Friday, February 19, 2010

Praying mantis

Today's focus: the incredible praying mantis. The name comes from their prayer-like stance, but when those raptorial forelegs (3rd image) are not in repose they are incredibly powerful. I had no idea that praying mantises regularly kill and feed on birds, mice, and even snakes. My friend Sheila witnessed a dramatic feeding and was kind enough to share the story in her own words:

"It was the summer of 1997, very hot and sticky as Washington is known to be. My friends and I had just finished painting my house and were having a much needed beer on the back deck right outside the kitchen. We didn't have any outdoor mood lighting, but did have one spotlight that was placed on the outside wall between the second and third floor. It gave us enough light to feel comfortable being outside, but not enough to illuminate with any clarity. We were having many beers that evening, and perhaps a margarita or two, when I noticed a shadow of a praying mantis on the outside kitchen wall. At first I thought it was someone making a finger puppet, but the definition of the beast was too perfect and the shadow too high and too large. Soon we were all talking and watching, watching and talking, but were transfixed when the big fella picked up a little lady bug, looked at it for a minute, and then proceeded to bite off its head. Mind you, this was illuminated on our wall into cinema proportion. We were completely mesmerized by its gigantic size, mercilessness, and cleanliness. Not one drop of liquid was dropped, not one smear made. He continued to eat the little lady bit by bit, cleaning his hands and feet throughout the process. We felt like we had just helplessly witnessed a murder. It was unforgettable!"

Not only are they photogenic, praying mantises are striking in many different media: giant corrugated iron sculpture (scroll down), medium-sized pen and ink drawings, and life-sized origami. This cursor-chasing mantis in the weird news may or may not be computer-generated. These insects may be weird, but they are not often featured in the weird news. The only stories I could find, other than the praying mantis that ate the hummingbird (linked above), are their use of ultrasonic hearing to avoid capture by bats, and the discovery of a rare 87-million-year-old fossil in a Japanese amber mine (4th image).

Praying mantises evolved from the same ancestor as cockroaches. Their predatory style is to lie in wait - except when they are mating, at which time the females are known to sometimes bite the heads off the males. Their heads are in fact very flexible, with large compound eyes (1st image). Praying mantises are masters of camouflage: their coloring helps them blend in with leaves or tree bark, they sway from side to side as if they are foliage moved by the wind, and some species even molt to black to match fire-damaged surroundings when necessary. They can bite, grasp, spike, and hiss at their prey, and are prized by gardeners as a form of biological pest control. Organic gardeners, in particular, "plant" the oothecas (egg masses) so that the nymphs that emerge will spend their year-long life protecting the vegetables and making pesticides unnecessary.

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