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Cross a House Cat with a Mantis. Then Run for Your Life.

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 8, 2013

A praying mantis mated with a cranky housecoat (Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

A praying mantis mated with a cranky housecat (Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

The excellent field biologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki has filed a report on his latest findings in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.  Here are the killer paragraphs:

Some of the first animals that I spotted when I resumed my nightly patrols around the lights of the Chitengo camp were huge praying mantids Heterochaeta orientalis, whose head morphology immediately brought to my mind a scrawny, long-eared house cat, and that’s what I decided to call them. The Cat mantids are probably some of the largest in Africa, with the females’ body length approaching 20 cm. Males are about 15 cm long, which still makes for an imposing insect.

Little is known about this species’ biology. I have always found Heterochaeta on tall shrubs and bushes in the woodland savanna, albeit finding them is definitely not easy – despite their size they are some of the most cryptic insects of Gorongosa. It is enough to take your eyes off an individual sitting on a branch for a few seconds to completely lose sense of its whereabouts. When resting on a branch these insects hold their long raptorial legs outstretched to the sides in an uncanny resemblance of two dead twigs coming off a larger branch, very unlike the typical “praying” stance of other mantids, who tend to hold their raptorial legs neatly folded under the pronotum. The pointy protuberances on the Cat mantis’ eyes enhance the illusion that this animal is just a dead, spiky stick. Clearly, their main defense mechanism is to remain undetected by either predator or prey.

But in addition to its superb crypsis the Cat mantis has another trick up its sleeve when it comes to avoiding being eaten. When I first tried to pick up one of the individuals that came to the light, it immediately responded by rearing up its body, opening the front legs to reveal a bright patch on the underside, and fanning its wings to flash a beautiful, contrastingly yellow and black pattern. This color combination signifies danger (think wasps and their stingers) and many potential predators may pause before attacking the Cat mantis, giving it time to fly away. The mantis is bluffing, of course, as other than a very weak pinch it can deliver with its long forelegs it does not have any real weapons or chemical defenses.

Read the rest of the story at his Smaller Majority blog.

Fabulous mimicry: Find Felix the Fabulous Mantis (Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

Spectacular mimicry: Find Felix the Fabulous Mantis (Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

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