The Praying Mantis
A praying mantis is an order of insects consisting of 2400 species. These are also grouped in genera and families. The family called Mantidae is the largest. They live all over the world in both tropical and temperate climates. A praying mantis has long front legs which when stretched appear as if the insect is praying. Because of this, the praying mantis gets its name from the Greek word for a fortune-teller, mantikos.
Praying mantises are carnivores. They eat small animals and other insects. They eat crickets, spiders, grasshoppers, frogs, lizards and small birds. Their greenish/brown color gives them good camouflage against predators. Their unusual shape also makes them hard to see among branches and leaves. They usually eat their prey headfirst. Their long legs have little spines on them which help to hold the prey while the mantis eats it. Females are usually larger than the males. They cannot fly well because of their weight.
Most mantises found in the United States have been brought in from other areas of the world. The first was discovered in the United States in 1899. Only eighteen native species have been identified in the United States. Chinese and European mantids are very common today in the northeastern part of the United States.
Mantises have long necks. Their heads are triangular in shape and can turn around 180 degrees because they have a flexible joint between the head and the prothorax. Because they accomplish this feat and because they have long faces which may seem to look human, people like to watch praying mantises.
In the fall, a female praying mantis deposits its eggs on a branch or twig of a tree. She then secretes a foamy substance to cover and protect the eggs over winter. This protective case is called an ootheca. Inside there may be only twelve or there may be four hundred eggs. They hatch while still in the protective case over the winter. The eggs may take anywhere from three to six months to come out of the ootheca. This will happen during the spring and summer.
Sometimes the female mantis will eat her male partner although this happens more often in a laboratory than in nature. In the wild, only 30 percent of males are eaten by the females. The rest just fly off. A hungry female will more likely want to eat the male.
Even though the praying mantis looks very holy and angelic, it is a fierce predator. If an insect flies near, its long legs quickly dart out and capture the prey. Farmers like to have praying mantises around. However, the mantises like all kinds of insects, good and bad, so may eat those which are helpful to a garden as well as those which can destroy a garden.
A praying mantis has two eyes so its vision is fairly good. It has only one ear which is situated under its belly in front of its hind legs. It cannot really hear sound but can detect ultrasound which is produced by bats. Thus, they can keep away from predatory bats.
Mantises can grow up to six inches. They do not prey on very many other animals because of their spiny legs which scare off predators. Spiders may eat a young mantis. Mantises and tarantulas sometimes do battle for a meal. At night, praying mantises may stay near a light waiting for small insects, but a bat may catch them up quickly in that spot. Usually, the mantis stays on a branch all day and waits for prey to come along.
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