Breeding Megacrania phelaus on Mahonia

An interesting experience report on the hope and horrors of breeding a very interesting yet difficult phasmid species.

Diary of breeding Megacrania phelaus "Kwara'ae" on Mahonia aquifolium

by Mieke Duytschaever (Belgium)

13. April 2007
the 40 eggs I have ordered from Bruno Kneubühler, arrive well packed and in perfect condition. The eggs seem huge to me. I incubate them immediately in a small plastic box with vermiculite and spray them

13. July 2007
the first nymph hatched this morning. It is a strong, healthy and lively nymph.  Its new home is a plastic faunabox with some kitchen paper and bark on the bottom. Its first breakfast: some young and tender leaves of the Mahonia aquifolia, a bush I planted in our garden a few weeks ago. Leaves and bark are sprayed with demineralised water

15. July 2007
another nymph has hatched today. I'm worried, since the first born seems to ignore the mahonia. No bites, no frass. I decide to cross the border to the Netherlands, where I know a small shop selling Asian food. I'm lucky, they have 'Pandan' leaves (= Pandanus) available, 20 leaves nicely packed into a plastic bag for 1,30 euro. I ask the shop owner if the leaves are treated with pesticides.  He says he doesn't know. I decide to take the chance, since Bruno could raise a full generation on imported Pandanus leaves without troubles. In the evening, I see them eating eagerly from the thoroughly washed Pandanus, leaving the Mahonia untouched

19. July 2007
5 more nymphs have hatched.  But the oldest ones seem to eat less every day, which is not really a good sign. The Pandanus leaves are changed daily, because they dry out very quickly once they leave the fridge where I keep them. Still the nymphs seem to lose appetite.
I also put some more fresh Mahonia in the cage, with more variety of young and old leaves. But they are very reluctant to eat it, and they still prefer the Pandanus

22. July 2007
10 more nymphs have hatched meanwhile. But already, the first hatchlings died. I suspect the Pandanus is treated with pesticides. I've already be warned by other breeders that most of the Pandanus sold in shops or garden centres can not to be trusted. They also had nymphs dying.
So I decide to throw out all the Pandanus and drastically restrict their diet to Mahonia. Other plants I tried, like eucalyptus, oak, hypericum etc. were not accepted

24. July 2007
it doesn't feel right, looking at the small, fragile nymphs having a real hard time to chew the tough Mahonia leaves. They eat a lot less now than they ate from the Pandanus.  Will they eventually get used to it and gain appetite?

30. July 2007
as I will be leaving for summer holidays in a few days, I bring the Megacrania nymphs (which keep hatching amazingly well) to Tom, an experienced phasmid breeder and good friend.  He has some Mahonia bushes growing near his office, so the food will be no problem

20. August 2007
back from our trip, I visit Tom and collect the Megacrania nymphs.  Many more nymphs have hatched in the past weeks, but also many of them died.  Tom confirms my earlier experiences: the nymphs seem to have a problem with the food plant. They don't eat enough. Are the leaves too tough or just not tasty enough?  They remain skinny and weak. Most of the time, the sheddings are lethal

30. August 2007
nymphs keep hatching and dying. They die while shedding. They lose all of their legs, which makes them nonviable. Or they are just unable to get out of their old skin. It is highly frustrating. I've been taking measures to improve the situation, but nothing really helps.
I've been feeding more young and tender Mahonia leaves, since they are eaten slightly better. I also noticed that the nymphs are drying out, so I increase spraying (often 2 times a day) so they can drink, and move them into a glass cage with less aeration, to obtain a higher humidity level (80 - 90% RH)

Megacrania phelaus cage
Cage with Megacrania phelaus and Mahonia.

