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The Praying Mantis

The praying mantis is an insect that belongs to the order Mantodea. There are over 2,400 species of mantis worldwide, subdivided into 15 families. Mantises can be found anywhere the climate is temperate or tropical.

Mantises have triangular heads with bulging eyes supported on flexible necks. Their elongated bodies may or may not have wings, but they all have raptorial forelegs that are greatly enlarged and adapted for catching and gripping prey. Their upright posture while remaining stationary with forearms folded has led to the common name praying mantis.

Mantises are predators of arthropods that hunt mostly by ambush, but a few ground-dwelling species will actively pursue prey. In cooler climates, the adults lay eggs in autumn, then die. The eggs are protected by their hard capsules and hatch in the spring. Females sometimes practice sexual cannibalism, eating some or all of their mates after copulation.

In folklore, mantises were considered to have supernatural powers by early civilizations, including Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and Assyria. There are two schools of martial arts based on the praying mantis, the Northern Praying Mantis and the Southern Praying Mantis, both originating from China. Besides their usefulness to gardeners as natural insect control, mantises are among the insects most commonly kept as pets.

The lifespan of a praying mantis is about a year, half of which is spent as an adult. Generally, females and/or larger species live longer than males and/or smaller species.

Mantis Numbers:

  • There are 2,400 species of mantis subdivided into 15 families.
  • The earliest mantis fossils were found in Siberia. They are about 135 million years old.
  • The largest mantids are in the genuses Tenodera (worldwide) and the Archimantis (Australia), growing up to 15 cm (6 in.) long.
  • The smallest mantis is the Bolbe pygmaea (Australia), growing to a mere centimeter (2/5 in.) long.

Like many insects, the praying mantis sees with two large compound eyes (sides of head) and three small simple eyes, called ocelli (top center of head). Photo by Chandan Singh, CC BY 2.0

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Many mantises put on deimatic displays to startle or distract predators. Photo by felizfeliz, CC BY-ND 2.0

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Like all arthropods, mantises have a hard shell called an exoskeleton. As they grow, they molt (shed) this exoskeleton to allow further growth until they reach their mature size. During the molting process, the mantis often does not eat and avoids exposure to predators as its new shell will initially be soft and vulnerable. This is the time to leave your mantis alone until its exoskeleton hardens, about a day or two. Make sure your mantis has enough room in its enclosure to hang upside down, as mantids often use gravity to help them molt. Photo by Elizabeth Nicodemus, CC BY-SA 2.0