The Giant Prickly Stick Insect is one of the most impressive stick insects of all. The females, in particular, have huge curled abdomens that make them look unlike any other species commonly kept.
Growing up to 15cm (6”) or so in length they’re therefore not only long, but also bulky and heavy insects to boot. The adult males typically reach a similar overall length, but are much slimmer and more fragile-looking. All told, this is truly one of the most exciting types of stick insect available to hobbyists right now.
As long as you’ve got suitable space then these really aren’t your “normal” stick insects that you may have seen for sale in traditional pet stores. Instead the Giant Prickly Stick Insect is something really rather special, and something that any serious exotic pet fanatic should consider keeping at one time or another.
It is worth mentioning here that the variety of common names used in the exotic pet community can be complex and muddling when it comes to this stick insect. For example, some people muddle up this species with the similarly named (but very different) Giant Spiny stick insect.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that this species – with the Latin name Extatosoma tiaratum – is also known as the Macleays Spectre. While that might sound like an odd name, it’s not so weird when you consider that the species was first described by a scientist called Macleay.
In this care sheet I’ll be using both “Giant Prickly Stick Insect” and “Macleays Spectre” interchangeably, but when it comes to buying stock you may want to learn the Latin name to be absolutely certain that you know what you’re buying. You have been warned!
Wild Habitat of Extatosoma tiaratum
The Giant Prickly Stick Insect comes from the tropical regions of Australia and New Guinea. It is particularly common, according to the IUCN, in New South Wales and Queensland. Here they are most commonly found in eucalyptus forests; a plant they feed on in the wild.
While the camouflage of the Macleays Spectre is surprisingly effective for such a large insect, it should come as no surprise that they can still be a very welcome meal for all sorts of predators.
In cases where Extatosoma tiaratum feels threatened, it has a curious and quite unique response: it curves its abdomen over it’s back to take on the appearance of a huge scorpion. It is likely that this sudden change of appearance is enough to scare off a lot of animals who might otherwise devour it. The same routine may be seen in captivity too if your pets are disturbed.
Macleays Spectre Caging
As with most exotic pets, selecting and setting up your Giant Prickly stick insect cage correctly is one of the most crucial steps of all.
Get it wrong, and your stick insect may struggle to moult properly, or may not receive the warmth and humidity that they need to thrive. Get the caging requirements right, however, and this can be a very sturdy species indeed that requires minimal ongoing maintenance.
That’s all well and good, but what sort of cage should you choose for your stick insects?
A number of different options are popular with hobbyists, so let’s talk about some of the best options now…
Specialist Glass Cages
When I first started to keep stick insects and other invertebrates back in the 1990’s there was very little available in the form of specialist equipment. Instead, we had to try and make do with whatever could be found. These days, however, things are very different and you’re in a wonderful position.
One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the appearance of practical, good-looking and reasonably-priced glass cages specially for the exotic pet fanatic. While there are a number of brands on the market, I have personally focused my attentions on so-called “Exo Terra” and ReptiZoo cages.
- Features with full view glass, this small Patend Design 8 gallon glass terrarium is convenient for feeding and having fun with your reptile or small animal pets.
- Compact and flat-packed design mini reptile tank with top opening to prevent escape and easy feeding. With a transparent PVC tray in the bottom for holding water and substrate
- The full screen top ventilation with thinner mesh wire allows more UVA UVB and infrared heat penetration.
These are in essence constructed from strengthened glass, and have doors that open on hinges at the front. The metal grill in the lid helps to support suitable ventilation and they look fantastic. I now have a whole shelving unit setup with multiple Exo Terras containing stick insects and other arthropods.
While I will admit that these aren’t the cheapest cages available, I really feel that nothing else on the market rivals them.
An alternative option when it comes to housing Extatosoma tiaratum is to modify and existing aquarium, as are sold for fish. These can be bought new, or may be sourced quite cheaply second hand.
Once thoroughly cleaned, they can be tipped on their end to create a “tall” cage. The open side can then be enclosed by adding another piece of glass or perspex, or using mesh. Whatever the case, you’ll probably want to be reasonably good at DIY if you’re to create a finished cage that looks good yet reliably prevents your stick insects from escaping.
Mesh cages can be handy for the Macleays Spectre because they are easy for your insects to climb up.
- All hardware included
- easy to assemble using only a screw driver
- Easy access
At the same time, however, there are a few downsides that you should consider. Firstly, netting cages like this can be quite difficult to heat in the winter months; after all, the warm air simply rises up out of the cage. Additionally, the mesh isn’t as easy to see through as glass or plastic, so may not make quite such an attractive display.
While some breeders are huge fans of these mesh cages, I admit that I tend to only use them in the warmer months of the year, when heating is not really a concern.
Lastly an increasing number of hobbyists are starting to build their own cages. If you have a little creativity and some DIY skills then this can be a good option.
I have personally built a number of cages from perspex over the years, and while I lack the time at present to build any more, I do think they offer some benefits. For example, you can construct a cage that perfectly fits the space available in your home, and you can add a range of handy features.
If you ask the right supplier, many will even cut your plastic to the dimensions that you specify, meaning that you just have to glue everything together with aquarium-grade silicone sealant.
Heating & Temperatures
Despite coming from the warmer parts of the world, it seems that Extatosoma tiaratum seems to prefer a slightly cooler temperature than similar stick insects. All the same, we’re talking ideal temperatures of around 22-24’C, which means that most of us will have to provide some form of artificial heating.
