An Aquatic Stick Insect

While my wife Kim and I were at the Niobrara Valley Preserve for several days in December, we spotted a small creature neither of us had seen before.  We were walking along the edge of the river (hoping to see more otters, of course) and stopped to look at a small school of minnows near a patch of ice along the riverbank.  As my eyes wandered away from the minnows, I was startled to see what looked like a walking stick insect swimming slowly through the water.  Kim and I watched it for a few minutes and even pulled it out of the water to examine it briefly.  It was swimming slowly, but steadily, and seemed very at home in the water.  Up close, we could see that it wasn’t actually a walking stick, but it sure did look similar.

Water stick insect (Ranatra). The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Water stick insect (Ranatra). The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Later, a quick google search revealed that we’d seen a water stick-insect (genus Ranatra), also known as a water scorpion.  Water stick-insects are predatory insects that are apparently active throughout the winter.  What look like long mouth parts on the front of the insect are actually long strong front legs used for capturing and holding prey.  The long pipes extending from their tail are used for breathing.

Walking stick insect on silky prairie clover in the east bison pasture of the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I photographed this walking stick insect about a mile from where we saw the water stick-insect.  This one is on silky prairie clover in the sandhills prairie portion of the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Can you see how I thought the water stick might have been this instead?

While the water stick-insect does resemble the terrestrial walking stick insect in many ways, the two are not at all closely related.  They are both insects, of course, but that’s as close as they get, taxonomically.  They are not only in different insect families, but completely different insect orders as well.  In fact, they are more closely related to assassin bugs and ambush bugs, and use a similar strategy for subduing and eating their food.  All three pierce their prey with sharp beaks and inject saliva that both paralyzes and liquefies the inside of the hapless creature.  Water stick-insects feed on insects, but also tadpoles and small fish.





12 thoughts on “An Aquatic Stick Insect

  1. I just discovered one of these today along the St. Vrain Creek Greenway in Longmont, CO. It was in one of our catch nets while we were doing fish surveys. I thought it strange that a walking stick insect was living in the water…now I know why!
    Thank you very much for your informative post.

  2. Just saw one of these at Tuscarora lake, pa in late May. Thought it was a walking stick bug too but looked to different. Thx for this post, otherwise I’d still be wondering.

  3. I have 4 as pets and 5 pinned in my personal collection. I found them in October. Yes you did identify it correctly, but you called it an insect when it is actually a true bug. they are in the order Hemiptera and the family Nepidae. Water sticks breath air thru the tube at the tip of the abdomen called a siphon. it is very hard to get much info on them but if you want to know more I can help.

    • Very interesting! We had a small one by accident in our tadpole tank and then when we release the tadpoles yesterday, I found an enormous one and put it in a bucket for a few pictures before releasing it. Is there anything else you think the kids would like to know about it? That’s so interesting about it breathing water to that spike on the back. For example, do you know much about their life cycle?

      • Many thanks. Saw one today on rock by shoreline cottage lake in Eastern Ontario. First thought juvenile walking stick but the back “stinger” made no sense. A breathing tube does. About to release it back. Thanks for the article and the video. These guys are hard to track down on the net. Walking stick insect also not the easiest/most distinctive words for searching. jim. Canada

    • Thank you Chris and pm for the great information on this bug. We had one accidentally in our tadpole tank and when we released all the tadpoles yesterday we found another very enormous one in the pond. This is great information for the kids. So are you saying that the siphon is used to draw water from the air above the surface versus filtering air out of the water like a girl? Do you have any information about the lifecycle? It will be fun to share this with the kids since we all wondered what in the world we had found.

  4. Went for a walk in our backyard with my dogs, went swimming in our lake, just seen a swimming walking stick, thanks for clarifying the species for me, do they bite people or dogs?

  5. I just caught one yesterday in the Grand River, near Jefferson, Oh. I was fascinated by it. I knew walking sticks didn’t live in water, but didn’t know what it was. Took a video of it. And nobody knew what it was. Now I know…
    Thank you!

  6. Hello,
    Thanks for posting this! Similar to others, was trying to identify the invertebrate, but couldn’t quite find something exactly like it.
    I saw one today outside of a greenhouse, amongst soil/plants. It also had wings – does anyone know how long they can be outside of water or if they are equally comfortable in both environments?


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