story and photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler
One day, I came face to face with a fierce predator walking right across the driveway. It watched me, turning its head to track my moves as I circled it. Luckily, I was not at risk of any bodily harm for it was merely a three-inch-long praying mantis.
Masters of disguise by dressing themselves as leaves or sticks, my experience is that it is fairly unusual to see praying mantises even though they are common both in the woods and in town. Here in New York, we have three different types of mantises. The first and probably most populous species is the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Native to Asia, this species has been introduced to the United States via international trade or released as beneficial bugs for gardens. Mantis-raising kits usually supply this species of mantis. The Chinese mantis is green or brown with a green edge on the wing.
The European mantis (Mantis religiosa) is bright green and slender, the abdomen of which is notably slimmer than the thorax. This is also an introduced species and can be easily distinguished from other mantises if you take the time to get up close and personal: there is a white spot outlined with black between the front (praying) legs.
Lastly, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) is native to the United States. This mantis is green or brown with marked sexual dimorphism in which males and females look different. Females are green with vestigial wings that do not cover the abdomen and are larger than males. Males are smaller, brown, and able to fly.
Praying mantises are built to be both ambush hunters and stalkers. This animal can turn its head almost completely around and has large eyes that give it excellent vision. Mantises carry their front legs out before them, bent at the knees as in prayer position. The legs have spines on them to prevent prey from escaping after the mantis has caught something. The rest of a mantis’s legs are long, can cover lots of ground when on the move, and allow it to be adept at climbing. All these things pulled together into one make for a killer that elicits fear in the exoskeletons of other insects. Mantises eat a wide variety of insects, including moths, caterpillars, beetles, and cockroaches. Mantises will also cannibalize smaller mantises, and females are known to eat males after mating.
I myself had nothing to worry about from my mantis encounter, after I snapped a few pictures, we parted ways amicably.