Leaf insect: A practical care guide

Phyllium philippinicum, also called the ‘leaf insect’, is one of many walking leaf insects in the order of phasmids. This species particularly is famous for its camouflage of a leaf and is one of the most popular and most commonly phasmid kept as pets.

Leaf insects are beautiful to see and quite easy to keep and breed. For most people this species makes the perfect pet: they don’t smell, they don’t make noise, don’t eat that much (and is not expensive), don’t take up much space and are not time-consuming. These fascinating animals also make good pets for kids (but I recommend them for kids of around seven years or older).

In this article, we discuss all there is about keeping and caring walking leaf insect at home. We discuss topics as housing, environmental conditions, feeding, cleaning, and breeding. But before we dive into how to keep leaf insects, first talk more about these exciting species.

About the Philippine leaf insect

Leaf Insect /
Walking Leaf Insect /
Phillippine Leaf Insect /
True Leaf Insect
Phyllium philippinicum (PSG 278)
Up to 1 year
Females: 7cm (2¾”) / Males: 6cm (2¼”)

Appearance and camouflage

As the name suggests, Phyllium philippinicum leaf insects are species native to the Philippines that looks like a leaf. But it is more than the shape alone. Its body is flat apart from the central abdomen. It has a light green to a brownish pattern all over its body that exactly look like veins of a leaf. The sides of the abdomen are brown coloured, and there are some brown spots here and there. The rest of this species of leaf insect is beautiful green coloured. There are some colour variations which are more brownish, yellowish or pinkish, and different shades of green.

They are perfect in camouflage, and when sitting still between some leaves, you almost not recognize that it is an animal. Also, the lobes on their legs have forms and patterns of leaves. Their mimic of leaves is so refined that many predators don’t see them, and they escape from being eaten. Even if the animals are in plain sight. Pretending being a leaf is actually not called mimicry, officially, but cryptism or crypsis. Mimicry is when one species mimics another species. Cryptism is the phenomenon where an animal mimics the substrate or environment where it lives.

They can grow quite large, where females reach a size of around 7cm (2¾”) and males around 6cm (2¼”). Although compared to the giant leaf insect, which can reach a size of 11cm (4.3″), they are not that large.

You can easily distinguish males from females. Apart from males are smaller, they are also much thinner. They have large antennae and fully developed wings. Females have wings too but lack hind wings, and the wings are broad and lay flat on their body. Actually, males are much less camouflaged as a leaf compared to females. When nymphs are hatched, you can already see the difference after the second mould between males and females in body shape and body size.

Behaviour, temperament and handling

Like all phasmids leaf insects are primarily nocturnal creatures. They do most of their movement and eating at night. During daylight the rest motionless between leaves as part of their defence mechanism. Males tend to be more active than females. The males can also fly and use their wings when feeling threatened, where females don’t use their wings at all.

These insects are quite docile and can be handled with caution. They are quite delicate and fragile. Although they tolerate walking on your hand, they do not particularly like it, so the advice is only to handle them when necessary. Nymphs, on the other hand, should definitely be left alone as much as you can. Nymphs are tiny, very fragile and move a lot more and are quite fast too. They can be damaged or killed when falling off your hand. When you need to transfer nymphs, you should use a flat paintbrush and let them walk on it.

The leaf insect Phyllium philippinicum enclosure. Can you spot the animals?

Are you new to keeping phasmids?

If so, please read our page about the general care for phasmids. This page has many practical tips on how you best keep stick insects and leaf insects alive and healthy so that you can enjoy your new pet phasmid!

Housing requirements

Leaf insects don’t have high requirements for their enclosure, but there are some aspects that you take in mind. First is the size of the enclosure. The golden rule here is that the height of the enclosure is at least the body length of the animal. In the case of Phyllium philippinicum the enclosure should be at least 21cm (8¼”). For the width the size should be at least two times the body length, so a width of at least 14cm (5½”) is enough. However, this minimum size is when housing a single adult female. Often you will keep more than one animal and the recommended size of the enclosure for four adults is 30cm (12″) in height and 20cm (8″) in width. Still, I prefer to keep them in larger enclosures up to 60cm (24″) in height.

Brands like ‘Exo Terra’, ‘Zoo Med’ and ‘Repti Zoo’ have excellent terrarium enclosures that are also suitable for keeping leaf insects. These enclosures have proper ventilation and easy access to provide them with food. Netting cages are also perfect to use for this species, but the drawback is that you have worse visibility on your animals.

