Praying Mantids

Praying Mantids

A little while ago, a little green fleck landed on my arm. It was about three millimetres long and turned out to be the most perfect little praying mantid. Which got me thinking about, and subsequently researching, these creatures – an exercise that turned out to be simply fascinating! Named for their prominent front legs that fold together in a gesture suggesting devotion, the praying mantis appears serene and soulful. That assumption would be a mistake. They are nowhere nearas docile as they appear. In fact, praying mantids are ambush predators with lightning-fast moves and many other extreme skills. 

So, is it Mantis or Mantid? In most cases, you should be using the words “praying mantid” (with a d) – instead of praying mantis – (with an s). The word mantis can be correct but only actually applies to a very specific genus of the species. So mantid is typically more accurate. We will use the terms interchangeably throughout this article.

The praying mantid has a triangular head with two globe-shaped eyes, almost giving it the appearance of an alien. Thanks to the placement of their eyes, they also have a wide field of vision. A black dot in the middle of each eye looks like a pupil and, in a way, it is. It is called a pseudopupil and is part of a unique system that gives these creatures a big advantage in their schemes to ambush prey. Like humans, praying mantids use both eyes to create three-dimensional sight. But not all parts of their eyes have the same function. Some parts can focus in high definition, whilst other parts see movement and light. Together, this creates depth. By moving their compound eyes, their brain can gather enough information to detect even the most well camouflaged prey. So, when it seems like the black dot of a pseudopupil is looking right at you, it is…

Praying mantids have long necks topped by a triangular head which they can turn a full 180 degrees. They have a flexible joint between the head and prothorax that enables them to swivel their heads in a half circle, which is an advantage when hunting or evading predators. They’re well-camouflaged, adapting colours that help them blend with plants. Some also have amazing body shapes that make them look like leaves or branches. Finally, their front legs have rows of sharp spines. When waiting for prey, the mantid holds its front legs in an upright position (“praying”). There is nothing angelic about the pose though – it’s a deadly waiting game. If something happens to land within its reach, it will extend its arms with lightning quick speed, and grab the prey. Sharp spines line the mantid’s forelegs, enabling it to grasp the prey tightly as it eats. Praying mantids are carnivores that eat only live prey. They feed on insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, frogs, lizards and even small birds. Remember than many species are much larger than those we find here in South Africa, and there are even videos on YouTube showing mantids catching hummingbirds…

Whilst the mantids have two eyes, they only have a single ear, located on the underside of their belly, just in front of its hind legs. This means they cannot discriminate the direction of a sound, nor its frequency. What it can do is detect ultrasound, or sound produced by echolocating bats. They judge to the millisecond when they are about to be eaten, and in that instant, they will essentially stop, drop, and roll in midair, entering into a vertical dive to evade the bat’s jaws. It is said that the mantids have evolved to become so successful at this that they get away about 80% of the time. 

Female mantids engage in sexual cannibalism. Which mean that males do not always survive the mating season. A large percentage of mating encounters end with the female praying mantis biting off the head of the male and eating him. Some studies have found that females who had cannibalized their partner produced significantly more eggs than those that did not, suggesting that this behaviour may increase the chance of reproductive success.

There are approximately 2000 species of Mantis, all living in temperate and tropical regions of the world. Their scientific name, mantodea, translated from Greek, means prophet. Which us brings us to our closing point – their significance to humans, and particularly to the San people. It is interesting to note that the praying mantis has been given prophetic powers in many cultures. In South Africa, the praying mantis is often called “Hottentotsgot” or “hotnotsgot”, which means God of the Bushmen. Kaggen, the praying mantis, is one of the creatures that play a significant role in the beliefs and stories of the San people. There is also an African belief that a mantis landing on a person is an omen of good luck.

So next time you see one of these delightful creatures, take a moment to appreciate them. There’s far more to the praying mantis than originally meets the eye…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


A praying mantis jump. (1000 frames per second)

Kung Fu Mantis Vs Jumping Spider | Life Story | BBC

Mantis Mating | Wildlife On One: Enter The Mantis | BBC Earth

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