Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Year of the Mantis

I like the thought experiment “What would you study if you could start your career over at some previous time knowing what you now know?” The answers vary widely, but discounting the few that say “anything but biology” or “investment banking” or the like, people usually talk about some study organism that they think is really cool. For me, I have periodically thought that it would be great to go back in time and discover and describe for the first time those really bizarre animals that came to scientific attention only recently: naked mole rats or gastric brooding frogs or coelacanths and so on. At other times, I wish I could have been there to describe really cool adaptive radiations of animals – with an obvious one being ants: honey pot ants, leaf cutter ants, slave making ants, army ants, and so on. Recently, however, a trip to the island of Kyushu in Japan crystalized another possibility.

I have always thought praying mantises were really amazing creatures: from their stretched bodies that can nonetheless fly to their deadly front legs to their bizarrely mobile heads that look vaguely humanoid. (They are apparently the only insect that can look over its shoulder.) But all of my experience with them was from pictures in books or sequences in movies – like the BBC one where you think it is going to eat something and then it instead gets eaten by a chameleon. I had only ever seen one in the wild before but that was when I was in line to get into a Lollapalooza concert in eastern Washington, and so I didn’t really have much time for appreciation. This summer turned things around.

The first thing that happened was that my 6 year-old daughter, Cedar, found one in the field at the barn where my wife, Heather, keeps her horse, Delmar. They brought it home and put it in a terrarium and we began to feed it grasshoppers. It was deadly. We could put in 5 grasshoppers and within just a half an hour they would all be dead – at one point the greedy bugger had one in each arm – both alive and struggling. Most of the time, the mantis would stalk the grasshopper and then lash out at the last second with those arms of death but sometimes it would move above the grasshopper and then leap on it. It is truly an awesome predator - and hours of entertainment both parents and kids. Over the summer, its abdomen kept getting bigger and bigger and then one day it laid an egg mass, so here’s hoping we have a cute clutch of the little devils next spring. I can’t wait to release a bunch of baby grasshoppers and watch the chaos.

A Quebec mantis (actually introduced from Europe).
The next thing that happened was that I started to find mantises myself – first at Mt. St. Hilaire near Montreal where I was teaching a field course (see the blog entry here) and then also at the aforementioned barn. In each case, I would spend a long time photographing them and following them around. I never saw them catch anything in the wild but I did get a great appreciation for how their mobile head makes you feel like you are interacting with them. If you get too close, their head swivels around and looks right at you. No other insect can give you the same feeling of communication. Eerie, it is.

The Hiroa-Dai karst tableland near Fukuoka.
Then this last week I went to Japan, where I participated in a symposium on contemporary evolution at the annual meeting of the Japanese Genetics Society. The symposium was organized by Yuya Fukano and my trip – and that of fellow invitee Pierre-Olivier Cheptou – was funded by Tet Yahara with organization help from Makiko Mimura. As most of the meeting was in Japanese, we had plenty of time for excursions – and one of these was to Hirao-Dai, a karst table land near Fukuoka. Along with three Japanese students and postdocs, Pierre-Olivier and I had a great time walking around and looking at a whole series of huge arthropods: wicked looking spiders, great carpenter bees, massive hornets (which apparently kill more people in Japan than any other animal), butterflies as big as birds, katydids spanning your palm, huge grasshoppers, and yes brobdingnagian mantises. So when folks say that everything is smaller in Japan, you can correct them by saying everything but the insects. When these mantis turned their heads to look at me, I involuntarily pulled back.

I see you.

Hanging out.

