Recently I had an unplanned shift at the fee booth, to fill in for an absent coworker. This meant I didn’t get to spend as much time walking around and interacting with visitors as I had expected. But I’m not complaining, because I did end up having a really cool encounter with an insect I rarely get to see.
Our park police officer for the day was standing next to his car, watching traffic for any signs of trouble, when he called out to us that a praying mantis had just fallen onto his car. He thought maybe it had been fighting with another bug in the branches overhead, because it only had three legs. In fact, he thought it was dead, because it didn’t budge for about 15 minutes after falling. I asked him to bring it over so I could see it. He tried to scoop it up, at which point he called back to us that it wasn’t exactly dead!
He managed to get it onto his hand, but then we had about 10 minutes of constant traffic that prevented him from bringing it over. Regardless, he hung out with the bug- patiently letting it sit on his arm that whole time, including when a young visitor asked him questions about it.
When he finally brought the bug over to us, it turned out to be a walking stick, rather than a praying mantis. I could see why he had the theory that it had been fighting: it had only three legs left of the usual 6. But it was still lively, and I let it climb around on me as I finished my shift. My coworkers laughed at it sitting on the back of my hat, and also marveled at how calm I was about having a large insect roaming on my body. I shrugged, “I know it’s not going to hurt me.” Walking sticks are herbivores, so I figured it had no interest in my flesh except as a climbing wall.
I later found out that walking sticks can pop off a leg or two when they’re attacked- sort of like some lizards that can detatch their tail in order to escape, while the predator is distracted by the still-wiggling tail. I wonder if the walking stick’s legs also keep twitching for a bit after detaching?
At any rate, missing a few legs barely slowed this walking stick, as it rambled all over me. Imagine having so many legs you can literally lose half of them and you’re still able to get around fine! This whole bipedal nonsense we humans use doesn’t seem very efficient in comparison. The walking stick even paused long enough beneath the brim of my hat for me to get a couple funny selfies with it. Thanks, little bug!
When I finished my shift, I scooped the insect off my neck and placed it on the outside of one of our windowsills where the officer could still see it. After that it ambled off, and last I knew it was hanging upside down from the sill, doing its usual best to imitate an unobtrusive twig. One of the ways walking sticks camouflage is by swaying back and forth as they walk, to imitate a stick blowing in the breeze.
I also found out that when the legs grow back, they’re likely going to be a little smaller than its other legs. There are a lot of energy costs involved with to growing a whole new leg! Spending energy on a new leg can affect the insect’s reproductive ability too. But as they evolved, this trait didn’t get selected out, so it must be worth the cost to be able to do it. I think I would probably make that choice too—lose a limb versus lose my life to a voracious predator.
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