The mantis, an insect having over 2,400 different species, is often seen although only two species are commonly found in Portugal. They are often nicknamed Praying mantis due to their upright stance and positioning of their raptorial (an adaptation for catching and grasping prey) forelegs.
The two common species found in Portugal are the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) and the Conehead mantis (Empusa pennata). Both a similar size but very different in appearance.
The female European mantis can grow to 9cm in length with the male being smaller and lighter at 7cm; however, the antennae and eyes of the male are usually considerably larger than that of the female. Colouration can vary and has no indication of sex. Yellow, green, brown and even black examples can be found and, although there is no scientific evidence, it is generally accepted that the colouration is to camouflage into the surroundings to evade being preyed upon and, of course, to prey on other species.
The female Conehead mantis can grow up to 10cm in length with again the male coming up smaller and lighter. The male has a pair of very feathery antennae whereas the females are shorter and plain. As with the European mantis, colouration can vary including a mixture of greens, pinks and browns. As its name suggests, the main difference from the European mantis is the large protrusion from the top of its head making them look very alien-like.
It may surprise you to learn that both species can fly! Yes, they have a fantastic pair of wings hidden away, James Bond style, at the rear of their abdomen.
Mantises are amazing ambush hunters and they can catch and eat many other insects, with grasshoppers being a favourite; even large cockroaches can be eaten. They wait patiently scanning the area for any insect that is small enough to grab by their long raptorial legs and, once caught, is held and eaten immediately. Their mandible (lower jaw) can cut its catch like a chainsaw.
Mantises only consume live prey, and this is probably due to the reason that they detect movement and, therefore, cannot identify a dead insect as food. They can often be seen “dancing” whilst waiting to ambush, with side to side movement. It is thought this is to mimic the movement of plants being blown in the wind.
Reproduction, usually in autumn, is an interesting affair and the male must be particularly careful as female mantises are well known for sexual cannibalism, although it appears to be much less common with the conehead species.
Although widely documented, it is not fully understood why the female carries out this vicious act. Various thoughts include biting off his head can make him produce more sperm or the fact he’s just a very nutritious meal. As mantises are equipped with eyes that detect movement, the male will approach slowly, pausing to avoid detection before jumping onto her back and grabbing her with his forelegs. A male may use the time when a female is distracted by feeding to his advantage. Once the copulation is complete, the male will flee the scene, sometimes pausing completely still, out of range of her grasp.
Once copulation has been successful, the female lays an amazing construction of eggs called an ootheca. Walls are usually a favourite location, but we had one underneath one of our sunbeds as shown in the photo. She can take many days to lay this structure, which dries to a solid cocoon to protect the (averaging 200) eggs and developing babies throughout the winter where they hatch in springtime.
When the temperature conditions allow, the babies hatch from the ootheca and already have the look of the adults. Many do not survive the first few days due to various conditions such as lack of food, cold nights and even being preyed upon. As they develop into adults, they moult their skins as they increase in size. This can occur up to 10 times before they become fully grown.
By Craig Rogers
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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