Make sure you prevent overcrowding your enclosure. Overpopulation cause problems to health, such as continuous stress, problems to moulting and behavioural cannibalism. With the last, phasmids like Phyllium philippinicum will chew on each other damaging animals permanently. Also, don’t combine different phasmid species in one enclosure. Just keep one species in every enclosure.

Ventilation is key to the health of your leaf insects. The enclosure should have enough ventilation capacity. However, with netting cages, that is not a problem. When looking for a terrarium, I personally like the ones from Exo Terra because of their mesh lid on top. These terrariums are also suitable for placing different types of substrate in it.

A substrate is not explicitly necessary for these phasmid species, but it has some benefits. One benefit of a substrate is that it keeps the humidity more stable. Another advantage is that when your leaf insect fall, it has a lesser risk of damaging itself. As a substrate, it is best that you use river/aquarium sand or coconut fibre. You can use other materials like potting soil and vermiculite, but I have a better experience with sand and coconut fibre. Some use decayed leaves as a substrate, but this does not have much benefit when it comes to humidity. If you like an easy and clean set up and esthetics doesn’t mind you, you can use kitchen paper or dishcloths to cover the bottom of the enclosure.

It would be good to provide some branches on the sides of the enclosure. This way the animals can climb to the top and have extra places where they can moult. This is especially desirable for glass enclosures because adult leaf insects can’t (easily) walk on glass surfaces.

Environmental conditions

The tropical Phyllium philippinicum should be kept warmer than room temperature. The temperature should be in the range of 25°C and 30°C (77°F – 86°F). It is fine to let the temperature drop at night to around 18°C to 20°C (64°F – 68°C). At lower temperatures, they do not that well and will die prematurely.

You need to use a heating source to reach this temperature. You can use a regular light bulb between 25W and 50W to heat the enclosure from the top. It is best to keep around 5cm and 10cm of space between the light bulb and the top of the enclosure. In this way moulting animals at the top of the enclosure don’t get overheated.

If you want to use a heating pad, don’t place it beneath the enclosure, but stick it to the backside of the enclosure. If you place it under the terrarium, the bottom and substrate may become quite hot and dry out the enclosure pretty fast. It also heats the eggs that are laying on the bottom too much. Use a timed switch for your heating source to create light during day hours and keep it dark during nighttime. Because these animals are nocturnal, they require several dark hours.

Don’t place the enclosure in direct sunlight. Although it is a tropical species, direct sunlight will warm up the enclosure to temperatures far above the required range. Overheating is a serious risk, and it will quickly kill the animals.

Because Phyllium philippinicum is a tropical species, it also has higher humidity requirements, and it is best to maintain it around 70% and 80%. This is where the substrate comes in handy, so I can recommend it to use one. When you moisten the substrate, it evaporates the moisture slowly making the humidity stable and higher for a longer time. You can dampen the substrate by spraying water on it. It would be best if you made it damp because when making it too wet, make the substrate eventually mouldy too. To prevent mould growth with these higher humidity levels, as already described before, the enclosure should have adequate ventilation capacity.

Because the ventilation requirement is relatively high and because you (probably) need a heating source, the enclosure tends to dry out quickly. Therefore spraying water should be done frequently at around every or every other day (as soon as the substrate is almost dry).

Bramble is one of the favourite food of Phyllium species (Photo by François Sockhom Mey)

Feeding practice

Phyllium philippinicum eats only leaves of certain plants and is entirely herbivorous like all phasmids are. Plants that are suitable and accepted by Philippine leaf insects are bramble (blackberry), oak, hawthorn and rose. In my experience, bramble is an absolute favourite of leaf insects. They can also be a bit picky about what they like to eat, but bramble is overall well accepted.

You need to feed them fresh leaves when the previous leaves are all eaten or a dried out. It depends on how many animals you have and how much you feed when you need to refresh it, but normally it is around every 4 to 7 days. Leaf insects need to have fresh leaves at all times.

You can find the plants they eat outside in gardens, parks and forests. Especially bramble is found at many places, and nobody cares if you cut off a piece once a while. When you need to collect new leaves for your animals, you should cut off the plants with the stem included (not only collect the leaves). The standard guide is that you cut pieces the length equal to the height of the enclosure, so in most cases around 30cm to 60cm. Only cut plants that are eaten in a considerable time, because once you cut it, it is more difficult to keep the quality good of the leaves. When it gets colder outside, don’t feed the leaves immediately but let the leaves (or more precisely the moist on and in the leaves) warm-up.

