With its large eyes and swiveling head, the mantid entertains and fascinates us. Most people call members of the suborder Mantodea praying mantises, referring to their prayer-like posture when sitting. Mantis is a Greek word meaning prophet or soothsayer.
At maturity, most mantids are large insects of 5-8 centimeters in length. Like all members of the order Dictyoptera, mantids have leathery forewings that fold over their abdomens when at rest. Mantids move slowly, and prefer walking among the branches and leaves of plants to flying from place to place.
The mantid's triangular head can rotate and swivel, even allowing it to look over its "shoulder", which is a unique ability in the insect world. Two large compound eyes and up to three ocelli between them help the mantid navigate its world. The first pair of legs, held distinctively forward, allow the mantid to catch and grasp insects and other prey.
Species in North America are typically green or brown in color. In tropical areas, mantid species come in a variety of colors, sometimes mimicking flowers.
- Kingdom - Animal
- Phylum - Arthropoda
- Class - Insecta
- Order - Dictyoptera
- Suborder - Mantodea
Mantids prey on other insects, and are sometimes considered a beneficial garden insect for that reason. However, hungry mantids do not discriminate when feeding, and may eat other beneficial insects as well as those we call pests in our gardens. Some species of Mantodea even prey on vertebrates, including small birds and lizards.
Members of the family Mantodea undergo simple or incomplete metamorphosis, with three life cycle stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Females lay 200 or more eggs in a frothy mass called an ootheca, which hardens and protects the eggs as they develop. The nymph emerges from the egg mass as a tiny version of the adult mantid. As it grows, the nymph molts until it develops functioning wings and reaches adult size.
In temperate climates, adults live from spring to fall, when they mate and lay eggs, which over winter. Tropical species may live as long as twelve months.
Special Adaptations and Defenses:
A mantid's primary defense is camouflage. By blending into its environment, the mantid stays hidden from predators and prey alike. Mantids may mimic sticks, leaves, bark, and flowers with their colors. In Australia and Africa, some mantids molt after fires, changing their color to the black of the charred landscape.
If threatened, a mantid will stand tall and spread its front legs to appear larger. Though not venomous, they will bite to defend themselves. In some species, the mantid may also expel air from its spiracles, making a hissing sound to scare off predators. Some mantids that fly at night can detect the echolocation sounds of bats, and react with a sudden change in direction to avoid being eaten.
Range and Distribution:
Over 2,300 species of mantids occur worldwide. Mantids live in both temperate and tropical climates, on every continent except Antarctica. Twenty species are native to North America. Two introduced species, the Chinese mantid (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) and the European mantid (Mantis religiosa) are now common throughout the United States.