These ferocious insects don’t hunt like robots, according to new research.
The praying mantis has the ability to fly, but not in the way you may expect. Because of their anatomy and hunting technique, they are capable of intense and extremely specialized flying patterns as well as extended gliding jumps. Males are also the only sexes’ mantids who can fly.
HOW WELL CAN PRAYING MANTIS FLY
As a fly flies by, a praying mantis stares intently. She grabbed it in a flash. We see the mantis pause and calibrate when the tape is played back in slow motion, almost like a seasoned baseball catcher who realizes she’s facing a knuckleball.
It’s a highlight reel to behold. It’s also evidence that mantises strike like active hunters rather than automatons, calibrating their attacks to more efficiently capture their prey as it flies by at different speeds, according to a paper published this week in Biology Letters.
Traditional classifications of predatory animals have been based on how they catch their prey. Pursuit predators are the first group to attack their prey. Whether they’re large like cheetahs or small like robber flies, they’re the animal world’s action heroes, and they’re flashy and attention-getting.
Sergio Rossoni, who conducted the new study as a master’s student at the University of Sussex and is now a zoology doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, said that the findings revealed “extraordinary examples of how flexible their pursuit can be.”
The second type of predator, known as sit-and-wait predators, skulk until the right moment arrives, then pounce.
Mr Rossoni explained that in the past, predators were “thought to be quite stereotypical in their behaviour,” almost like windup toys.
Praying mantis strikes, in particular, have been described as always occurring “at the same rate with the same movements,” according to researchers.
This viewpoint, however, has recently been challenged. Mantis shrimp, which use an ultrafast punch to smash their prey, have been shown to be able to vary their strike speed, and praying mantises were found to be flexible when “catching” stationary insects in a 2016 study.
Mr Rossoni and his then-supervisor, Jeremy Niven, a zoology professor at the University of Sussex, decided to put praying mantises to the test to see if their behaviour changed when they encountered slow or fast prey.
Mr Rossoni conducted his experiment by putting one Madagascan marbled mantis on a raised platform under a bright light at a time. (Other species preferred to hunt upside-down, making filming challenging.)
On a transparent wire, he then swung a target toward the mantis — either a dead bug or a bead that looked like one.
The target could move at three different speeds, each of which was designed to mimic a different type of mantis prey.
Fruit flies have the slowest flight speed, which is 200 millimetres per second. The fastest, at 730 millimetres per second (just over one and a half miles per hour), looked like a blowfly.
He filmed each of the eight mantises as they went through dozens of swings. After that, he looked at the recorded movements of the insects.
A praying mantis’s strike is divided into two stages. A mantis extends its arms up and outward in the first phase, known as approach. The mantis scoops its prey out of the air and pulls it in to eat in the second phase, the sweep phase.
Mr Rossoni and Dr Niven discovered that mantises adjusted their strike speed in response to the speed of the target.
The majority of the modulation happened during the approach phase, when the mantises raised their limbs more slowly or paused in the middle, in a zombielike pose, when presented with a slower target.
Mr Rossoni said that if the mantises misjudged their prey’s speed at first, they would often “correct their own mistakes” with a similar pause.
“This is quite extraordinary considering some of the strikes are less than a tenth of a second.”
It also contributes to a growing discussion about the capabilities of insects, ranging from wasps that can logically infer to ants that can roll down inclines.
Dr. Niven explained, “Historically, they were viewed as almost miniature robots that followed very simple sets of rules.” “I believe new research is emerging that suggests the rule book may be much more complicated.”
WINGS AND FLIGHT: WHAT THEY’RE GOOD FOR
Flight is used by wingless mantis species for a variety of purposes. Females with the ability to fly frequently use their wings to travel greater distances than they can walk.
Females are more sedentary than males, waiting for food and mates to come to them. Females, on the other hand, will flee or jump away from danger if they feel threatened.
Males use their wings to locate and hunt prey, and when they are ready to mate, they use pheromones as a trail to fly and locate an eligible female.
When mantids fly, they are easy prey for predators like birds and bats because they are out in the open.
Mantises have a one-of-a-kind ear that keeps them safe. Between their front legs, this ear is located on the front of their chest.
This adaptation allows them to hear bats’ high-pitched frequencies, allowing them to seek cover before the bat notices them.
Most insects use their hearing to hunt or find mates, but mantids use it almost exclusively to avoid predators.
Mantids have better eyesight than many insects, making visual hunting much easier for them.
Mantids communicate primarily through pheromones, though they can make noise. Their single ear’s primary function is to keep predators at bay while flying.
Wings come in two sets of species with wings. The tegmina, or outer wings, are narrower and have a leathery texture.
These wings protect the mantid’s hind wings while also adding to its camouflage.
The hindwings are transparent and delicate, but they play the most important role in the ability to fly, so they must be protected.
Mantids use their outer wings to ward off predators in a variety of ways. The Indian Flower Mantis, for example, has large “eyes” on its forewings that can be spread open to make them appear larger than they are and to give the impression of being a creature with large eyes.
Many mantid species will flee rather than present an open-winged threat to a predator, but being able to scare away potential predators can mean the difference between life and death for many species.
PRAYING MANTISES: HOW DO THEY FLY?
Mantids fly by jumping off of branches or leaves, which allows for a powerful takeoff. They are very good at sticking to their target and can change directions quickly.
They have the ability to twist their bodies, allowing them to change directions quickly and precisely.
In fact, while in mid-air, they can rotate 2.5 times per second. This means that if a mantid hears a bat while flying, it can quickly change course and land on the ground.
Mantids have the ability to rotate their heads while flying, which makes them one of a kind.
They’re always looking for new prey, predators, and landing spots. Their two compound eyes are spread out and on the side of their heads, giving them a large binocular field of view and allowing them to see in three dimensions.
For insects, also have highly developed eyes that allow them to detect minute movements in the brush or in the air while flying.
Males use pheromones and sight to attract females during mating season, so being able to look out while flying can be extremely useful.
To summarize, many mantid species rely on their wings and flight to ensure their own and their lineage’s survival. Males who want to find a mate need to be able to fly.
The adaptation of stereoscopic vision and the use of a single ear allows them to fly much more safely, allowing them to detect bats and other predators.
When flying, Mantids are extremely agile, able to change directions quickly and land precisely on very precise targets.
Certain species lose their wings or have so few that they can’t fly, so they become ground dwellers. Nymphs and wingless mantids have the strongest jump of any insect, even if they don’t have the ability to fly.
These highly adapted insects are masters at using their wings and ability to fly as survival strategies for themselves and future generations.