Come to my arms.
The mantises were everywhere – or maybe it was just that one student (Ryosuke Iritani) was particularly good at spotting them. I decided that if he were a superhero he would have to be called Mantis Boy – he even looked a little bit like a mantis. (Come to think of it, mantis-like qualities would seem better suited for a villain.) In addition to finding a number of individuals of two species just hanging about apparently waiting for a hapless hopper to wander by, we found one that was munching on prey it had just caught, which brings me to a particularly macabre habit of mantises – they quite happily eat their prey alive. As I was taking pictures of this mantis and its prey, a huge carpenter bee, I noticed that the bee was still moving despite having almost all of its’ abdomen eaten away. And the mantis was quite happily tucking in while the bee continued to struggle – if a bit feebly. This isn’t a rare thing, I think, as it regularly happens with our pet mantis at home. In fact, I can still vividly remember it slowly engulfing the leg of a live and struggling grasshopper like we would eat corn on a cob. Presumably they aren’t being intentionally cruel – sometimes they first remove the head – but rather they are just indifferent to the struggling and simply start to eat whatever part is closest. But it is still pretty hideous stuff from the perspective of humans, which always at least have the courtesy to kill their food first - right?

Yum. Nice and fresh.
Humans eat many curious things, especially in Asia. On the second night after arriving in Japan, we went out to dinner and were looking at the menu. Pictured (thankfully given the lack of English) were a whole series of succulent looking meats tastefully arranged on plates. I asked what they were and was surprised to be told in a matter-of-fact fashion that they were whale. Really? Since Japan only engages in “scientific whaling,” I presume this one provided some valuable scientific insight into cetaceans – perhaps it was the N that made P less than 0.05. Seeing whale on the menu without fanfare brought back memories of Norway, where my friends (Ole and Irene Berg) served me home-cooked whale.  I felt guilty enough at the time to call Heather and ask her permission to eat it. I think she would have said no if I hadn’t been standing in their kitchen with the food on the table. The second time I ate whale was also in Norway, this time at a restaurant where I didn’t find out what it was until after having a few bites. So I told these stories to my Japanese hosts, particularly emphasizing the absurdity of calling Heather to ask permission. Then in hopes that I wouldn’t have to call Heather, I flipped the menu to see if something on the other side could divert attention away from the whale. “And what are these I asked?” After a brief consultation, the answer was “horse.” I had to laugh: if these were the only two things on the menu, Heather would probably call me to insist that I eat the whale.

On the way back to my hotel after having dinner, I met Tet Yahara and Jun Kitano, who took me for a second dinner and a fifth and sixth sake. As we walked into the new restaurant/bar, I noticed a tank of squid. Pretty cool I thought, much better than tropical fish, and then I realized what they were there for. I commented to Tet, “So I suppose people get to pick their own squid out for dinner.” Half an hour later and without warning (to me at least) a squid arrived at the table. It looked VERY fresh. It was lying there in a somewhat life-like pose and its mantle had been sliced into a series of delicate an incredibly symmetrical sections that were still in the proper position. Looking closer I noticed then squid was still moving its tentacles and had waves of color moving across it. Was I about to channel a praying mantis.

So it seems to me that this must be – at least for me – the year of the mantis, and if I were to start all over again perhaps I might make it the career of the mantis. But then I did also see mudskippers and tiger beetles, which were almost as cool. Maybe I can start over multiple times.

Japanese mudskipper.

Tiger beetle.


  1. Apparently people in Japan (and Korea, my wife told me this) regularly die as a result of eating octopus tentacles that are still sufficiently alive to autonomously clamp onto the throat and choke the person to death.

    I used to catch mantises all the time when I was a kid; in rural upstate NY they are commonplace. But still very cool. :->

  2. I heard the octopus tentacle story in Japan too. Apparently it just happened again recently. Commonplace but cool. I like it.

  3. From an email to me by Tet Yahara.

    Yes, we have many big insects. One of my most favorites is the moth of Saturniidae ( While the biggest species Attacus atlas ryukyuensis is restricted to Okinawa, Samia cynthia pryeri is rather common in main islands including Kyushu. When I was a boy, it was my ordinary life to enjoy catching this big moth. Actias aliena is another common species, having beautifully light greenish wings. Another one I favor, although not big in size, is scorpionfly. It is describe in literature that scorpion flies eat dead insects, but in my observation, at least some species in Japan are active predators often eat even Mantis. I hope you could come back and see these insects.