Menacing Mantises

If you were an insect and you ran into this guy, you’d be shaking in your chitin – actually, you’d probably be lunch before you even saw him. Thanks to @benisntfunny (but at least he’s talented) on Unsplash for this great shot!

The first time I ever saw a praying mantis was at my preschool when I was about five years old. This mantis was the biggest bug I’d ever seen at that time, and young bug-obsessed me probably would have sat there gawking at it all day if the teacher who caught it hadn’t taken it back outside after a few minutes. I wish we’d been able to keep it – the preschool I attended was run through my church, and a praying mantis would’ve made the perfect church mascot.

I can’t believe I don’t know of any sports teams with a mantis mascot; they may be bugs, but they’re intimidating bugs. If any of y’all do know of any mantis teams, please tell me their name(s) in the comment section, I’m curious. Anyway, on to the facts:

Whatever the species, mantises are absolutely beautiful. Most praying mantises I’ve seen have been brown and green, but there are different kinds around the world that sport a variety of spectacular hues and fancy body shapes. Some can even mimic the colors, textures and shapes of various leaves or flowers, or blend in to match other parts of their habitat. Despite their elegant exoskeletons, however, praying mantises aren’t exactly dainty.

Before I knew much about them, the name “praying mantis” used to bring to my mind the image of a wise old insect with its head peacefully bowed in prayer. While they do get their name from the way their forelimbs resemble a posture of prayer, mantises act a lot less like insect monks and more like tiny, superpowered ninjas: they jump, they fly, they’re fast, and they’re really, really good at attacking things. Praying and fighting… they’re insect knights?

Let’s get these guys some tiny swords. And some of those fancy helmets.

Even the common mantis is amazing to observe in action. Like jaguars of the insect world, mantises hunt by stalking their prey, patiently waiting for the right moment to pounce and snag bugs with spiked arms that move faster than our eyes can comprehend – guess they won’t be needing those swords after all. Their excellent camouflage is an added bonus, but all things considered, being spotted prematurely would only be a minor setback for these lightning-fast predators. A mantis can also turn its body mid-jump with surprising maneuverability, twist its head 180 degrees in either direction, and has high-functioning, three-dimensional eyes that can see up to 60 feet away. Seeing in 3-D might sound pretty normal to us, but in the world of insects, that’s a rare skill to have.

With all their incredible hunting capabilities, praying mantises are a welcome sight in many gardens – most of the time. Mantises will attack anything that moves, so while they may get rid of problem bugs, they also might take out your butterflies and honeybees, which isn’t exactly ideal.

Attacking “anything they moves” also means that mantises may jump on people who get to close, which I found out the hard way trying to get a close-up video of a young mantis in my yard one time. I wish I still had that video to put on the ArthroBlogger Instagram, but alas, I lost it long ago thanks to the sudden and mysterious disappearance of my iPod nano. ‘Twas a sad day in my tweenhood when I lost that thing.

Although humans aren’t actually on the menu, mantis prey isn’t limited to only arthropods – depending on the species, these killing machines have also been known to eat hummingbirds, mice, lizards and other vertebrates up to three times their size. Mantises aren’t easy prey themselves, either, as they have been known to battle their foes by slashing at them with their spiky forearms. Sometimes the mantises are able to avoid confrontations with bats altogether, as they can recognize the soundwaves bats use for echolocation and will corkscrew quickly to the ground if they detect such frequencies midflight.

You may be saying to yourself, these guys are amazing – is there anything a praying mantis can’t do?

Why, yes, there is. Well, at least male mantises: the guys can’t fall in love without literally losing their heads.

I think we’ve all heard about the nightmare that is mantis romance: to make a long story short, females sometimes bite off and eat the heads of males after or even while mating. Therefore it can be rather unfortunate to be a male praying mantis, but the females don’t face this cannibalistic threat – apart from predators, lady mantises are kind of unstoppable. Girl power, woo!

I’d love to have a pet praying mantis (which is actually a thing you can do), but as I mentioned earlier, mantises will only eat food that moves. I recently kept a jumping spider as a pet for a couple of days and had to feed him live crickets, which was a miserable experience to say the least. Rafiki the jumping spider was a very fun temporary pet, but fulfilling his dietary needs was very… not fun.

Learn from my mistakes, folks: don’t get too close to praying mantises (unless you don’t mind them jumping on your head), don’t adopt a jumping spider (unless you’re not squeamish about its breakfast having a face), and don’t set your outdated smart-tech down in random places (unless you’re okay never seeing it again).

Rest in peace, purple iPod nano. You are missed.

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