The first time I spotted a mantis, commonly known as a praying mantis due to the stance they adopt, was on a toilet door in a South African lodge. This strange-looking creature was motionless except for its triangular head following my every move. As I approached for a closer look, it made an aggressive stance towards me.
Fast forward many years and I soon started spotting them at my new home in Portugal. There are over 2,400 species of Mantodea (scientific order) throughout the world and, although various species have been recorded in Portugal, the two common species are the very common European mantis and the bizarre conehead mantis.
The first time I spotted a conehead mantis was when I began reading about them as I had no idea they even existed. I shouted to my partner Emma and said something along the lines of “look at this mantis with a strange cone-shaped head”. Soon enough, a quick internet search provided the (English) name of conehead mantis.
Ever since, all I can think about is the 1993 comedy sci-fi film “Coneheads” about a family of aliens stranded on Earth. In the film, the aliens look like humans albeit with odd-shaped heads, however, the conehead mantis looks like a creature from another planet.
Although a similar size to the European mantis, with the female growing to 10cm and the male slightly smaller, their appearance is easily distinguishable. Their strange eyes, weird antenna (particularly the males) and odd-shaped conehead is really something that you’d expect a sci-fi movie special-effects department to produce.
Their colouring also helps with the effects of another planet which can be a mixture of greens, pinks and browns; which is not based on sex but generally accepted as a form of camouflage for their local environment.
The male sports incredible feathery-effect antennae whereas the female is plain and is the main visual difference when determining the sex. Mantis can also fly with their wings concealed until required. It can be quite alarming when an insect this size flies at your head at night!
There is a myth that mantis have no fear and whilst they will take a defensive stance if approached, they will flee rather than fight if they are not confident of a win. The biting of humans is not very common, although their raptorial legs and strong mandible (lower jaw) could inflict a small cut.
Like all species, the conehead mantis perches almost motionless with an occasional swaying, believed to mimic wind blowing, in their prayer-like stance with their raptorial legs ready to catch anything unlucky enough to pass within their reach.
Their diet consists of grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches or anything within their capabilities to catch. Once caught, the prey is consumed immediately with the strong mandible carving like a chainsaw.
It is common knowledge that the female mantis can consume the male during sex with various thoughts ranging from just a good meal to the act of biting his head off generates more sperm, however, studies have shown that sexual cannibalism occurs less frequently in the conehead family.
After mating, the female (as with all mantis species) lays an impressive construction called an ootheca (a combination of Greek and Latin, meaning egg container).
They are usually fixed to branches, walls or even garden furniture. These egg sacs contain on average 200 eggs but can vary, and in spring, when the weather is warm enough, the hatching can be an amazing sight to see miniature versions leaving the ootheca in large numbers. The conehead appearance is visible immediately and as the young grow into adults, they will shed their skin multiple times.
They are an amazing sight and truly are an alien amongst us even if just in appearance.
By Craig Rogers
Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography