She Was a Leaf, He Was a Stick: An Insect That Made History

In the spring of 2018, Stephane Le Tirant received a clutch of 13 eggs at the Montreal Insectarium. He hoped that they would hatch into leaves. The eggs were not ovals but prisms. They were brown paper lanterns, bigger than chia seeds. A wild-caught female Phyllium Asekiense laid the eggs. It’s a leaf insect from Papua New Guinea, belonging to a group called Frondosum. It was known only because of the female specimens. It’s a stunning leaf insect, occurring both in autumnal browns and summery greens. Royce Cumming, a graduate student at New York City University refers to it as “Dead life, live leaf, semi-dried leaf.”

Phyllium Asekiense
She Was a Leaf, He Was a Stick: An Insect That Made History

Le Tirant’s Huge Insect Collection

Mr. Le Tirant, who has been the collection manager of the insectarium since 1989, specializes in scarab beetles. He roughly estimates that he has 25,000 beetles in his private collection at home. However, he had always had a great passion for leaf insects and had successfully bred two species, a big one from Malaysia, and a smaller one from the Philippines. A Phyllium Asekiense that is beautiful, rare, and most important, living — would be a great treasure in any insectarium.

More About the Mysterious Phyllium Asekiense

In the insect-rearing laboratory, Mario Bonneau and other specialists nestled the 13 eggs on a mesh screen on a bed of coconut fibers, often spritzed with water. In the fall, five eggs hatched into black spindly nymphs. The specialists treated the baby nymphs with great care, moving them from one tree to another without touching the insects. They only touched whatever leaf they clung to.

Phyllium Asekiense Insect on a Green Leaf
She Was a Leaf, He Was a Stick: An Insect That Made History

Mr. Le Tirant said that they just grabbed the other insects, but the small leaf insects were so precious that they were the jewels in their laboratory. They offered the nymphs a buffet of bramble, salad leaves, and fragrant guava. Two of the nymphs refused to eat and didn’t make it, but the other three munched on bramble, molted, munched, molted, and then molted some more. One of the nymphs grew green and broad, just like her mother.

The technicians from the insectarium’s paper had already passed peer review when Mr. Le Tirant’s nymphs grew up and provided unshakable proof.