16. September 2007
eggs have stopped hatching now.  Only 4 eggs of 43 didn't hatch, which is a great hatching rate - good stuff Bruno !
But from all those hatchlings, there are only 11 nymphs left alive today. Some nymphs are eating better than others. The toughest ones or the ones able to adjust best to the "unappropriate" food plant Mahonia , are reaching second instar (L2). I still hope that these tough guys will get stronger, eat more and have less troubles in the following stages. I notice that the oldest ones also eat the older leaves of the Mahonia, maybe this will make them stronger

18. September 2007
today I whitness the shedding of a healthy looking nymph to the third instar (L3). Without any apparent problem, and it is perfect ! Bruno tells me he switched his culture again to Pandanus, as he has the same problems with dying nymphs and found a reliable supplier of pestizide-free Pandanus

6. October 2007
the oldest nymph has shed to L4 today, but lost one of its front legs. The other nymphs are all 1 or 2 instars younger, but they seem to do well now. Still exclusively feeding them on Mahonia

17. November 2007
only 8 nymphs left. Several changes of humidity level and aeration don't seem to help. I keep spraying a lot. It is striking how eagerly they drink.  And how they love to take a bath in the drops, really plunging their bodies to get wet all over. Could their "abnormal" need for water be a result of the less juicy Mahonia leaves? Are they not able to absorb enough moisture by eating them? Or do they simply not eat enough? Are they suffering from malnutrition? All of this comes down to one thing - the wrong food plant

30. December 2007
finally - the first adult male! It was the oldest nymph, clearly a tough one. I could observe it eating more than the others, it got fatter and it shed well.  His length is 7 cm, not what it should be, but still reasonable. Except for the short front leg, which was lost during an earlier shedding and has now grown back to more than half the normal size, it is perfect
Apart from this adult male, I only have one other nymph left, which surprisingly seems to be a female. It's getting rather exciting now - will she make it to adulthood?  She's feeding well on the Mahonia, but seems to be weaker than the male which just got adult

Megacrania phelaus male
Male of Megacrania phelaus.

26. January 2008
some days ago, Rob Krijns very kindly sent me some of his untreated Pandanus leaves. I don't know what to do. Feed it or leave it and continue the experiment exclusively on Mahonia ?
I'm too curious what will happen. So I add a big Pandanus leave to their diet of Mahonia. The first days, I can't believe what I see - whereas I suspected that they would go crazy about the Pandanus and leave the Mahonia, they both kept on feeding on Mahonia and don't even touch their natural food plant

4. February 2008
the female got subadult in the morning. She's now 8 cm and looking perfect, though a little skinny and weak

6. February 2008
the Pandanus leaf for the first time shows signs of bites.  I haven't seen the male eating from it yet, but the female is clearly convinced that she likes this food better

4. March 2008
both the female and male are now eating Pandanus as well as Mahonia. Whereas the male still prefers the Mahonia, the female clearly likes the Pandanus better. As she has to develop to adulthood now, it seems logical that she prefers the food which is most nutritious
Also remarkable is that both now like to hide behind the big Pandanus leaf which offers them a good shelter, whereas they can't find a comfortable rest place on the Mahonia leaves, which are too small and not firm enough. They got used to rest on the glass of the terra. But since I offered them the last Pandanus leaf today, it will take only a few days until they both will be back on Mahonia only

25. March 2008
the female got adult today. Her size is 10 cm, smaller than normal. She also looks very skinny and weak, her wings are deformed and she's not very colourful. It seems obvious to me the diet of Mahonia has done her wrong. Maybe she wouldn't have reached adulthood at all, if she didn't get the few Pandanus leaves in February

Megacrania phelaus female
Female of Megacrania phelaus.

1. June2008
the female died today, after an adult life of about 2 months. At first, she seemed to do well, fed well on the Mahonia and got bigger.  But a week or 2 ago, she suddenly stopped feeding. I never saw her mating with the only male (nor him trying to do so) and she never laid an egg. She probably only found the strength to survive a while, but not to reproduce

3. August 2008
the male died today, thus reaching a lifespan of more than 7 months. He seemed to have adapted rather well on the diet of Mahonia.

Wouldn't recommend Mahonia as food plant for Megacrania though