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the word "mantis" means "a diviner"
Mantises can be distinguished from all other insects by the triangular-shaped head that can be rotated a full 180 degrees, and by armlike forelegs with sharp hooks. The first segment behind the head (called a prothorax) is long and thin and held almost erect. The rest of the body is thicker, but still long and slender. The males of most species have short, broad wings, while most females have either reduced wings or no wings at all.
Most mantises have two large, compound eyes that work together to help it decipher visual cues, but only one ear, located on the underside of its belly, just forward of its hind legs. This means that the mantis cannot determine the direction or frequency of sound. It can, however, detect ultrasound, meaning that it can avoid animals that locate prey using echolocation (like bats). Not all mantids have an ear, and those that don't are typically flightless, so they don't have to flee flying echolocaters.
Almost all mantises are camouflaged to blend into the vegetation in which they live. Mantises range in size from about an inch to about five inches in length.
All mantises are predatory, with the most common hunting strategy being to wait motionless for prey to venture within striking distance; some mantises, however, stalk their prey. If a bee or fly happens to land within its reach, the praying mantis will extend its arms with lightning quick speed and grab the hapless insect. Sharp spines line the mantid's forelegs, enabling it to grasp the prey tightly as it eats. Mantises will take just about anything they can catch, including other mantises, and some larger species will even catch and eat lizards, frogs, and small birds. While mantises may eat harmful insects and therefore act as a natural insect control, they are just as likely to eat beneficial ones, making their value to organic farming questionable at best.
The mating season in temperate climates typically begins in autumn. Fertilization is internal, after which the female lays up to 400 eggs. Most mantises lay their eggs in one mass that is then covered with a Styrofoam-like substance secreted from the female's abdomen. That substance subsequently hardens into a protective casing called an ootheca. Some female mantises stay with the eggs until they hatch, but most leave as soon as they're laid. Hatching usually takes place en masse in the spring. Nymphs (hatchlings) look like tiny versions of the adults, minus wings. In cooler areas nymphs may take up to a year to reach maturity, but in warmer climates there may be two generations in one year.
Although female mantises will kill and eat their mates if given the chance, this behavior appears to be far more common in captive settings than in the wild. In the wild, scientists believe the male partner gets munched on less than 30% of the time.
There are approximately 2,300 mantis species, spread amongst 12 genera in 14 families. The vast majority of them are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions, but there a few species in the northern United States and Europe.
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This page was last updated on June 24, 2017.