Praying mantises are incredible creatures. In this account, we learn about these insects on steroids that make an Alien versus Predator movie look tame. Discover what the master hunters can do and be prepared to be inspired by the greatness of an invertebrate. Whether pretending to be a flower, eating birds, or going on fishing trips, mantises are astounding.
10. They Eat Birds
Praying mantises are voracious hunters. In fact, they can capture and subdue some unlikely and substantial prey types that are simply incredible for an insect — even a large one. The strength and speed of a praying mantis allows it to make disproportionately challenging kills that would be far beyond the reach of many hunting species. Did you know that these mere insects have killed and consumed birds, bats, mice and frogs? Praying mantises eat birds, and this is not a freak occurrence but one that is literally widespread. Praying mantises have been recorded in acts of insect on bird predation on all of the Earth’s continents, save for Antarctica.
National Geographic describes documentation by the Wilson Journal of Ornithology of 147 cases of mantises eating birds in 13 different countries. The gruesome attacks involved 12 mantis species and 24 bird species. Hummingbirds were popular targets despite their speed, being ambushed most successfully because they are so small. Disturbing is the way a mantis feeds, often starting with the head. In hummingbirds, heads were pierced and brains gorged upon by hungry mantises. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology concludes that the popular practice of purchasing and freeing mantises for pest control should be approached with great caution, especially for large species, given the threat to birds.
9. Some Look Like Flowers
Praying mantises are supposed to be green in popular imagination, but their means of camouflage prove that evolution is truly remarkable. For example, some of the most formidable and ferocious mantis species look for all the world like a flower in full bloom.
The Orchid Mantis Hymenopus coronatus must be seen to be believed. It might be the most shocking case of aggressive mimicry on the planet. Orchid Mantises are not camouflaged to blend in with flowers. The truth is much more sinister. Rather, they appear to be a flower, albeit an especially appealing one, and are visited by prey more often than real flowers, and can make more kills.
Native to Southeast Asian forests, Orchid Mantises are uncommonly found, but have been discovered and misunderstood far back in the history of exploration. During an 1879 visit to West Java, James Hingston, a traveling writer, thought he had found a carnivorous plant, describing the mantis as follows (none the wiser about the deadly “flower” being a ferocious insect): “I am taken by my kind host around his garden, and shown, among other things, a flower, a red orchid, that catches and feeds upon live flies. It seized upon a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves, as a spider would have enveloped it in network.”
8. Mate Eating
Yes, the love life of praying mantis isn’t really about happy ever after. Often, it’s more like, “I loved you, I mated with you, then I ate you.” At least often enough to make natural history headlines with regularity. Mate eating by praying mantises is more common in laboratory settings than in the wild, but nevertheless biological rationale for the behavior exists. Eating a male allows nutritional value to be gained that assists in egg case production, meaning that even if eaten, the male may “enjoy” increased reproductive success in passing on his genes by making a nutritional donation of his body. Females may benefit significantly.
Research published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B indicates that mate-eating females laid 51 more eggs than those who treated their mates a little more kindly. The 51 more eggs represent an increase of 25 percent over a regular egg clutch. Furthermore, the male’s characteristics were more strongly represented in the young of mate eaters. Why? Because being eaten by a female means that 17.7 percent more of the male’s amino acids and related biological matter ends up in her ovaries and eggs, in a way making him “live on” more strongly represented in the next generation.
7. Death by Dead Leaf
A dead leaf could be a deadly mantis. No, really. The dead leaves on the forest floor in a Southeast Asian rainforest may contain among their ranks a dead leaf that is actually Deroplatys lobate, the logically named Dead Leaf Mantis. This species of mantis is equipped with all of the awesome hunting and dispatch armament of a typical mantis, but it has flattened body parts that make it look like an old leaf. Even the tears and rumples of a dead leaf are copied. The thorax is flatter than usual, while the wings are flat and expansive. The mottling that a leaf should have are present. Then there are spots and speckles that resemble the mould and mildew on a decaying leaf. Finally, the veins of the leaf that are part of the typical harmless leaf look adorn the wings, further deceiving potential prey, ensuring they never see anything more than leaves until it is far, far too late.
Below all the deception are sharp barbs on the forelegs, perfect for taking down prey with lightning speed. The mantis is hard to breed in captivity, and unlike many of the more frequently kept species, is extremely delicate in its requirements, particularly around humidity and temperature.
6. They Grow to Insane Sizes
Mantises, especially the stick mantis species, can reach enormous weights or lengths. Some mantises are remarkable for their mass, and overall huge size, but are not the longest. Other mantises are skinnier, but hold records for sheer length. The giant shield mantises of the genus Rhombodera may approach nearly 5 inches in length, giving them a good size advantage in hunting. But these are short compared to stick mantises.
