Zipping through the cool Connecticut early autumn air, a hummingbird sips sweet nectar from each flower it approaches. By beating its wings at incredible speeds, the world's smallest bird is capable of hovering, an invaluable adaptation for feeding sessions. Flying amongst the flowers of berry bushes - just a few feet above a blanket of crunching, colorful leaves that have only recently begun to fall - would generally seem like a safe altitude for flying, far under the radar of rabid raptors soaring high in the sky. On this particular afternoon, however, the unsuspecting hummingbird goes from diner to dinner in the blink of an eye.
Bushes have once again provided invaluable cover for the European Mantis, whose elongated green body seamlessly blends into the foliage. Indistinguishable from the plant's leafy branches, this predatory insect capitalizes on camouflage to consume an array of animals. Spiders, butterflies, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and almost any species of invertebrate remain the more manageable meals to kill and devour, but small lizards, frogs, snakes, rodents, and birds are equally susceptible prey given the right circumstances - impressive for a hunter only measuring 6 centimeter (2.5 inches) long.
In this case, the hummingbird was prime for snaring, unknowingly hovering well within the Mantid's deadly reach. The predator ambushes with swift precision, simultaneously striking and grasping the bird with long, powerful forelegs lined with tiny overlapping spines along the femur and tibia that render any escape attempt futile. This fact does not deter the ensnared creature from desperately fighting to live another day, but one bite into the neck easily ends the resistance. Even without venom, this bite completely paralyzes the prey, and the European Mantis can continue eating its victim without the nuisance of a struggle.
Until as recently as the turn of the twentieth century, this hummingbird would have finished its feeding unharmed; as its name suggests, the European Mantis has not historically inhabited the American continents, only just arriving in 1899 via a plant shipment from the species' homeland of southern Europe. What started as a small population to assist in pest control has rapidly multiplied and spread across North America, from the northeastern United States and southeastern Canadian provinces, across the continent to the Pacific Northwest. While more than 2,000 different types of Mantids found around the globe, Mantis religiosa stands out as the most identifiable species, as well as the most widespread within the Mantidae family.
The insect's most commonly used nickname - Praying Mantis - is derived from its distinctive posture, which resembles a deeply religious stance. While squatting on its hind four legs, the Mantid's spiny forelegs are innocently folded in front of its body, as if it were consumed in worship - an ironically peaceful position for a pair of appendages adept at killing. The rest of the slender body - comprised of a notably long prothorax and abdomen on either end of the thorax - remains perfectly straight, angled slightly up.
Naturally, this body begins with a triangular head, with spherical eyes bulging from the upper corners and a beaklike labrum concealing sharp mandibles at the bottom point. Like most insects, Praying Mantises detect smells through two threadlike antennae growing out from the center of their heads - but this sense proves secondary to sight for the purposes of hunting. Using binocular vision, these predators can spot potential prey from more than sixty feet away, allowing them plenty of time to establish perfect positioning for a kill. Enhancing eyesight that is already particularly powerful, the Mantid expands its field of view with the unbelievable ability to rotate its head 300 degrees - the widest range of any insect.
Perhaps no trait has earned this species such widespread intrigue and distinction, however, than the females' behavioral habit of post-copulation cannibalism. Every fall, males embark down the fated road of ultimately fatal romances. After initiating courtship, dancing to entice females to fornicate, males mount their partners. The danger of death, ironically enough, comes during this ensuing mating session, when females will often bite off the male's head in the midst of copulation. If the male is still mounted at the moment of attack, he will begin to flail and spasm, which in spite of the obvious pain, promotes reproductive efficiency; males who submit to cannibalism during intercourse can copulate for nearly twice as long compared to undisturbed mates. Those who evade death during the depositing of sperm, however, generally do not survive much longer. Dismounting often provides the prime opportunity for females to ambush their mates.
Soon after this mate-and-meal ritual, females will lay between 10 and 400 tiny eggs in ootheca, a frothy substance that quickly hardens to form a protective layering. Those eggs that survive the perils of hungry wasps and wintry temperatures will hatch during the following spring or early summer. Within moments of birth, the dominant nymphs will emulate their mothers, cannibalizing weaker siblings for their first meal. In the coming weeks, these nymphs grow rapidly - devouring aphids and leafhoppers, developing wings and functional genitalia, and shedding numerous times until reaching full maturation and size by the end of the summer - just weeks before beginning the reproductive cycle for their first and last time.
While males obviously meet earlier deaths, females do not live significantly longer. After laying eggs, few survive the colder winter season in temperate zones, while those living in tropical environments rarely exceed a year of life, anyways. Despite the short duration of their lives, Praying Mantises play a significant role in their ecosystems, controlling the populations of insects posing as pests to farmers' crops - a considerably popular contribution that should aid these American immigrants in continuing to thrive for years to come, in spite of recent slight downward population trends and expanding human development.
An adult female Mantis is depicted upon a leaf in summertime. Although Mantis religiosa is native to Eurasia, the species was introduced into North America nearly 100 years ago to control other insects considered to be garden pests.
Praying Mantis, Mantid
5-7.5 centimeters (2-3 inches)
Temperate and Tropical Vegetation
Invertebrates, small frogs, birds, lizards, snakes, and rodents
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Mantis religiosa is the official state insect of Connecticut, despite not being an endemic species.
In Greek, the word "mantis" is defined as a prophet or fortuneteller, another homage to the insect's stationary stance.
The Mantid's closest relatives are cockroaches and termites.
The Praying Mantis can also be distinguished by a black-ringed spots beneath the coxae on the jointed arthropod legs.
Larger birds and frogs will often eat Praying Mantises, but slugs pose a particularly dangerous threat, excreting mucus containing certain enzymes that are lethal to Mantids.