The praying mantis is so named because of the front legs, which are normally held together in front in what might appear to be an attitude of prayer. This insect has a rather triangular shaped head with large compound eyes and is able to rotate its head through a wide arc of 180 degrees. The thick outer wings serve as camouflage and body armor protecting the second pair of membranous pair of wings underneath that are used for flight in species that do fly. There are about 1,800 species in the mantid family, some 20 occurring in the United States.
As in all insects, there are three pairs of legs. The middle and hind legs are used only for walking; the front pair of legs also assist in walking but are specially adapted for capturing a prey insect and holding it as it is eaten. The inside edges of the front legs are equipped with spurs that securely hold prey such as crickets, grasshoppers, flies, or other insects. The mantis is a voracious and deadly predator and can be an important biological control of insect pests. The female may even sometimes eat her male mate after mating, though this behavior is reported mainly in lab environments and may not be common in the wild. Adults live only one season, dying in the fall after mating and egg production.
Females lay masses of eggs in a large capsule placed under leaves, and through the process of incomplete metamorphosis, nymphs are born looking like tiny adults and grow through several molts as they mature. They don’t go through the pupal transformation from a larvae to adult like beetles, butterflies, or other completely metamorphosing insects.
Many different species of mantids show widely varying colors and body forms that provide camouflage resembling the vegetation they prefer to inhabit. They become virtually invisible to potential predators as well as to the prey that will come close enough to be captured, unaware of the mantis waiting nearby. The one photographed here was out of place on the rocky ground and very visible, but would have been much less obvious on a green tree or shrub. They also normally sway back and forth to compliment their camouflage by mimicking the movement of leaves in the wind.
The individual photographed here was seen on old Highway 41 south of Moriarty by James Taulman.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects.