Mantodea: The Praying Mantis

Mantodea: Fearsome & Violent Order Of The Praying Mantis


Praying Mantis (Order Mantodea) are a fascinating group of raptorially predatory insects.
There are about 2,000 named species in the world at the moment, most of which are tropical, although a few do occur in cooler climates.

The name derives from the Greek word for a prophet or seer, an early reference to the Mantid’s habit of standing still for long periods with its forelegs held folded up before it (an attitude reminiscent of a person in prayer).

Mantodea Classification and Taxonomy

The order Mantodea is divided into 8 families, of which 3 (Chaeteesidae, Metallycidae, and Mantoididae) contain only one small genus, and 1 (the Mantidae) contains the majority of the species.

  • Superorder: Dictyoptera
    • Order: Mantodea
      • Families:
        • Chaeteesidae
        • Metallycidae
        • Mantoididae
        • Amorphoscelidae
        • Eremiaphilidae
        • Hymenopodidae
        • Mantidae
        • Empusidae

Identifying Mantids

Please check our Taxonomic Key to Praying Mantis Genera page.

Mantodea Anatomy

Praying Mantis Eggs, Life history, Reproduction and Cannibalism

Mantids undergo simple or incomplete metamorphosis. They do not have a maggot or caterpillar but go through several stages, all of which look like miniature, wingless adults. 

The number of nymphal stages varies between species and is possibly due to food intake.

Males and females can be distinguished on the basis of easily visible abdominal segments. There are 6 in the female and 8 in the male.

Mantid Hierodula patellifera
Asian Mantis (Hierodula patellifera)

Praying mantis eggs are produced in an egg case called an ootheca, this may produce 30 to 300 young mantids depending on the species. 

A mated female produces more than one ootheca, depending on how much food she gets and how long she lives. Some Miomantis species have been recorded laying as many as 22.

The ootheca is a sort of polystyrene egg box which is secreted by the female as a liquid and then whipped into a froth around the egg cells; it varies in structure between species. For many temperate species, the ootheca is the overwintering stage.

The ootheca provides some protection against the environment and hides the eggs from many predators. 

However, many are still parasitized by members of the Hymenoptera Parasitica (Parasitic Wasps), whose long thin ovipositors allow them to lay their eggs inside the cells hidden within the hardened foam of the ootheca.

praying mantis eggs
A Praying Mantis creates her egg sac (ootheca) at night in a Madagascan rainforest.

Hatching usually takes between 3 and 6 months. The young may hatch all at once or in batches over a period of several weeks. 

Young Mantids hatch as a pronymph surrounded by a protective membrane, within which they move like grubs to the surface of the ootheca.

Interesting Fact

In some Mantodea species, there is a single exit tube along the bottom of the ootheca, from which the young Mantids emerge individually.

In others, the young emerge through the oothecae wall nearest their particular egg cell – and hang suspended from the ootheca on a silken cord secreted by a pair of papillae on the lower side 10th abdominal segment.

They rapidly escape their protective case and climb up the silken cord to the ootheca. Young Mantids are extremely active and disperse rapidly from the vicinity of the ootheca. Though many are caught and eaten by ants or fall prey to spiders and other predators at this stage (or while they are still struggling with their protective hatching suits), they soon become the predators and take to standing still, waiting for their prey to come to them.

Praying Mantids are renowned for the female’s tendency to eat the male during copulation.

Though this does not occur in all species, many smaller species, such as Ameles spallanzania are not cannibalistic at all. 

In some species, it is obligatory, and the male can not pass on the spermatophore containing his sperm until he has had his head removed.

praying mantis mating
Mating praying mantises, male with head bitten off

From an ecological point of view, for species that lives thinly spread throughout their habitat and in which a male is therefore unlikely to encounter more than one female before something eats him, the male most enhances his chances of leaving offspring behind by mating with one female only and having his body then supply her with nourishment for the development of the first lot of eggs. Female mantids only mate once.

Some study has been done on Mantis religiosa the common European Mantid, which suggests that some of the time, at least, the female attacks and eats the male simply because she fails to recognize him.

The male can successfully mate with the female after his head has been removed because the copulatory activity is under the control of his last abdominal ganglion. 

Thus copulation is either not affected by or (in cases where the sub-oesophageal ganglion of the head secretes inhibitory substances) is actually stimulated by the removal of his head.

Size

Most Mantids are medium-sized insects, though some are very large. Some can also be quite small, never reaching more than 1 cm in length.

Did you Know?

There is a species of Heirodula in Sri Lanka that can reach 25 cm in length and, like other very large species from South America, will feed on small birds and reptiles, and other insects.

Diet

Praying Mantids are all carnivorous, living on the bodies of other animals, mostly insects which they catch with their powerful forelegs and then devour using their equally powerful jaws (generally, only the wings are left).

