“Oh look—you’ve got a visitor!”
Standing outside my front door, Bryan, pet-sitter extraordinaire, was in a better position to spot that wisp of green. But coming or going, I doubt I’d have noticed on my own. A habitual multitasker, I’m often doing one thing while thinking about the next three. Not the best frame of mind if you want to notice a recently hatched praying mantis nymph near your doorknob.
That one-inch explorer wasn’t missing much, I assure you. I leaned in for a closer look, but s/he had the advantage: two large compound and three simple eyes packed onto a triangular-shaped head that can—and did—swivel nearly 180 degrees.
Earth is home to more than 1,800 species of mantids. I’m pretty sure this youngster was a Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina), the only species native to North America. As I’ve mentioned before, though, I’m not as familiar with the spineless members of the Animal Kingdom, so it could just as easily have been a European mantid (Mantis religiosa) or a Chinese mantid (Tenodera sinensis), both accidentally introduced to this continent about 100 years ago.
The common name derives from the front legs, which are usually folded into a position that someone interpreted as devotional. Devoted to dinner might be a more appropriate assumption. The spiked forelimbs are better suited to predation than piety, with reflexes so lightning-quick as to appear supernatural to the unaided eye. While they commonly feed on a variety of other insects, large adult mantids have been known to capture and consume hummingbirds and tree frogs. No wonder they are often mistakenly (yet accurately) called preying mantises.
Unlike the truly prolific members of the insect clan, mantids produce a single generation each year. Nymphs hatch in late spring or early summer and are fully grown by late summer. In autumn, females find a stick, a stem or even a building and deposit a frothy mass that hardens to protect the eggs inside. The adults die soon after, of old age or exposure, and the eggs overwinter in their protective case.
When the nymphs emerge they look like miniature versions of their parents and begin to search for something to eat. Often, the fastest food is a sibling—cannibalism is common in the insect world and mantids are no exception.
Survivors of the initial feeding frenzy disperse, blending into green and brown foliage so well you may have to take their presence on faith… unless one just happens to be drawn to the winged activity beneath a light near an apartment door, where s/he is easily visible to an alert, undistracted nature enthusiast.
The stairwell of my apartment building is shaded in the morning and, with only two simple eyes at my disposal, I needed more light. So I held out a stick, hoping this familiar substrate would help me coax the nymph to climb onboard. Instead, the little swashbuckler leapt onto my wrist like a pirate swinging from the rigging of a ship, and I was instantly transformed from a biologist into a boat for a tiny, curious captain in a prayerful pose whose head pivoted port and starboard as we sailed into the sunshine.
And I was thankful.