Meowwww!: The cat mantis

September 8, 2013 • 6:44 am

This creature combines features of two of my favorite groups;  it’s an arthropod that looks like a cat. It is in fact the “cat mantis” (Heterochaeta orientalis), whose popular name was just coined by biologist/photographer Piotr Naskrecki on his site The Smaller Majority.

Naskrecki found these during his travels in Mozambique:

Some of the first animals that I spotted when I resumed my nightly patrols around the lights of the Chitengo camp were huge praying mantids Heterochaeta orientalis, whose head morphology immediately brought to my mind a scrawny, long-eared house cat, and that’s what I decided to call them. The Cat mantids are probably some of the largest in Africa, with the females’ body length approaching 20 cm. Males are about 15 cm long, which still makes for an imposing insect.

For the metric-illiterate, 15 and 20 cm are roughly 6 and 8 inches, respectively (a dollar bill is almost exactly 6 inches long).

And the inevitable disclaimer about tropical insects:

Little is known about this species’ biology.

(All captions from the original site.)

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I decided to christen this impressive praying mantis (Heterochaeta orientalis) the Cat mantis, on the account of its head morphology, but even its defensive behavior reminds me of a cranky cat. (Is there any other kind?)

Its sticklike appearance almost certainly evolved as a form of camouflage:

When resting on a branch these insects hold their long raptorial legs outstretched to the sides in an uncanny resemblance of two dead twigs coming off a larger branch, very unlike the typical “praying” stance of other mantids, who tend to hold their raptorial legs neatly folded under the pronotum. The pointy protuberances on the Cat mantis’ eyes enhance the illusion that this animal is just a dead, spiky stick. Clearly, their main defense mechanism is to remain undetected by either predator or prey.

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While resting on a branch the Cat mantis keeps its forelegs outstretched to the side, enhancing the illusion of being just another dead stick.

But wait—there’s more:

But in addition to its superb crypsis the Cat mantis has another trick up its sleeve when it comes to avoiding being eaten. When I first tried to pick up one of the individuals that came to the light, it immediately responded by rearing up its body, opening the front legs to reveal a bright patch on the underside, and fanning its wings to flash a beautiful, contrastingly yellow and black pattern. This color combination signifies danger (think wasps and their stingers) and many potential predators may pause before attacking the Cat mantis, giving it time to fly away. The mantis is bluffing, of course, as other than a very weak pinch it can deliver with its long forelegs it does not have any real weapons or chemical defenses.

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When cornered the Cat mantis rears up to make itself look bigger and flashes beautifully yellow and black hind wings that normally lie hidden under the cryptically colored front wings.

Naskrecki continues:

Ever since I first came to Mozambique I have been marveling at the praying mantis fauna of Gorongosa, which is the richest that I have seen anywhere in the world. My species list is approaching 50, but the actual number is almost certainly greater. Their abundance is also exceptionally high, and it is not rare for me to get 5-10 individuals of praying mantids in a single sweep of an insect net across the tall grassland.

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A male Cat mantis at sunset.

Thanks to Piotr, who has given me the opportunity to use his photos without asking. As for the rest of you without such exalted status, remember that they’re copyrighted. And if you’ve any interest in insects and nature photography, be sure to check in regularly at The Smaller Majority. 

10 thoughts on “Meowwww!: The cat mantis

  1. What a delightful mantid! I’m surprised it can only give a pinch with its forelegs as our much smaller praying mantises, though usually timid if you are gentle when handling them, can give a painful bite. Maybe the mantids here are just bad ass. 🙂

  2. My species list is approaching 50, but the actual number is almost certainly greater. Their abundance is also exceptionally high, and it is not rare for me to get 5-10 individuals of praying mantids in a single sweep of an insect net across the tall grassland.

    What a confusing group! From Piotr’s description of net success vs total success I don’t know if these mantids have a prayer or not.

    Well, they include a Cat mantis so maybe I should have expected that.

    1. I forgot: If this mantid indeed mimics acacia spines, it could mean that mantid and acacia are actually mimicking cats; this then is irrefutable evidence that both were created in the Image of Ceiling Cat.

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