The first time we ventured outside with our daughter for any length of time, she was only two and a half weeks old. We had some uncharacteristically warm weather for November, so we went to a small park that’s nestled in a quiet neighborhood atop of a river bluff. We decided she needed her first look of the mighty Mississippi River.
This was truly her very first experience with nature. We made it a short trip to ensure that it would be a pleasant one. Despite being at home in the outdoors myself, I was nervous about everything. The sun being too bright. The wind on the bluff being too much. Her getting too hot. Her getting too cold. I quickly realized that sharing this outdoor lifestyle with her was going to be a much bigger adventure than I had originally anticipated. The very sun in the sky was a first for her, and one I was already concerned about (she was too young for sun screen!). As we got her out of the car, I felt like I was holding my breath. I wanted this to go well. “Here we go…..”
We started by pushing her up the hill to the top of the bluff to show her the river. She wasn’t very interested, which was fine. I was just happy we were getting out of the house and she was staying awake for a change. We took our pictures and then made our way back down into the park. There was a nice bench where we could just sit and enjoy the weather for a bit before heading back to the car. Nothing too intense for our first outing. Baby steps. (Get it? BABY steps?)
And then, there on the path, was a praying mantis.
My background in zoology wasn’t filled with cute, fluffy critters. It was mostly filled with creepy crawlies and frogs, so I was very excited. I think most people get excited when they come across a praying mantis. They’re just so dang cool.
The great thing about praying mantises is they’re ambush predators, meaning they sit and wait for their prey to stroll past and then pounce, versus actively hunting down their food. This means that pretty much every time I’ve encountered one of these guys, I’ve been able to get very close and observe it for quite a while, which isn’t something that’s as easily accomplished with other, more skittish insects. So that’s what we did. With my daughter on my knee, we sat and watched our fellow park visitor for the remainder of our brief excursion.
Like all insects, praying mantises have three pairs of legs, but they only use the back two for walking. The front pair is adapted for catching and holding onto prey, and their folded structure makes for a kind of praying appearance, giving the insect its name. Forelegs like these are called raptorial, and they’re actually not unique to the praying mantis. Lots of predatory arthropods have them, such as several types of water bugs as well as the mantis shrimp. In fact, we’re so use to associating this trait with the praying mantis that we like to call other creatures with this feature “mantises”, even when they’re completely unrelated. Take the mantidfly for example. This guy looks like a small praying mantis with wings, but they’re actually a totally different insect.
Some species of praying mantises take their ambush strategy to the next level with very ornate camouflage adaptations. These are called flower mantises and they look extraordinarily similar to, you guessed it, flowers. This is called aggressive mimicry. Where some insects may mimic the appearance of other plants or animals for defense purposes, flower mantises use this technique to trick prey into coming too close. You’re going to want to do yourself a favor and check out some of these flower mantises for yourself. They’re beautifully bizarre.
We don’t have any of those awesome flower mantises here though. The three most common mantises we have in North America are the Carolina mantis, the European mantis, and the Chinese mantis. As you can likely infer from their names, the latter two are invasive. They were actually intentionally introduced as a means of biological control in agricultural areas. Since they’re predators, the idea was that these mantises would prey on crop pests, but unfortunately, as with most introduced species, this was a bad idea. Mantises are generalists, meaning they aren’t picky with what they eat. They’re just as likely to eat species that are beneficial to crops as they are to eat crop pests.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the odd mating behavior mantises are known for, and that’s sexual cannibalism. After mating, it’s not uncommon for the female mantis to attack, kill, and eat the male she just mated with. You may have heard that after mating, the male mantis will present himself for decapitation by the female. This isn’t true. The males do try to survive the encounter and often get away, only to go on to mate with another female, decreasing their long-term odds. And as for the decapitation part? Mantises tend to eat their prey head first regardless, so this isn’t unique to mating. Why the females do this isn’t clear, but one thought is it’s a guaranteed meal to provide her with energy for egg production.
My kiddo was very young for her first mantis encounter. Likely, her vision hadn’t even developed enough to see our little friend, but I told her about him anyway. And though she didn’t seem to care about our scenic river walk, she seemed interested when we sat there by that praying mantis. I’m not fooling myself into thinking she had any idea what was going on, but it was clear that she was listening, and that’s the first step to learning.
It was a good first adventure.