evolved to blend in with their surroundings to avoid being caught and eaten by predators such as birds. During the day, they sit still or sway like leaves in the breeze. By night they feed on leaves.


When it is time to look for a mate, stick insects are thought to release chemicals called pheromones to attract a partner by smell. The male, usually smaller, rides on the female’s back for several days. The female of most New Zealand species drops the fertilised eggs to the ground, where tiny stick insects, known as nymphs, hatch among the leaf litter.

Māori tradition

In Māori tradition, all insects are respected as children of Tāne, god of the forests. It was said that if a stick insect landed on you in the bush, you were entering a sacred place. If a stick insect landed on a woman it was a sign she was pregnant.

How to cite this page:

Steve Trewick, 'Stick insects', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Steve Trewick, published 24 September 2007