Though mantids will eat many different things, they are quite capable of rejecting an unpalatable item.

Hunting 

Though most species hunt amongst vegetation, there are a few species that live on the forest floor and hunt among the leaf litter.

Praying Mantis generally have an elongated prothorax (the first thoracic segment) which facilitates their ability to look around them and to follow a moving insect without moving the rest of their body (and thus giving away the fact of their presence). 

As well as the ease with which they can eat their prey once it is firmly held in the raptorial forelegs.

A hungry Mantid, faced with several smaller prey items, is quite capable of holding the first prey it catches in one forelimb and striking and catching a second prey item with the other (which is devoured after the first is finished).

As far as I know, no one has studied whether or not they make a choice about which foreleg to use to hold and which to use to make the second strike. I have only seen it twice myself, and it was the right foreleg that was used to hold and the left to strike on both occasions.

Wings

Most species are winged, though, to the best of my knowledge, no Praying Mantids migrate, and the females tend not to fly once they have been mated and are heavy with eggs.

Mantids tend to fly more at night than during the day, which brings them to the attention of Bats, who see them as a source of food.

Antipredator evolutions

Some species have learned to hear the sonar used by the bats to navigate and to stall their flight,  dropping out of sight of the bat’s perception and thus escaping being dinner.

The mantids hear the bats with a single mid-line ear on their metathorax. This possession of only a single ear, as compared to the more normal pair of ears, is unique to Mantids.

Bats are not the only animals that will eat mantids; many mantids are cryptically colored and adorned with cuticular outgrowths that result in them looking like grass, leaves, flowers, and/or pieces of stick or twig.

This cryptic coloration helps not only to hide them from their enemies but also to disguise them from their potential prey. Some Mantodea species, such as the Malaysian Orchid Mantids, are flower mimics during their early nymphal stages but lose this cryptic coloration as they approach maturity.

Hymenopus coronatus order Mantodea
Orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) with reflection on the water

Where are praying mantids found?

They occur throughout the tropics and in many of the sunny temperate zones of the world, such as Southern Europe, North America, Canada, and South Africa.

Praying mantis care as pets

Because of their tropical origins, they need to be kept warm; as a general rule, 20°C to 25°C will be ideal. 

Initially, a small container such as a yogurt pot, 3 by 1-inch entomological tube, or any other small container will make a suitable praying mantis cage.

As the mantis grows, it will shed its skin several times, becoming larger at each stage. It can progress into a jam jar or milk bottle and finally into a sweet jar.

The top of the yogurt pot can be covered with several layers of clingfilm, with a strip of sellotape over the top. A small hole can be made through the sellotape and clingfilm to allow food to be put in. 

The hole can be plugged with a piece of sponge which can be wetted to maintain humidity.

A similar plug can be used in the neck of a bottle or a hole drilled in the lid of a jar. Whatever type of cage is used, a stick or branch should be provided for the insect to hang from when it sheds its skin. 

The distance from the top of the branch to the floor must be at least three times the length of the insect.

Breeding Pet Praying Mantis

After two or three weeks as adults, the mantids can be mated. Both should be fed as much as they will eat for several days before the male is introduced to the female’s cage. 

It is advisable to use a large cage for mating, and feeding them well beforehand is essential; otherwise, the female will eat the male.

Mating may last a day or more, so it is a good idea to keep the cage supplied with food so the female can eat while mating. The male should be removed as soon as mating has finished.

Feeding & Housing A Pet Praying Mantis

The eggs are produced in an egg case called an ootheca, which may produce 30 to 300 young mantids depending on the species.

Hatching usually takes between 3 and 6 months. The young may hatch all at once or in batches over a period of several weeks.

The ootheca should be suspended at least 2 inches above the floor of the cage. When the young hatch, they hang by a thread from the ootheca until their skin hardens off. The young should be fed on fruit flies, aphids, or other small insects.

Most Mantids do not usually need to drink, though this will reflect the humidity of the atmosphere you keep them at. However, if you mist the cage inside, you may observe them drinking. 

They need a certain amount of humidity to help them molt successfully, so supplying a small container of water filled with pebbles or cotton wool (so they can get out if they fall in) is a good idea.

 

What species do we recommend?

Sphodromantis Viridis from West Africa is an easy specie to keep as a pet praying mantis, very suitable for beginners.

Interactions with humans

Praying Mantis have attracted mankind’s attention for centuries, and there are even several martial arts styles named after them.

Bibliography

  • Heath, G.L. and Cowgill, G. (1989). Rearing and Studying Praying Mantids, AES Leaflet No.36. The Amateur Entomological Society, Feltham Middlesex.
  • Hess, L. (1971) The Praying Mantis: Insect Cannibal. Charles Scribner and Sons, New York
  • Sylvia A. Johnson S.A. (1984), Mantises: Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis.

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Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.