Published: January 2006

Praying Mantid

Mantids: Armed and Dangerous

These ferocious insects are masters of disguise, outwitting their prey (if not always their predators).

Text and photograph by Mark W. Moffett

She seems almost human, this mantid I found in West Africa. She has such alert eyes, and her head tilts to follow me. But she is pure menace to any prey that happens to wander within range of those huge forelegs, which can snap shut like bear traps.

Most of the roughly 1,800 species of mantids—often called praying mantises—spend their time sitting and waiting, seemingly at prayer. In fact, I learned as I pursued them across four continents, they are among the insect world's craftiest hunters.

Brilliant disguise

Camouflage is a mantid art form, helping them hunt prey and hide from predators. An Ecuadorian mantid matches the color and texture of lichen on the twig from which it hangs; its arms are folded under its head, at left, but its antennae are a giveaway. A juvenile Burmese flower mantid blends in with a plant's stamens in Myanmar. Mantids can also mimic leaves, grass, twigs, stones, even ants.

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