Friday, February 8, 2019

Praying Mantids – So Much More Than Most People Think

I've got my eyes on you.
Praying Mantids (see my blog from last year to understand why we don’t say “Mantises”) seem familiar and cute to many people, but I have to wonder how many really understand just how complex and murderous they really are. Here are just some of the things that make them fascinating and creepy:

Eyes – Those giant eyes on either side of their triangular heads may seem endearing and quizzical when they slant their heads and look at you, much like when your dog looks at you and tilts his head. However, the mantis’s gesture is anything but loving or lovable. Those eyes see in 3D and each has an area in it (the fovea), that allows the insect to focus on and track an object more intently. On top of all that, they have 3 simple eyes in between the big ones. All this is designed to find prey with pinpoint precision. So, if they look at you like that, they are determining the best way to kill you; they're not trying to communicate with you.

Ghost Mantis
Ear – For all the eye power a praying mantis has, it only has one ear (the tympanum). Of all the insects, mantids are the only ones that have just one ear. This ear is located on the underside of the body between their legs. They may have only one ear, but like their eyes, it is extra-sensitive. This allows them to clearly hear their quarry before they can see it.                             
A hummingbird lhovering over a mantis and watching it warilyFood – Mantids will attempt to devour nearly anything that they clap eyes on, with one caveat: they only eat live and moving prey. They will eat each other as soon as they hatch and everything from small skittering insects like spiders, to moths, butterflies on up to small lizards and mice (here is a mouse vs. mantis video) and birds. Mantids that hunt birds seem to be exclusively female and seem to have an affinity for the bird brains  Scientists have found bird skulls with holes in them after mantis attacks. This is unusual in that usually a mantis will bite the head off a victim right away (to quickly stop the struggling) and then proceed to consume the whole body. Bird brains must be a special treat for a lady mantid.
Feather Mantis
Mating - It is commonly believed that female mantids kill their partners during or after mating. This is only partially true. It appears that only about 15% of females do this. While some speculate that the killing is done for the added protein to develop eggs, there also doesn’t seem to be an inherent need to do so (or they would all kill their lovers). It could be another example of how they kill anything that moves and the male just moved too much or one too many times.

Orchid mantis
 Moves – Praying Mantids have long been   associated with the martial arts for very good   reason. They are masters of movement. They can  been utterly still for hours and then leap onto prey in a strike that’s faster than the eye can follow (see how here). When they are fending off predators, they stand up, spread out and wave their spiky legs in motions intended to intimidate (which look like martial arts movements). If they have to resort to retreat, they are masterful in the way they leap and twist in the air. Watch a Kung Fu praying mantis take on a jumping spider here.

Camouflage – A huge part of being an ambush predator is being able to hide well and the mantid world is full of experts in the art of concealment. Of the more than 2,000 named species, most of them are found in the tropics. This explains why there are so many mantid varieties that look like beautiful flowers.
Spiny Flower Mantis

Relatives – If you aren’t freaked out by mantids by now, this may do the trick: they are close relatives of the cockroach. And termites. As John Abbott, chief curator and director of Museum Research and Collections at the University of Alabama, “So, basically you can think of termites as social roaches and praying mantises as predatory roaches”.

And now for some comic relief: Praying Mantids aren't quite as ferocious as this picture on the left or as shown in this silly video (at least not to us humans), but they are decidedly terrifying in the insect world.

Having said all this, I encourage to explore the intriguing world of the Praying Mantis. Put some in your garden (though not immediately after introducing beneficial insects) or bring an egg case (ootheca) home or to your classroom and wait for them to hatch. The babies are pretty cute. Information on hatching and how to buy can be found here.

Submitted by Pam

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