Facts about Praying Mantises
The praying mantis is a fascinating insect that was bestowed with the evocative first part of its name due to its prominent front legs, which are typically positioned in a stance similar to that people adopt when they are praying. This insect is, however, sometimes mistakenly known as the ‘preying mantis’ – and yet the misnomer does fit, as this carnivorous creature is a highly skilled hunter, ambushing or stalking other insects and small animals with sublime patience and expertise.
Praying mantises belong to the order Mantodea, and typically the family Mantidae. In total there are around 2,200 species of mantises, or ‘mantids’ (the two terms can be used more or less interchangeably, although there are 14 mantis families that are technically not mantids). Many mantises are distributed across Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, though species can be found in tropical and temperate climates worldwide, including parts of the United States, Australia and Europe.
Praying mantises are sometimes grouped into a superorder with their close relatives, cockroaches and termites, but are not to be confused with stick insects or crickets and grasshoppers – rangy-looking insects which are nonetheless unrelated. Interestingly, the name ‘mantis’ is derived from the Greek for ‘prophet,’ while the scientific name for the European praying mantis is Mantis religiosa. The praying mantis seems to have been associated with things divine for quite some time – surely due to its distinctive stance.
Praying mantises range in size from half-an-inch to a colossal 12 inches long. In the wild they can live for up to a year – taking into account their entire life cycle – though a lifespan of 6 months is typical for adults.
Defense and Survival
How long they survive depends on how well they defend themselves – for the praying mantis is prey as well as predator. Insectivores such as scops owls, bullfrogs and chameleons will all gladly munch on a mantis given half a chance. Luckily for them, however, mantises have some excellent defense strategies at their disposal, and number one among these is camouflage.
Praying mantises are specialists when it comes to blending in with their environments; their green, brown or grayish hues masking them from the unwanted attention of aggressors. In fact, mantises have perfected the art of concealment to such a degree that as well as camouflaging themselves in foliage, they can also mimic their habitat, appearing as parts of trees like leaves and twigs; as grass, flowers – even as rocks. Extreme examples of this adaption come in the form of certain species in Africa and Australasia that have the ability to turn themselves black after fire, thus hiding themselves in their scorched surroundings. This phenomenon, known as fire melanism, shows just how advanced the survival mechanisms of the praying mantis are.
As well as concealment and camouflage, in defensive situations mantises also make use of their excellent eyesight. Their large compound eyes, made up of many dedicated zones called ommatidia, are said to have a range of more than 50 feet. They can also turn their heads 180 degrees, making them extremely difficult creatures to sneak up on. However, should an enemy come into its field of vision and threaten it directly, the praying mantis may be left with no other option than to stand its ground.
Praying Mantis Diet
In the event that a mantis is directly threatened, many species will raise themselves up, fanning their wings and spreading their forelegs as they do so. If this does not repel the threat, the mantis will attempt to strike, pinching or biting at its attacker. As an extra warning display, some species can also make a hissing noise by releasing air from their abdomens.
While the praying mantis can be preyed upon, it is perhaps better known as a fearsome predator in its own right. So what does the praying mantis eat? What constitutes praying mantis food? Well, these rangy creatures are exclusively carnivorous, meaning the praying mantis diet is one of other insects such as moths, flies, grasshoppers, crickets and even locusts. It is, after all, a specialist bug tracker. Such insect prey aside, praying mantises have also been known to overpower and devour scorpions, snakes, frogs, fish and rodents! Hummingbirds have also fallen foul of the mantis’s voracious appetite, unfortunate victims of its lethal attacking strategy.
Praying mantises are masters of the art of ambush, closely studying their prey while lying in wait before they make their move. Using camouflage to blend in with its environment, the typically green or brown colored mantis can be a formidable predator, with the element of surprise often working in its favor. As soon as the prey strays too close, the praying mantis will strike with devastating speed too fast for the human eye to easily discern. Using its powerful, spiny front legs to snare and pin its target, the mantis does not let go easily. Once the praying mantis’s grip is applied, the victim has little hope; the mantis will not wait – eating its prey while it is still alive, struggling hopelessly in its death throes.
