Most of the insects we are familiar with are tiny little things, but praying mantises are among the giants of the insect world. The praying mantises we see locally can be 2 inches to 3 inches long or even more.
Don't let their size fool you into thinking they are easy to spot. Despite their large size, praying mantises blend in well with their surroundings. This makes them difficult to find in trees and other plants. Blending in benefits them because it helps them hunt.
Praying mantises are carnivores, so camouflage is a good adaptation that helps them hunt. They aren't picky when it comes to prey. They will eat anything that is smaller than them. Common food items include insects and invertebrates, but they will also eat small reptiles and amphibians and small birds like hummingbirds.
Read on to learn more about praying mantises.
Only one species is native to Illinois
The world is home to more than 2,500 mantis species, but only one, the Carolina mantid, is native to Illinois. It is only native to the southern two-thirds of the state. The mantis species most common across Illinois and what we most often see in northern Illinois is the Chinese mantis. Another mantis species that can be found in Illinois is the European mantis.
As you might expect from their names, neither the Chinese mantis nor the European mantis is native to the United States or North America. Both these mantises have been present in the United States for more than a century, however. The Chinese mantis was first reported in the United States in 1897 near Philadelphia. The European mantis was first reported in New York in 1899.
They get their name from their legs
Because they hunt live prey, some people think praying mantises are called preying mantises. Praying mantis is the correct name, however. Why are they called praying mantises? Because they really do look like they are praying. These insects often hold their front legs in a folded position that gives them the appearance of sitting in prayer.
Words to know
Adaptation: A change by which an organism becomes better suited to its environment.
Charred: Burned and blackened.
Molt: To shed old feathers, hair, skin or a shell to make way for new growth.
Stalk: To pursue or approach stealthily.
While more than 2,500 mantis species exist in the world, one, the European praying mantis, even has a scientific name that is a nod to this posture. Its scientific name is Mantis religiosa, with religiosa being Latin for religious.
They have excellent camouflage
One of the most well-known things about praying mantises is just how well they can blend into their environment. You can be looking at a praying mantis and not even know it because it looks so much like the plant it is sitting on. Our local mantises are either green, brown or both to blend in with the sticks and leaves where they like to hang out and stalk prey. They can even change colors after they molt their exoskeletons to better help them blend in.
Our mantises aren't the only masters of camouflage, however. There's an orchid mantis that lives in parts of Asia that is pink or yellow in color to match the orchid bloom. And a mantis called the conehead mantis that lives in southern Europe and Turkey has a spiny crown on its head to help it blend in with the twigs and branches of the trees where it resides. There are even mantis species that will molt into a black color to blend in with the charred landscape created by brush fires that are common in the areas where they live.
They have an insect superpower
Most of us don't think twice about turning our heads to the left or right to get a good look at something. In the insect world, this is an incredibly rare ability possessed only by praying mantises. They are the only insects in the world that can turn their heads 180 degrees.
This superpower is useful when hunting prey. Praying mantises silently sit and wait for prey to approach. Being able to turn their heads and see around them helps them find prey without moving their bodies and giving away their location.
This isn't the only ability they rely on to help them hunt. Praying mantises also have excellent vision and can detect motion from as far as 60 feet away. One reason for this is because they are the only invertebrate in the world that can see in 3D, which helps them detect motion. Their enhanced vision comes from their five eyes. They have two large eyes that face forward and three smaller eyes that only detect light and motion. Once they spot prey, they can jump forward and catch it in their front legs, which are called raptorial legs. Some of their leg segments contain spines that make it impossible for prey to get away once caught.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.