Mantis, more popularly known as the Praying Mantis (owing to the way its front pair of legs are held, raised up, as if in a position of prayer) is one of the most highly active hunters amongst arthropods. It is generally an ambush predator, relying on its powerful vision and stealth for catching its prey; however, some ground dwelling mantises are even known to actively pursue their prey. Either way, a mantis is well-equipped for making a kill.
A mantis’s huge, widely spaced, and laterally positioned eyes provide a broad field of vision. A flexible joint at the intersection of its head and the thorax region enables the mantis to swivel its head a full 180 degrees! This helps it be very aware of its surroundings, and also efficiently spot any potential prey.
Its powerful, slightly elongated pair of forelegs are divided into a couple of folding sections, and adorned with sharp, saw-toothed spikes. These help in capturing and securely holding on to its prey. With one quick swipe of its spiked forelegs, a mantis is capable of snapping its prey’s head all too easily. If I were an insect on the food menu of a mantis, I would be very, very prudent, and keep my distance!
Additionally, some species of mantises have the ability to camouflage very well. This, along with their ability to stay completely motionless, makes them, quite literally, invisible in their environment. The image below is of a mantis that is amazingly camouflaged – can you spot it?
As they depend on sight for hunting, they are mostly diurnal (active during the day) hunters. Also, while some mantises do, most do not chase around their prey. Instead, they prefer using their camouflage and stillness to lie in wait for unsuspecting prey to wander within reach.
And, when a prey does fall in their zone, they snap it up in a flash and start feeding on it almost instantly. They use the powerful mandibles in their mouthparts to chew the prey, while securely gripping it with one of their spiked forelegs. The other foreleg could be used to dismember the prey. These details might sound very gory, but are highly effective.
They are not prejudiced about their menu per se. They do sometimes eat their own kind, when such an opportunity comes by. Size does seem to matter in this case; the smaller mantis in the image below (green) stood no chance against a much bigger opponent (brown).
Female mantises are generally bigger in size than their male counterparts. So, mating is a very risky and tricky affair for male mantises. It is said that the female eats up the male after mating, and also, at times, beheads the male just before or during mating. The female mantis then deposits its eggs, usually on the stalk of a plant or a stem. Sometimes, it seems to use strange places, like grills or mosquito meshes in buildings. After laying the eggs, the female covers them with a styrofoam-like material it secretes, which hardens into a protective shell. This egg case (ootheca) provides a very effective protection against external elements.
This egg case, though sturdy and durable, is not free from danger; many types of parasitoid wasps prey on them. While females of most mantis species move away after laying their eggs, in a few species (mostly ground dwelling or bark mantises), the female guards the eggs. After a period that generally lasts 3 to 6 months, tiny mantises slowly begin emerging from the egg case. One or two heads start popping out at first. Soon, there is a bunch of them, teeming all over the place.
The newly emerged mantis nymphs look very similar to a bunch of ants. They use this similarity as protection against predation, and also as a way to be amongst ants and use them as a food source.
These tiny mantis nymphs are instinctively aggressive right from the start, and are known to eat their siblings if food is scarce. Once out, they slowly start dispersing, and are on their way to begin their cycle of life.