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Fantastic phasmids: The mysterious lives of stick insects

By Richard Pallardy staff writer

Hidden in plain sight are a group of insects that, for all of their cryptic inclinations, like to dance. Many of the 3,000 species of the order Phasmatodea—commonly known as stick and leaf insects—add to their already spectacular camouflage by swaying to mimic the movement of vegetation in the breeze. 

There have been reports of multiple insects swaying together in a silent disco of sorts, like rejected backup booty from the dance scene in Labyrinth. Far from a leisure activity, this entomological choreography likely assists them in blending in with their leafy homes and avoiding predation, a theory corroborated by a 2016 study.

It’s been a successful strategy: these enigmatic creatures have adapted to forests and grasslands on all continents but Antarctica, though they are most abundant in the tropics. From the massive two-foot long Phryganistria chinensis Zhao, the longest insect in the world, to the tiny, half-inch long Timema cristinae, they are a remarkably diverse group. 

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