Praying Mantis Natural History

Praying mantis is the colloquial name for insects in the order Mantodea. The order contains over 2,400 species in over 430 genera. The largest family in the order is Mantidae which includes all insects known as mantids.  Mantises are found all over the world but are mostly concentrated in temperate and tropical habitats.

picture of praying mantis
Source: S. Shankar via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 2.0

The name “mantis” stems from the Greek word mantikos which means soothsayer or prophet, which makes sense considering how spiritual mantises look like they have their forelegs grasped together in prayer. In fact, many ancient societies such as the Greeks, Egyptians, and Assyrians believed that praying mantises had supernatural powers.

Praying Mantis Morphology

Most praying mantises measure around 2 inches long, but some, like the Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) can grow up to 5 inches long. They have long triangular heads that sport a beak-like snout and a large pair of jaws. Praying mantises are much more flexible than many other insects and have a much longer thorax than most insects. Mantids also have 2 large compound eyes, three simple eyes, and a pair of antennae on their heads.

Mantises have 2 spiked forelegs meant for grasping which are sometimes called “raptorial legs.” These legs are strong and are used to quickly grasp and subdue prey. Some mantises have functional wings, others have vestigial wings, and still, others are wingless. Winged mantises have two sets of wings. The outer wings are often used for camouflage and to shield the more delicate inner wings.

picture of devil's flower mantis
A Devil’s flower mantis. Source: L. Viatour via WikiCommons CC-BY-3.0

Praying Mantis Behavior

Mantises are generalist arthropod predators. Common mantis prey includes aphids, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, caterpillars, butterflies, and spiders. Pregnant female mantises have been known to eat mice, scorpions, and even snakes and lizards. Mantises are stalking hunters meaning that they slowly approach their prey while feeding and strike quickly. Some mantises are more active hunters, such as ground mantises (genus: Entella) who will chase their prey running on the ground.

praying mantis laying in wait
A praying mantis lying in wait. Source: gailhampshire via Flickr CC-BY 2.0

Mantises also have some interesting anti-predator behavior. Many mantises rely on camouflage to blend into foliage, such as the flower mantises. The camouflage also attracts prey who are attracted to the model flower. When threatened, mantis species stand on their hind legs and extend their claws and wings.

Mantises are not seasonal breeders so they are constantly mating, though mantises populations do typically peak during the autumn. Following a courtship display, males position themselves on the back of the female and deposit their sperm into a special chamber that fertilizes the eggs. Females can lay anywhere between 10-400 eggs per brood.

Mantis larvae god through incomplete metamorphosis. It takes about 6 months to reach adulthood, after which most mantises live between 6 months to a year.

Praying Mantis Interesting Facts

  • Research suggests that mantises have a unique form of 3-D vision that is not found in any other species of invertebrate.
  • Female mantises are known to engage in sexual cannibalism where they eat the male after mating.
  • A handful of mantis species can reproduce via parthenogenesis. An interesting example is the Brunner’s stick mantis, a species of mantis with no male specimens, only females.
  • Most mantis species in the US have been introduced and are not native species

See our collection of Framed Mantis Displays