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  • Praying mantis- dispelling myths, mimicry and the facts and modern science

    Praying mantids (more commonly known as mantises) have been beloved and feared by different cultures throughout history. They are agile, strong and specially inconspicuous insects: their great ability to mimic different elements that surrounds them and camouflage both in color and shape with the environment make them beautiful and terrifying insects at the same time… for other insects.

    The first fossil remains of Mantodea insects date from more than 135Ma (Baissa, Siberia). They would be closely related to termites(Isoptera order) and cockroaches (Blattodea order) according to the great similarities found on their female reproductive systems, and less closely related to grasshoppers and crickets (Orthoptera order). They are usually confused with stick insects (Phasmatodea order) and especially with mantidflies or mantispids (Mantispidae, Neuroptera order), which have raptorial forelegs like mantids.

     
    M. splendidus "Iridescent Bark Mantis
    Eremiaphila species. desert mantis

    Although they can be found around the world, the major proportion of species of this order is located in tropics and in temperate emplacements. They are rarely found in cold environments or in permanent frosted places (they’re absent in Antarctica).

    Mimicry-Almost all mantids, regardless of the family they belong to, show a cryptic coloring body that allow them to being unnoticed by other organisms, both preys and predators. Some species of mantids resemble a lot to different elements of their environment because they have suffered great modifications along their evolutionary history; thus, they become able to mimic elements of their environment. This is the case of the orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus, fam. Hymenopodidae), a species located in rainforests of Malaysia, Indonesia and Sumatra whose color and shape reminds of orchids. They always remain over orchids or flowers to stalk their preys. 

    The ghost mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa, fam. Hymenopodidae), whose shape reminds of decayed leaves (these mantids tend to stand over dead leaves). Or Deroplatys truncata (fam. Mantidae), which resembles a leaf.

    The ghost mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa) Stenophylla- Resembling twigs branches from which they hunt
     
    Deroplatys species "Dead Leafs" mimics leaves and also will play dead as a defence to predators The orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus mimics flowers and remain stealth or lure pollinators for prey

    Mantids are insectivores, so they feed on a great variety of insects that they stalk and hunt at high speeds. Their mimicry resembling flowers and plants provide stealth camoflage so to lure or be stealth in order to trick or suprise their prey. By design most often attracting pollinators and insects which normally  feed on plants.  Sometimes, it has also been observed a cannibalism behavior among specimens of the same species (or even different species).

     

    Myths and curiosities

    Cannibalism- Its been told  female mantids eating their mates during mating as a type of radical cannibalism. However, entomologists have recently put this into context, so it’s not a phenomenon as usual as we may think: even when it’s a true fact, most of the times this cannibalism has been observed in the laboratory and not in the wild. Recent studies consider this phenomenon is a natural response of females that face difficulties that can put in danger their offspring, such as lack of resources or other types of stress sources.

    Since ancient times, the mantids have undergone multiple symbolisms. From the literature, history to religion and even martial arts, mantids have had different leading roles.

     
    Idolomantis Diabolica "Threat pose" Mantis pose from kung fu (Source: chinawhisper.com).

    One of the first historical references of mantis through history is recorded in the ancient Chinese dictionary called Erya (300bC), where mantids are described as symbols of courage and intrepidness. Later, many authors would talk about mantids in their works, both from a scientific point of view, as poetic and philosophic.

    On the other hand, religion and mythology would have their contribution too. The Southern African indigenous mythology refers to mantids as deities in Khoi and San traditional myths. In fact, the term to denominate or "Demonize" the mantids in Afrikáans is "Hottentotsgod", which means “a god of Khoi“. On the other hand, ancient Greeks saw them as diviners or prophets with supernatural powers and also with the ability to show lost travelers the way back home. Even in ancient Egypt there existed a minor deity with mantis shape that assisted in the function of guide the deaths to the other world.

    Nowadays, mantids are one of the most commercialized insects as pets. Moreover, due its hunting abilities they have been sometimes used in biological pest control.

     REFERENCES
    Amateur Entomologists’ Society – Praying mantids (Order: Mantodea).
    General Entomology (NC State University) – Mantodea.
    National Geographic – Praying mantids.
    Tree of Life Web Project – Mantodea.
    David M. Martill, Günter Bechly, Robert F. Loveridge (2007). “The Crato Fossil Beds of Brazil: Window into an Ancient World”. Cambridge University Press.
    Katherine L. Barry, Gregory I. Holwell, and Marie E. Herberstein (2008). “Female praying mantids use sexual cannibalism as a foraging strategy to increase fecundity”. Behavioral Ecology doi:10.109, Australia.
    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) – Mantodea: Praying Mantids.