Stick mantises are less massive but make up for it by reaching an incredible length of just under 8 inches, possibly more. The members of the genus Toxodera are gigantic, crane-like mantises that patrol Asian habitats. In Africa, giant stick mantises of the genus Heterochaeta may exceed six inches in length. These are some seriously big “bugs.”
5. Their Vision is Unique & Superb
Mantises have exceptional vision that is not only remarkable in the insect world, but unique in the animal kingdom. Research published in the journal Current Biology explains that praying mantises enjoy a great advantage in hunting, which requires exceptional depth perception to strike accurately at varying distances. Praying mantis vision involves a distinct type of 3D perception of surroundings, especially potential food, thanks to their huge eyes that have become the focus of much research. A statistical minority of animal species have stereoscopic vision, including most mammals (humans among them) and the bird order that comprises owls, but mantises are striking for two reasons.
First off, an insect having such advanced vision is exceptional. Second, the type of stereoscopic vision in mantises is different. Humans will perceive two still images with minor differences as a single, three dimensional image thanks to stereoscopic vision, but mantises have movement dependant stereoscopic vision. Moving object image information is turned into a three dimensional image, while non-moving objects are passed over. Research into how mantises see has involved placing tiny 3D glasses over their eyes, allowing scientists to calculate their perceptual abilities with “movies” featuring prey species.
4. They are Related to Termites and Cockroaches
Praying Mantises seem to be in a class of their own. But they are related to, gasp, cockroaches, and termites. Mantises belong to the order Mantodea, and cockroaches and termites are order Blattodea. Both are placed within the superorder Dictyoptera, which translates to “net wings” in English terminology.
The creatures might be on opposite ends of the human respect spectrum, but the physiological relations are certainly their, thanks to the distinctive “net wing” anatomy of the different but strongly related groups.
3. They Go Fishing
Yes, it happens. Revenge of the insects for all that fly fishing? The author, who has a history of caring for both praying mantises and guppies, was surprised to discover that praying mantises can eat fish, namely guppies. The Journal of Orthoptera Research published accounts of a praying mantis collecting guppies, speared fisherman-style from a small water body, before somewhat grotesquely devouring them.
Lead study author Roberto Battiston, an Italian entomologist noted the fishing mantis story when study co-author Nivek Manjunath sent photos depicting a giant Asian Mantis male eating fish, images taken originally by conservationist Rajesh Puttaswamaiah, who had come across the incidents of insect on fish predation in a pond that was part of his Karnataka, India rooftop garden. The study co-authors monitored the pond for further predation attempts, discovering that multiple hunts were taking place with successful results for the hungry mantis. The fishing trips served as evidence for the ability of mantises to learn and innovate as they find food.
2. They Inspired Kung-Fu
Some of the most interesting Chinese Kung-Fu moves from Shandong Province in Northern China and a different form of Kung-Fu from the Hakka people of Southern China draw directly from the Praying Mantis species commonly found in China, the graceful but ferocious Chinese Mantis. The origin of Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung-Fu is with Shaolin Kung-Fu student Wong Long from the 17th century. He had been in serious competition with his elder, monk Feng, who always out-sparred him in practice sessions.
Wanting to improve his Kung-Fu skills, he gained valuable insights from the insect world that would add greatly to the Kung-Fu repertoire. Feng had gone traveling around China over a period of three years, during which time Wong witnessed a successful attack on a cicada insect by a mantis, which used its agility and fierce strikes to take it down. Wong didn’t just watch, he then did battle with the mantis itself with a stick, and was impressed with the counterstrikes. The mantis’s behavior was observed, and then translated into closely matched human fighting moves by the attentive Wong. Wong then categorized the required arm movements into 12 character principles. Combining footwork inspired by monkeys, Wong easily beat Feng upon his return.
1. They are Named after Prophets
What does the generally used name “Praying Mantis” mean, anyway? Well, the common descriptive name praying mantis used to refer to the more than 2,500 species of these insects has a two-part religious meaning. Praying refers to the folded forearms of a mantis lying in wait for prey, which resembles a person in an act of prayer. The aggressive nature of the insects often results in the name being misconstrued as “Preying Mantis,” but that is most incorrect.
The terms Mantid and Mantis originates from Greek. Mantikos is the Greek word for a prophet or soothsayer. The Greek root name was selected by German-Argentine Zoologist Karl Hermann Konrad Burmeister in 1838. The insects have been assigned special powers in a number of traditional societies, enjoying a level of respect seldom conferred by humans onto an insect. The Latin name of the European Mantis, Mantis religiosa, is a further testament to the spiritual perception of these special creatures.