Column: The Praying Mantis
By Jim Knox
Considered prime agents of biological control, their abilities have long been esteemed—so much so that in 1977, the alien, European Praying Mantis was granted protected status as the Official State Insect of Connecticut—an unheard of honor for an introduced species.
With a blurring speed of 30 thousandths of a second—more than twice the speed of a blinking human eye—the Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) possesses one of the fastest strikes in the animal kingdom. Such rapid strike ability enables it to make its living by preempting the actions of its prey and its competitors alike. This is what the mantis does and does very well, however, its trademark lightning strike is not the only weapon in its arsenal. Topping out at approximately 4 inches, or roughly the size of an adult human index finger, the Praying Mantis is a giant in its world of micro-beasts. Its size alone, confers a tremendous advantage against its insect kin. Collectively referred to as mantids, the family Mantidae is highly consistent, exhibiting long, slender, muscular bodies with extendable legs. With slight morphological tweaks to this winning design, their worldwide success is undeniable, with nearly one mantid variety for every two known mammal species.
Though often cited for its ambush ability, the mantis will take instant flight to actively locate prey and hunting opportunities. Possessing three simple eyes as well as enormous, sophisticated compound eyes which afford it a wide field of view and excellent binocular vision, the mantis perceives and targets motion without fail. Sporting this sensory array, its head can swivel 180 degrees perched high atop an extended thorax, ever vigilant for opportunity. Relying on its stealthy cloak of green-brown camouflage to visually recede into its foliage world, the mantis can both avoid danger and ambush dinner with equal facility.
Equipped with spiked, extendable, jack-knifing forelimbs, this master predator will lunge and impale its prey with inextricable, double-clamping proficiency. Mantises possess raptorial forelimbs with a folded, spring-design exoskeletal mechanism which stores energy in the folded or “praying” position of the muscles within the forelimbs. Once within a mantid’s unforgiving grasp, prey is rapidly eaten alive, dismembered by its angular, shear-like mandibles. Even its behavioral adaptations are preemptive, as it frequently eats biting or venomous prey head-first to minimize the possibility of counterassault.
In nature, predators often “prey down”, meaning they will frequently select prey which is lower on the taxonomic order than themselves. We hardly grimace at the thought of a Robin snapping up an earthworm or a Sea Otter munching on a Sea Urchin. Yet when predators “prey up”, things get a little sticky for us humans, who crave our own sense of logic and order. To most, there is something inherently unnatural in watching a sea jelly engulf a fish—or worse yet—a tarantula take down a mouse. Though invertebrate on invertebrate bloodshed is considered perfectly acceptable, we put our collective foot down when it comes to creepy crawlies snacking on “higher animals”.
When I present such scenarios in programs, words like, “gross” and “nasty” erupt from an audience. Viewed through the lens of societal bias, “preying up” is certainly backward, often macabre, and frequently downright wrong. If the world’s mega predators face an inherent PR challenge, its invertebrate stalkers are in dire need of an all-out PR makeover.
Given this attitude, invertebrate hunters should be universally reviled and yet, that’s not entirely the case. Elevating “preying up” to an art form, the Praying Mantis is a master assassin bar none. Leap-frogging up the taxonomic ladder, this fearless beast doesn’t discriminate in the least, embracing its role as an equal-opportunity predator, snatching and chomping down: newts, frogs, fish, young mice, snakes, turtle hatchlings and even ethereal hummingbirds with indifference.
With all of this vertebrate carnage on its resume, the mantis would be an understandable target for human ire but mantises and humans go way back. Five thousand years ago, Egyptians worshipped the mantis as an insect-bird demi-god, safely guiding souls to the afterlife. Poised motionless with its front legs raised in seeming prayer, the mantis attracted many admirers. The word Mantis is Greek which translates to “prophet” or “diviner”, revealing the steadfast belief of the ancient Greeks in the insect’s supernatural powers. For thousands of years mantises have been specifically bred in China for their ability to protect gardens from insect pests and provide order and balance with their fellow insects and other small creatures. Considered prime agents of biological control, their abilities have long been esteemed—so much so that in 1977, the alien, European Praying Mantis was granted protected status as the Official State Insect of Connecticut—an unheard of honor for an introduced species.
Why all the love? How is the mantis different from its scorpion and giant centipede cohorts? The answer lies in the insect’s strategy and results. Mantises don’t simply exploit opportunity where it arises, they actively seek opportunity in anything that moves that they can overpower. In short, they embrace what we humans view as situational ignorance and they do so with explosive action. It is this counterintuitive combination which makes the mantis so absurdly successful. A mantis doesn’t know it is an insect. It doesn’t recognize the fact that on a given day, or in a given moment, its chosen prey could injure, incapacitate, or possibly kill it. Once a target is acquired, it moves decisively, with lethal abandon. It doesn’t know it can’t “prey up”, so it does…with the best of them. In achieving what we often fail to achieve, the mantis wins our admiration.
With more than 2,400 known species—and dozens more discovered each year—the world of mantids is vast. The diversity and capability of this family is exceptional: flawlessly mimicking bark, leaves and orchids, mantid camouflage is nature’s gold standard. A 4-inch slayer of salamanders, frogs and the occasional venomous snake, the European Mantis is a common beast which commands uncommon respect.
Not every situation calls for us to unleash the explosively opportunistic mantis within but often times, that’s just who we need to get the job done. With the Praying Mantis as our model, we may endeavor to achieve what others fail to consider.
As the Writer and Host for PBS television’s Wild Zoofari, Jim Knox has shared his knowledge of, and passion for wildlife with millions of viewers throughout the U.S., Russia, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe on Animal Planet. Jim has served as an on-camera wildlife expert for The Today Show, The CBS Early Show and Fox News and he has been featured in The New York Times.
Jim currently serves as the Curator of Education at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo where he directs Education and Wildlife Conservation programs. Jim is a graduate of Cornell University where he studied Animal Science. He has studied rhinos, lions and Great White Sharks in South Africa, conducted field research for Alaskan Brown Bears, field conservation for Atlantic Salmon and written nationally for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A TED Speaker, as well as a corporate and keynote presenter, Jim enjoys helping audiences to understand and learn from wildlife and teaching them how to put those lessons into practice in their everyday life.
Jim is the Co-Creator of The Conservation Discovery Corps. He has presented to The Harvard College Conservation Society, lectures for the University of Connecticut, serves as a Science Advisor for The Bruce Museum of Greenwich, and now a columnist for the Greenwich Sentinel.