Two lovely mantids

August 25, 2013 • 10:03 am

Biologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki continues to produce great posts on his travels in Africa. You can see them at his website The Smaller Majority, and this week he’s posted on the Empusidae, a small family (28 species) of mantids.  He say that they fall into two morphological classes:

Two main body types are common – they are either thin and stick-like or, while still being rather spindly, the body is covered with large lobes and flaps, making them excellent mimics of dried, shriveled leaves.

He has photos of both types. This one, of the thin variety, looks like some bizarre space alien dreamed up in Hollywood (all photos reproduced by permission, and please don’t reproduce ’em without asking Piotr):

The stick-like variety, such as the genera Empusa, Hemiempusa, and Idolomorpha, are usually found in grassy vegetation, where they hunt small insects, such as planthoppers and grasshopper nymphs. Earlier this year I ran across a gorgeous male specimen of Idolomorpha dentifrons on the Cheringoma Plateau of Gorongosa, but had troubles photographing it in a way that would properly convey its incredibly elongate morphology. In the end I took a series of vertical photos of its head and front legs that I stitched together in PS, and here is the result. Male empusids are unusual in having pectinate antennae, the kind usually seen in silk moths and other insects with well-developed pheromonal communication, where the female emits sex pheromones and males follow the faint scent trail. Not surprisingly, such behavior was recently demonstrated to be present in empusids (Gemeno et al. 2005. J. Ins. Behav. 18: 389-403).

The captions are Piotr’s:

Male empusid (I. dentifrons) cleaning his pectinate antennae.
A portrait of a male empusid Idolomorpha dentifrons from Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. This photo is a composite of four vertical frames.

In fact, this reminds me of some alien in a science-fiction movie, but I can’t remember the film. Does anybody know it?

And the other type:

The leaf-like morphology can be seen in the Devil’s mantis (Idolomantis diabolica), arguably one of the most striking and beautiful praying mantids in the world. The body of immature individuals resembles a dry, withered leaf, except for the brighter colors on the underside of the raptorial front legs. Adults turn pale green and white, and the pattern on their front legs becomes brightly red, resembling vivid petals of a flower. There is a reason for this – Devil’s mantids are specialized hunters of pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, and presumably this bright coloration fools some insects into coming dangerously too close.

Nymphs of the Devil’s mantis (Idolomantis diabolica) resemble dry, shriveled leaves, which allows them to blend among the vegetation where they hunt flying insects. Interestingly, this species is not interested in slower insects and those that walk or crawl on the vegetation – the prey must be flying really fast to elicit this predator’s response. (This species has recently become popular in the pet trade, and this photo shows a captive individual.)


16 thoughts on “Two lovely mantids

  1. That male empusid is beautiful!

    It’s funny how we think of them as aliens, but we’ve never seen an alien except on TV or in movies so really we should be thinking of TV/movie aliens as resembling insects but we are more familiar with TV/movie aliens so we see the insects as aliens and it makes sense to us when we apply the metaphor backwards like that. I don’t know what alien this mantid resembles but it’s a bit like the alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m sure there were various Star Trek (original series) aliens that looked a bit like this as well.

    1. Maybe not the original series. Google image search throws up too many variants to be sure.

      (Also, it is “Green Men”.)

  2. My usual complaint about Hollywood aliens is that they’re not alien enough; there are far more bizarre forms right here on Earth. There seems to be an unwritten rule that movie aliens must have a recognizable face, with two eyes and a mouth in more or less the same arrangement as ours. These mantids follow that pattern, which is what give them that Hollywood alien look.

    But of course that’s far from the only possible arrangement of sensory organs. Squid, snails, spiders, and any number of other creatures get by just fine without a face of the vertebrate sort. It seems that in nature, faces are the exception rather than the rule. So where are all the faceless movie aliens?

    1. Or that they have symmetrical bodies like us. There are allusions in some movies that don’t show the aliens as in the book/movie, k-pax. Ringworld had some interesting aliens as well.

  3. I have a wonderful crackpot hypothesis going, to the effect that a great many creatures share a similar personality-type. I have played with mantids, and am intrigued by the fact that a mantis on the finger will angle its head to look at my face rather than my hand or body, just as birds and animals do. All other insects, snails and arachnids do not look at my face. There are quite unexpected personality-similarities shared by many animals, birds and a few insects. It is with the interaction of different species that we can see the common personality-type It is best seen wherein different species share the same food-source at the same time, which can be seen in remote African waterholes, and in my yard. I have pictures of my cat who took to sleeping in a basket with a bottle-fed lamb. There is a deal of live and let live in the common personality type. It can be seen when so many creatures recognise ‘cuteness’ or baby-vulnerability in other species. But creatures others do not.
    There are many creatures that do not have that same personality-type. Geese, for example are stroppy, and so are wasps. They are stroppy in their disdain for other creatures, and they are always poised between attack or run. And so are religious people. Their interactions tend to be aggressive and overtly dominating.
    It may be premature to propose that a certain personality-type has evolved. Is it possible that the common accommodating personality-type is simply a common denominator among social creatures, and among creatures who share habitat, or is it possible that there are several possible variant personality-types? Geese, wasps, red ants, and religious people on one side, and ducks, cats, swallows, sheep, scientists, and red squirrels on the other side? All good clean fun.

  4. Some years ago I lived for a summer in an a highrise apartment in suburban Toronto, not far from some wildish meadows. I occasionally let my 2 cats (Newton and Maxwell) out on the balcony, and one day I noticed that they were in conflict with something out there. A closer look revealed that the mighty predators were being kept at bay by a pr*ying mantis that was hissing and turning sideways and opening its wings to flash threatening eyespots. I shooed the cats back inside, and trapped the mantis, apparently none the worse for wear. I did briefly consider keeping it as a pet, but wasn’t sure about getting it back across the US border, so I took it to one of the nearby grasshopper-laden fields and released it.

    (And, speaking of mantids, here’s one of my favourite Tshirts:

    1. Ha ha, I love the shirt!

      I’ve never heard a mantis hiss but I’ve never angered one because they can really bite!

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