She’s a man eater!

Myths abound about the praying mantis. Ancient civilisations regarded it as supernatural, in cartoons it is depicted as a femme fatale, there is a martial art style called “Praying Mantis”, and in Japan the insect symbolises patience and vigilance. This blog article will explore the praying mantis’s unique characteristics and lifestyle – and perhaps debunk a few misconceptions.

Sun worshippers

Praying mantises originated in Africa. From there, they spread north to southern Europe and even as far as Germany. They thrive in warm, dry scrubland with sparse vegetation, especially in sunny, south-facing habitats. The praying mantis offers a good example of how global climate change is affecting the fauna of Central Europe: as temperatures rise, the insects are able to populate areas that would once have been too cold. Aquarium Berlin houses five different species of mantis from tropical and subtropical areas.

CHARACTERISTICS PHYLLOCRANIA PARADOXA – THE GHOST MANTIS

Origin
Eastern and southern Africa

Habitat
Scrubland and savannah with sparse vegetation

Diet
Smaller insects, especially flying insects such as flies, gnats, and small moths and butterflies

Status
Various, usually 50 to 200 individuals

Size
Adults up to five centimetres in length

Weight
Unknown

Breeding period
Reproduction is aseasonal, at least in terrariums

Life expectancy
Temperature and availability of food greatly affect life expectancy. Usually, females live for eleven months (including larval stages) and males live to be no more than eight months old.

Killing by stealth

The insects derive their name from their characteristic hunting pose. With its forelegs folded rather as if it were praying, the mantis slowly stalks its prey – usually smaller insects but sometimes vertebrates like frogs, lizards and mice. The mantis fixes its bulging compound eyes on a victim and waits for it to stray within reach, then extends its two large gripping arms and grasps the hapless creature in the space of just 50 to 60 milliseconds – that’s six times faster than the blink of a human eye.

CHARACTERISTICS POPA SPURCA - AFRICAN TWIG MANTIS

Origin
Eastern Africa and Madagascar

Habitat
Scrubland and savannah with sparse vegetation

Diet
Smaller insects, especially flying insects such as flies, gnats and small moths and butterflies

Status
Various, usually 50 to 200 individuals in a single population

Size
Females up to 8 cm in length; Males up to 7 cm

Weight
Unknown

Breeding period
Reproduction is aseasonal, at least in terraria

Life expectancy
Temperature and availability of food greatly affect life expectancy. Usually, females live for eleven months (including larval stages) and males live to be no more than seven months old.

She’ll eat anything that moves

Female praying mantises are up to eight centimetres long, and thus considerably larger than the males, who usually measure no more than five centimetres. These insects are famous for their rather unusual sex lives. The males can pay dearly for following their biological urges, as the females sometimes eat the males after (or during!) mating. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Males do need to keep their wits about them, and a female may get snappy when resisting the unwanted advances of an admirer, but copulation usually ends with both partners fully intact. Some species of mantis tend more towards sexual cannibalism than others.

Bringing up babies

Well bred

Thanks to its many years of experience and previous breeding successes, Aquarium Berlin has a large reserve population of mantises, which means it does not have to buy in any from outside. Each species of mantis has particular needs and preferences when it comes to food and housing, and especially aggressive species must be kept separately. Because of these challenges, other aquariums that keep mantises are rarely able to breed them in such large numbers as Aquarium Berlin.

The fascinating world of insects

Visitors to Aquarium Berlin can always be sure that at least one species of mantis will be on display. Which species that is depends on current population sizes and whether there is space free in one of the display terrariums. Currently, the Phyllocrania paradoxa (ghost mantis) and Popa spurca (African twig mantis) can be seen on the top floor of the Aquarium. However different the specifications are for keeping and breeding the various insect species, one thing remains clear – thanks to the efforts of the dedicated staff at Aquarium Berlin, visitors will be able to keep admiring an impressive range of fascinating creepy-crawlies of all shapes, sizes and colours.

We spoke to keeper Shahin Tavangari about the unique characteristics and lifestyle of praying mantises:
Mr Tavangari, are there really praying mantises living wild here in Germany?
There is indeed a mantis species native to Germany. It is called Mantis religiosa, or the European mantis, and was originally only found in southern Germany. In the meantime, however, there are populations of these mantises in and around Berlin. The European mantis is a protected species but is not kept at Aquarium Berlin. All the species here come from tropical and subtropical areas and therefore cannot be found in the wild in Germany.
How many different species of mantis are there?
There are more than 2,400 mantis species. At Aquarium Berlin, we consistently breed around ten of these – some permanently and some when the opportunity arises. We usually display five or so of the species. The ones currently on view are Phyllocrania paradoxa (the ghost mantis), Popa spurca (the African twig mantis), Hierodula membranacea (the giant Asian mantis), and Parasphendale agrionina (the budwing mantis).
What is the mantis’s preferred habitat?
Since the various mantises are very different, there is no single answer to that question. Mantises live in any kind of habitat that is warm enough. That means they can be found on steppes, in forests, on grassland, and even in the desert. However, most species prefer scrubland.
Can mantises fly?
Some can, some can’t. In some species, both sexes can fly very well. In other species, only the males can fly. And then in some species, neither sex can fly.
Does the female really eat the male after mating?
Sometimes, but not necessarily. Praying mantises have evolved to catch flying insects. That means that anything that flies is a potential meal. Since the males of most species can fly well, they are sometimes taken for food. If a male gets the chance to mate with a female while she is eating him, then he will do that. After all, in nature the greatest goal is to pass on one’s own genes. However, most of the time a male looking to mate knows exactly how to approach a female. He flies up on her from behind, leaps onto her back, and clasps her thorax and wing bases with his forelegs. In this position, he is out of the female’s reach and can usually fly away unharmed after depositing his sperm.
How many times a year can they reproduce?
Again, I can’t give a general answer to that question. At Aquarium Berlin we always have young from one species or another. It’s easier to answer the question from the point of view of an individual. Very few mantises live longer than one year. In the course of her life, each female lays one to three egg capsules – so that means one to three hatchings per year per individual. However, not all females get to copulate, not all egg capsules hatch, and not all females grow old enough to lay eggs on three occasions.
Can praying mantises harm people in any way? Are they poisonous, or do they bite?
Generally, praying mantises do not bite. They aren’t poisonous or harmful in anyway. Usually, they would be scared of people and try to get away. Sometimes, when they feel threatened, they stand tall and fan their wings out wide. But that is a defensive position and rarely turns into an attack. If you were to hold one too tightly or constrain it in some way, however, it could give you a nasty nip. But please remember one very important thing: you should never try to capture or kill a praying mantis as they are on the IUCN Red List of threatened species and therefore strictly protected.

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