Assuming you opt for a glass tank or plastic tank - which are easier to heat than mesh cages - then a heat mat as designed for pet reptiles tends to be the best option. These can be attached to one wall of your stick insect cage, providing a gradient of temperatures within the cage.
- UPGRADED DESIGN: Temperature can be adjusted manually. POWERFUL FUNCTION: Helps reptile for daily activity, appetite and metabolism. It can keep reptile tank warm without any harm to your pets and also won't disturb animals sleep pattern.
- Durable material: made of high quality PVC material, its soft surface can be flexible and folded. The heat mat is easy to clean, convenient to use and low energy.
- ENERGY-SAVING: This heater uses a solid state nichrome heating element Which only use 8 watts of electricity and costs only pennies a day to operate. HIGH EFFICIENCY: High-quality heating wire heating, stable performance and long service life.
Water & Humidity
The Giant Prickly stick insect hails from some of the warmer and more humid parts of the world. As a result, offering suitable moisture is important if you are to succeed with this species. This is particularly important for hatchlings, which can be prone to dehydration.
A good plan is to regularly spray the cage with a houseplant spray gun, at which point the humidity level in the cage will begin to rise. While Extatosoma tiaratum is unlikely to drink from a water bowl, you may well see your stick insects gently drinking from water droplets on their food plants or on the walls of their cage.
While this humidity is important, one shouldn’t go too far and create a constantly wet, stagnant environment. Under such conditions mould and mildew can grow, causing problems for your pets. Instead, firstly ensure that suitable ventilation is offered, and secondly allow the cage to dry out somewhat between sprayings.
Feeding Extatosoma tiaratum
The Giant Prickly stick insect tends to be found in eucalyptus trees in the wild; it’s natural food source. That said, very few of us have eucalyptus trees growing in our backyard. Fortunately, hobbyists have tried all manner of different food plants over the years, and have successfully fed their Extatosoma tiaratum on a wide range of alternatives.
Just a few of the acceptable options include bramble (blackberry), oak, rose and guava. For a long list of food plants suitable for stick insects please click here.
Note that it generally isn’t possible to place live plants in your stick insect vivarium, and even if it was they probably wouldn’t survive long. Unsurprisingly, big stick insects tend to have quite large appetites, and it can be astonishing just how much plant material your Macleays Spectre stick insects will plow through. This is doubly worrying if you opt to keep quite a few specimens.
The only real option is to take cuttings from garden plants or from nature, and to regularly replenish them. When choosing food plants, be sure to only choose those that haven’t come into contact with potentially harmful chemicals. This means no car fumes, no pesticides and no herbicides.
Generally this means you’ll either want to take plants directly from your own (organic) garden or delve deep into the countryside. Parks and other municipal areas are likely to be using chemicals to keep pests at bay.
The stems of your live plants can be carefully placed into a jar of water, which in my experience will keep the leaves fresh for around a week.
Breeding Macleays Spectre Stick Insects
In contrast to some exotic pets, the Giant Prickly stick insect is actually surprisingly easy to breed. No specialist equipment or care are required; you might not even need a male!
Studies have shown that while both males and females of this species exist, in the wild it is quite unusual to find the adult males. So does this mean that there are hundreds of Macleays Spectre stick insects failing to have their reproductive needs met?
At one time, perhaps so, but these days the females have developed the ability to produce fertile eggs without the presence of males. This process is known as “parthenogenesis” and may be found in a number of other stick insects - such as the ever-popular Indian stick insect.
Truth be told, while female Giant Prickly stick insects can lay fertile eggs without needing a male, hobbyists have found that the outcome of such breedings can differ significantly from those in which a male fertilised eggs. It seems that eggs laid as a result of parthenogenesis take much longer to develop, and therefore hatch much later than others.
Bearing in mind that eggs can take 4-9 months or even longer to hatch, unless you have the patience of a saint you’d be well advised to consider keeping your stick insects in mixed-sex cages if you’re serious about breeding.
It is fascinating to note that Extatosoma tiaratum don’t just drop their eggs to the floor like many other stick insect species. Instead, the females fling them away. The eggs have been recorded as travelling at 2.7 metres per second, and experts have found that they are often catapulted between 80cm and 2 metres away from where the female is resting. What an insect!
The eggs, once laid, can be left in the cage if you choose. I personally like to remove the eggs so that they can be cared for by me over the long term. I have found that following a similar system to leaf insect eggs tends to work well.
I gather a clear plastic container and line the bottom with kitchen towel. This is then gently soaked in water till it will hold no more. Small holes are cut or melted into the sides to allow moisture to escape. On top of the kitchen paper I place a second, smaller tub, this time with no lid. Into this the eggs are gently laid.
This container then goes into my “incubator” - a snake vivarium that is heated to some 20-24’C. A couple of times a week I simply remove each tub, check that the eggs have not been attacked by mould or fungus, and re-moisten the kitchen towel.
In this way, the water gently evaporates in the warm environment, helping to keep the eggs humid. At the same time, the eggs themselves rest on a dry surface, so tend not to go mouldy. Keeping up with this system, eventually you’ll find baby stick insects start to hatch and the circle of life can start once again.
While the giant prickly stick insect might look quite intimidating, it is generally found to be quite docile. With patience the Macleays Spectre can normally be coaxed gently onto the hand. Move slowly and deliberately and you should be fine.
Note, however, that while females are unable to fly, the adult males have fully-developed wings and are quite strong fliers. You therefore might not want to handle this species outside for fear of them taking off, never to return.
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