When you want to provide the collected stems with leaves to your animals, you should place the stems in a bottle or vase filled with fresh water. Refresh and clean the water every time you feed new leaves. When the bottle or vase is light, you can make it heavier by filling it partly with sand or pebbles. This way, the chance that it falls over by the weight of the food plants is much smaller. You can mist the leaves before placing in the enclosure, to keep the leaves longer fresh.

When you want or need to buy these plants to feed them, be aware that they might be sprayed with insecticides, and this will quickly keel your animals. Always ask explicitly that the plants are free of insecticides or any other chemicals.

Cleaning routine

Typical for phasmids is that you almost have nothing to clean. It is the same with Phyllium philippinicum leaf insects. The cleaning that you should do regularly (preferred daily) is to remove old shed skins and old/dried leaves that are fallen on the bottom. Once every two or three weeks, you need to do a refreshment of the substrate. If you use sand, you can seave it catching frass/droppings and eggs out of substrate (do this at the moment the sand is almost dry). With coconut fibre or other substrates, you can partly renew the substrate and collect eggs from the substrate you have taken out. Kitchen paper is effortless. Just collect the eggs and then fold the kitchen paper, with the droppings inside, and throw it away.

When you find a dead animal, which is always unfortunately but inevitable at some point, inspect if you see any abnormalities. Check if you see obvious damage or mould growth. Remove the dead animal from the enclosure as soon as possible, because this can be the cause of mould growth in your enclosure when you leave it in the enclosure for too long.

A newly hatched leaf insect nymph (Phyllium philippinicum)

Breeding tips

Recommended read: Basics of breeding phasmids

If you want to know all about breeding phasmids (stick insects and leaf insects) you should check out the helpful guide on how to breed phasmids. It discusses the basics, techniques and provides many practical tips.

I prefer to collect eggs and incubate them in a separate enclosure. Eggs and especially newly hatch nymphs can use high humidity to get through their moults more easily. In the incubation enclosure of 20cm x 20cm x 20cm (8″ x 8″ x 8″) I place a moist dishcloth or kitchen paper on the bottom to keep the enclosure humid (>65%). The eggs are placed in “cubs” separated by the moment of collection. The temperature can be set around 25°C (77°F). Incubation takes around 4 or 5 months. Newly hatched nymphs are black with a bit of white/grey on the legs and edges of the abdomen. Within several days the slowly turn green.

Breeding Phyllium species, like Philippine leaf insects, can sometimes be tricky. If you are inexperienced, you may even think they are hard to breed. It is not even to hatch new nymphs, but mostly because of the high mortality rate during the first and second instar. Often this is caused by hatchlings or older nymphs that do not start eating or continue to eat even though you provide good food that your adults eat very well. So let me give some tips to improve your success rate breeding Phyllium philippinicum, but first I can recommend you to read the basics of breeding phasmids.

  • Disturbance: Try to minimize the disturbance for your newly hatched nymphs. Place the incubation or raising enclosure on a place where there is almost no disturbance (sound and light) at all.
  • Humidity: Keep the humidity steady, but be aware of the development of mould in the enclosure. Using paper tissue or kitchen paper and make it moist frequently is a good way of keeping the humidity at a constant level. On this white paper, you can see quickly if mould grows, and if so, you should replace the paper.
  • Feeding bramble and salal: Bramble works perfectly fine for newly hatched nymphs, but you should cut off all the edges of the food plant leaves for nymphs in the 1st and 2nd instar. Bramble in the spring, or after a freezing winter, is not suitable to feed. The new young leaves of bramble are not accepted, and frozen leaves often turn black (freeze damage) and shouldn’t be fed either. In this case, you can turn to salal, a plant type that is often used as green for flower bouquets. You should use the cut ones from florist shops, not the potted ones in garden centres because these are often sprayed with insecticides.
  • Free-standing food plant: Try to place the food plant in such a way that it is not touching the sides of the enclosure. When continuously placing nymphs on the food plant and unable to get off only via the bottom makes it more probable that they start eating eventually from this plant. Sometimes it can even take up to four days before they start feeding, but even these nymphs can survive perfectly. Always use a flat paintbrush when moving young nymphs.
Phyllium philippinicum eggs in incubation container waiting to hatch

Share this page!