Praying Mantis Life Cycle
As well as eating insects and other small animals, the praying mantis is also famous (or should that be infamous!) for sexual cannibalism. This gruesome – and controversial – phenomenon is usually observed when mantises are kept in captivity, although it has been known to occur in the wild. When mantis mating takes place, the female has been observed biting off the head of the male. This cannibalistic decapitation can occur after but also during the act of copulation. As the male’s sexual movements are controlled by the abdomen rather than the head, early theorists of this mantis behavior proposed that it was a strategy on the part of the female aimed at gaining nutrition while boosting her chances of reproductive success. Yet, whether this grim performance takes place because it increases the chances of fertilization – for both sexes – or whether, as some have contended, it is actually the result of human observation, it remains the subject of much debate among experts.
Whether or not sexual cannibalism occurs, praying mantis mating typically involves the male jumping onto the female’s back and gripping her with his forelegs. Once the female has been successfully fertilized – which tends to occur in autumn in most temperate climes – she will lay between 10 and 400 eggs, depending on the species. The eggs are laid in a foamy mass, known as an ootheca, produced by the glands in the female’s abdomen. The ootheca is usually secured by the female to a branch or leaf and then left for the liquid to harden such that it forms a protective casing for the eggs over the winter months.
As the warmth of spring arrives, the hatching process begins and the baby praying mantises break out from the ootheca. Newly free, but small and wingless, mantis nymphs are especially vulnerable at this point of their development, with larger insects often taking the opportunity to prey upon the new arrivals. Those that do survive build up their strength by hunting small insects such as fruit flies. As the summer approaches, the nymphs steadily grow through their adolescent stage until they reach full size come the end of summer. Through the process of molting, the nymphs replace their exoskeletons with newly sturdy and flexible outer coverings, and will do so as many as ten times in total.
Praying Mantis Pets
Amongst the most visually inspiring of all the praying mantis species are the various types of flower mantis. These phenomenal mimics take the art of camouflage that most mantises have in common to a whole new level. Becoming almost indistinguishable from the flower they have chosen to make their base, these incredible creatures have adapted to their environment to better enable them to hide from predators as well as surprise and hunt their own prey. One of the largest and most impressive of the flower mantises is the giant devil’s flower mantis (Idolomantis diabolica), sometimes known as the ‘king of all mantids’. Native to Tanzania and other nearby African countries, it likely gains its name from its striking antennae, which have the appearance of ‘devil’s horns’ to human eyes. This species is a great example of why so many people find mantises so captivating, for it is beautiful, strange and also a little frightening!
Is it surprising that praying mantises have become popular pets? Given their aloof and ruthless nature, maybe so, and yet considering how fascinating they are, perhaps we shouldn’t wonder. In any case, praying mantises are available for sale in pet stores that trade in these remarkable insects. They are relatively easy to keep: a small tank furnished with twigs and one or two inches of soil is all that is required. The correct temperature for the tank depends on the species and can vary considerably, but close attention should be paid to the specific needs of the species. The diet of any praying mantis pet should be kept similar to what it is in the wild – small flying insects such as moths and houseflies, for example. What’s more, given their occasional cannibalistic tendencies, they are best kept separately rather than in pairs.
Despite their popularity as pets, many true praying mantis connoisseurs prefer to see them in their natural habitat. This amazing insect has been referred to as a god in South African indigenous mythology, and the special allure that they hold for humankind shows no sign of waning. Whether employed as a pest controller – the Chinese and European mantises were introduced to the US for this express purpose – or simply viewed as an evolutionary marvel of nature, the exulted position of the order of Mantodea looks set to continue. Their grip on the human imagination reverberates in culture and art, with works from the likes of mathematical graphic artist M C Escher (in his work ‘Dream’) and even the Godzilla movies featuring the mysterious creatures.
The praying mantis has also influenced martial as well as visual artists. For hundreds of years, kung fu experts have studied the mantis’s ability to strike and incorporated it into their own techniques. The most famous style of praying mantis kung fu is that of the Southern Praying Mantis. This close-range combat discipline is native to the Hakka people of southern China and places an emphasis on ‘sticky hands,’ the heavy use of the forearms, claw-like fingers, and fast strikes reminiscent of the mantis’s behavior when it is attacking its prey. Legend has it that the founders of the style created the technique after watching a praying mantis fight and overcome a bird. We can well believe it.
All of this goes to show that the praying mantis is a mesmerizing creature full of surprises. Its reputation as one of the most intriguing animals on Earth is unlikely to be diminished any time soon.