It appears to kneel as if in reverence. It lifts its front legs, or “arms,” as if in prayer. Humanlike, it swivels its head from side to side, the only insect in the world able to do this, as if surveying the congregation of its church. It walks slowly, meekly, like a monk in a holy trance.
But let a bug, say a grasshopper, wander too near, and the praying mantis strikes suddenly, like an ogre. Quick as an electronic flash, it uses its “prayerful” front legs to snatch up the unsuspecting victim, locking it tightly in a barbed nutcracker-like clinch. It devours its prey alive, oblivious to the futile attempts to escape. Let another praying mantis wander too near, and the two may join in a savage fight to the death, with the winner eating the loser, utterly undeterred by an act of cannibalism. Let the mate of a female praying mantis wander too near, and she, always the larger and stronger of the two, may attack and eat the father of her own children. Let another insect threaten, and the praying mantis will issue from its mouth a molasses-colored, evil-smelling liquid that will foul its enemy’s legs and antenna, creating a gooey and perhaps fatal mess. I’d just hate to meet up with a praying mantis if I were a bug.
The Praying Mantis and Early Myths
With its worshipful appearance on one hand and bloodthirsty behavior on the other, the praying mantis, widely distributed across the world, has given rise to many myths, as suggested by its very name, “mantis,” which means “prophet” or “seer,” a being with spiritual or mystical powers. The praying mantis supposedly directed pilgrims to Mecca, the holiest site in the Islamic world. It became a god, restored life, bestowed good luck, and helped find lost sheep and goats in Africa. It helped wandering lovers and lost children find their way home in France. Its eggs cured bedwetting in China. Its brown defensive liquid blinded men and killed horses and mules in the United States. In 1957, it even gave rise to The Deadly Mantis, a movie about a giant praying mantis entombed in the ice of the Arctic. The creature revived after lava from a volcanic eruption melted its frozen encasement. It headed southward, threatening to destroy both New York City and Washington, D. C.
The Praying Mantis’ Anatomy
About 10 native species of praying mantis populate our Southwestern deserts. They range from brownish to tan like our desert soils or to greenish like the desert foliage. Typically, they measure a few inches in length. Their biological relatives include grasshoppers, crickets, walking sticks and cockroaches.
Like all insects, the praying mantis has a head, a thorax and an abdomen, all encased by an external skeleton. (You and I have internal skeletons.) It has two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs.
Its head, with two long antennae, has a distinctively triangular shape. Like various other insects, the praying mantis has large compound eyes. (Compound eyes have a number of lenses, or sensors, that can detect light and movement. Simple eyes, like ours, have a single lens that focuses an image sharply on the retina.) Uniquely, the praying mantis has not two, but rather a single ear, which it uses to alert it to potential predators, especially its worst enemy, bats. The praying mantis’ thorax consists largely of a long flexible neck, making the creature the giraffe of the insect world. It uses its neck to swivel its head, enabling it to rely on its compound eyes to gauge distances more accurately. It becomes more effective in locating, ambushing and seizing prey. The praying mantis’ segmented abdomen holds its digestive and reproductive organs.
The praying mantis folds its two pair of wings flat up against its abdomen, with the outer pair serving to protect the inner, flying wings. It uses its four back legs for walking, climbing and leaping. It uses its two disproportionately large and wickedly hooked front legs, located on the neck just behind the head, for capturing and clinching its prey.
The Praying Mantis Life Span
The praying mantis lives from the spring into the fall. It hatches from an egg sack with the coming of warm weather, looking like a tiny adult without wings. It molts, or gives up its old and outgrown skin for a new and larger one, six or seven times as it grows to adulthood. Once mature, it seeks a mate. In some species, the male and female engage in a ritualistic courtship dance, stroking each other fondly with their antennae before they finally mate. The male may make the ultimate sacrifice, serving as a meal for his mate, or he may make his escape, flying away to safety. Come fall, the female crafts her egg sack, an sculptural jewel perhaps half the size of your little finger. Like a master craftsman, she places her eggs by the dozens in a carefully braided pattern. She covers the sack with a froth that dries and hardens like plaster. She leaves the sack attached to the twig or a trunk of a tree to await the spring hatch. It is the climactic act of her life. She will die within a couple of weeks.
The Praying Mantis and the Desert Food Chain
The praying mantis, a master at camouflage, hunts throughout the day. Driven by hunger from the time of its hatching, it may eat its brothers and sisters if it can find no other food. Even more ravenous by the time it reaches adulthood, it may either ambush or stalk its prey. It strikes so swiftly that you can scarcely see the movement. It uses the spines on its front legs to impale and clutch its prey, immediately beginning to chew into the throat. Given the opportunity, it may hold one victim with one front leg and snatch another with the other front leg, feeding gluttonously on them both. While the praying mantis prefers cockroaches and flies, it may attack any number of other insects as well as spiders, salamanders, frogs, mice and hummingbirds.
For all its ferociousness, the praying mantis faces its share of enemies, for example, spiders, snakes, birds and the bats. It protects itself, not only by issuing an offensive brown liquid, but also by mimicking leaves or twigs, hoping to be overlooked. Directly threatened, it may rise on its hind legs and rattle or hiss with its wings, hoping to frighten a predator. Should its single ear signal a threat by a bat while in flight, the praying mantis will immediately begin flying erratically and elusively, hoping to escape its pursuer.
The Praying Mantis and Modern Myths
Strangely, the triangular-shaped head and face of the praying mantis bears an eerie resemblance to the heads and faces of some purported extraterrestrials, in particular, those portrayed in various photographs and illustrations of the “crews” who occupied the Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) that supposedly crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. It even looks somewhat similar to some strange figures in prehistoric rock art. If a praying mantis should, in fact, turn out to be a prophet or a seer or an alien species that dates from prehistoric times, I should hate to meet up with one.
by Jay W. Sharp
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