What Is a Praying Mantis?
The praying mantis is an insect belonging to the family Mantodea that contains over 2,400 species and about 430 genera in 15 families. The largest family is the Mantidae (“mantids”). Mantises are distributed worldwide in temperate and tropical habitats.
They have triangular heads poised on a long “neck,” or elongated thorax. Mantids can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan their surroundings with two large compound eyes and three other simple eyes located between them.
Typically green or brown, mantis lie in ambush or patiently stalk their quarry. They use their front legs to snare their prey with reflexes so quick that they are difficult to see with the naked eye.
The name “mantis” means “a diviner” and the insect has always been surrounded by superstition and legend because of its habit of remaining motionless or swaying gently backwards and forwards with its head raised and front legs outstretched as if in prayer.
In fact it is a ferocious killer and could more aptly be described as a “preying mantis”. Most mantids are camouflaged and look very like the vegetation amongst which they live. The front legs are shaped like clasp knives to grasp the mantis’s victim in an inexorable grip while it is torn apart by its captor’s mandibles.
The mantis even devours poisonous insects as well as its own kind. A male mantis may often be eaten by the female after mating. Most species of mantids are tropical or sub-tropical, but about 20 species occur in Europe.
The closest relatives of mantises are the termites and cockroaches (Blattodea), which are all within the superorder Dictyoptera. Mantises are sometimes confused with stick insects (Phasmatodea), other elongated insects such as grasshoppers (Orthoptera), or other insects with raptorial forelegs such as mantisflies (Mantispidae).
Mantises were considered to have supernatural powers by early civilizations, including Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and Assyria. A cultural trope popular in cartoons imagines the female mantis as a femme fatale. Mantises are among the insects most commonly kept as pets.