When is a leaf… …not a leaf? When it’s got a face and six pointy legs. It’s a giant Malaysian leaf insect. You are what you eat definitely applies here. They blend in with their food – which is also their home – to hide from hungry predators.
But how hard is it to be a leaf, really? You just stay still. Really still. But it takes more than that. The mimicry of this leaf.. sorry! insect, is masterful. Their bodies have intricate veins, just like a plant does. And on the edges, brown spots, like a crinkly, damaged leaf. This type of camouflage – where you copy your natural surroundings – is known as protective resemblance. It’s all they have since their short antennae and small eyes don’t really help them spot predators. They cling there, with tiny bifurcated toes.
Moving is the biggest mistake this insect could make. Even when it’s time to lay eggs, it barely moves a muscle. The eggs just plop down to the forest floor. They’re camouflaged, too. They look like teeny brown seeds… …or leaf insect poop.
The active young nymphs start out brown and transform gradually – taking on a little more green over time. This one’s halfway to a fresh leaf. Its color is set, though. It can’t change it on the fly. But this nymph still has a big migration to make – getting into a tree – undetected. So, it sways. Yep, like a leaf in the breeze. That funky little walk is all leaf – a dance of disguise. When it finally ascends, it’ll settle in seamlessly like the adults.
Between nymph and adult, it molts or sheds its exoskeleton seven times. Its appearance ages just like a leaf – its brown spots getting bigger. It may never move from the same tree, living its whole life as a cunningly concealed copy-cat.