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The Female Praying Mantis: Sexual Predator or Misunderstood

“Placing them in the same jar, the male, in alarm, endeavoured to escape. In a few minutes the female succeeded in grasping him. She first bit off his front tarsus, and consumed the tibia and femur. Next she gnawed out his left eye…it seems to be only by accident that a male ever escapes alive from the embraces of his partner” Leland Ossian Howard, Science, 1886.

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Although the praying mantis is known for its cannibalistic mating process in actuality it only occurs 5-31% of the time. Especially in laboratory conditions of bright lights and confinement, the female is more likely to eat the male as means of survival. “In nature, mating usually takes place under cover, so rather than leaning over the tank studying their every move, we left them alone and videotaped what happened. We were amazed at what we saw. Out of thirty matings, we didn’t record one instance of cannibalism, and instead we saw an elaborate courtship display, with both sexes performing a ritual dance, stroking each other with their antennae before finally mating. It really was a lovely display”.  There is one species, however, the Mantis religiosa, in which it is necessary that the head be removed for the mating to take effect properly.  Sexual cannibalism occurs most often if the female is hungry. But eating the head does causes the body to ejaculate faster.

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There are over 2000 species of praying mantids that display diverse shapes and sizes. Some engage in sexual cannibalism more often than others. Those that do, it seems, are responsible for giving those that don’t a bad reputation.

The fact of the matter is that sexual cannibalism isn’t that uncommon in nature. Especially in the insect world, male redback and orbweb spiders fall prey to their lovers, not to mention the infamous black widow. Have scientists focussed too much on the tales and myths of the deadly seductress? Have we misunderstood the praying mantis?

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