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THE MANTIS - THE CHASE




There is another creature of the Midi which is quite as curious and
interesting as the Cigale, but much less famous, as it is voiceless. If
Providence had provided it with cymbals, which are a prime element of
popularity, it would soon have eclipsed the renown of the celebrated
singer, so strange is its shape, and so peculiar its manners. It is
called by the Provencals _lou Prego-Dieu_, the creature which prays to
God. Its official name is the Praying Mantis (_Mantis religiosa_, Lin.).

For once the language of science and the vocabulary of the peasant
agree. Both represent the Mantis as a priestess delivering oracles, or
an ascetic in a mystic ecstasy. The comparison is a matter of antiquity.
The ancient Greeks called the insect [Greek: Mantis], the divine, the
prophet. The worker in the fields is never slow in perceiving analogies;
he will always generously supplement the vagueness of the facts. He has
seen, on the sun-burned herbage of the meadows, an insect of commanding
appearance, drawn up in majestic attitude. He has noticed its wide,
delicate wings of green, trailing behind it like long linen veils; he
has seen its fore-limbs, its arms, so to speak, raised towards to the
sky in a gesture of invocation. This was enough: popular imagination
has done the rest; so that since the period of classical antiquity the
bushes have been peopled with priestesses emitting oracles and nuns in
prayer.

Good people, how very far astray your childlike simplicity has led you!
These attitudes of prayer conceal the most atrocious habits; these
supplicating arms are lethal weapons; these fingers tell no rosaries,
but help to exterminate the unfortunate passer-by. It is an exception
that we should never look for in the vegetarian family of the
Orthoptera, but the Mantis lives exclusively upon living prey. It is the
tiger of the peaceful insect peoples; the ogre in ambush which demands a
tribute of living flesh. If it only had sufficient strength its
blood-thirsty appetites, and its horrible perfection of concealment
would make it the terror of the countryside. The _Prego-Dieu_ would
become a Satanic vampire.

Apart from its lethal weapon the Mantis has nothing about it to inspire
apprehension. It does not lack a certain appearance of graciousness,
with its slender body, its elegant waist-line, its tender green
colouring, and its long gauzy wings. No ferocious jaws, opening like
shears; on the contrary, a fine pointed muzzle which seems to be made
for billing and cooing. Thanks to a flexible neck, set freely upon the
thorax, the head can turn to right or left as on a pivot, bow, or raise
itself high in the air. Alone among insects, the Mantis is able to
direct its gaze; it inspects and examines; it has almost a physiognomy.

There is a very great contrast between the body as a whole, which has a
perfectly peaceable aspect, and the murderous fore-limbs. The haunch of
the fore-limb is unusually long and powerful. Its object is to throw
forward the living trap which does not wait for the victim, but goes in
search of it. The snare is embellished with a certain amount of
ornamentation. On the inner face the base of the haunch is decorated
with a pretty black spot relieved by smaller spots of white, and a few
rows of fine pearly spots complete the ornamentation.

The thigh, still longer, like a flattened spindle, carries on the
forward half of the lower face a double row of steely spines. The
innermost row contains a dozen, alternately long and black and short and
green. This alternation of unequal lengths makes the weapon more
effectual for holding. The outer row is simpler, having only four teeth.
Finally, three needle-like spikes, the longest of all, rise behind the
double series of spikes. In short, the thigh is a saw with two parallel
edges, separated by a groove in which the foreleg lies when folded.

The foreleg, which is attached to the thigh by a very flexible
articulation, is also a double-edged saw, but the teeth are smaller,
more numerous, and closer than those of the thigh. It terminates in a
strong hook, the point of which is as sharp as the finest needle: a hook
which is fluted underneath and has a double blade like a pruning-knife.

A weapon admirably adapted for piercing and tearing, this hook has
sometimes left me with visible remembrances. Caught in turn by the
creature which I had just captured, and not having both hands free, I
have often been obliged to get a second person to free me from my
tenacious captive! To free oneself by violence without disengaging the
firmly implanted talons would result in lacerations such as the thorns
of a rosebush will produce. None of our insects is so inconvenient to
handle. The Mantis digs its knife-blades into your flesh, pierces you
with its needles, seizes you as in a vice, and renders self-defence
almost impossible if, wishing to take your quarry alive, you refrain
from crushing it out of existence.

When the Mantis is in repose its weapons are folded and pressed against
the thorax, and are perfectly inoffensive in appearance. The insect is
apparently praying. But let a victim come within reach, and the attitude
of prayer is promptly abandoned. Suddenly unfolded, the three long
joints of the deadly fore-limbs shoot out their terminal talons, which
strike the victim and drag it backwards between the two saw-blades of
the thighs. The vice closes with a movement like that of the forearm
upon the upper arm, and all is over; crickets, grasshoppers, and even
more powerful insects, once seized in this trap with its four rows of
teeth, are lost irreparably. Their frantic struggles will never release
the hold of this terrible engine of destruction.

The habits of the Mantis cannot be continuously studied in the freedom
of the fields; the insect must be domesticated. There is no difficulty
here; the Mantis is quite indifferent to imprisonment under glass,
provided it is well fed. Offer it a tasty diet, feed it daily, and it
will feel but little regret for its native thickets.

For cages I use a dozen large covers of wire gauze, such as are used in
the larder to protect meat from the flies. Each rests upon a tray full
of sand. A dry tuft of thyme and a flat stone on which the eggs may be
laid later on complete the furnishing of such a dwelling. These cages
are placed in a row on the large table in my entomological laboratory,
where the sun shines on them during the greater part of the day. There
I install my captives; some singly, some in groups.

It is in the latter half of August that I begin to meet with the adult
insect on the faded herbage and the brambles at the roadside. The
females, whose bellies are already swollen, are more numerous every day.
Their slender companions, on the other hand, are somewhat rare, and I
often have some trouble in completing my couples; whose relations will
finally be terminated by a tragic consummation. But we will reserve
these amenities for a later time, and will consider the females first.

They are tremendous eaters, so that their entertainment, when it lasts
for some months is not without difficulties. Their provisions must be
renewed every day, for the greater part are disdainfully tasted and
thrown aside. On its native bushes I trust the Mantis is more
economical. Game is not too abundant, so that she doubtless devours her
prey to the last atom; but in my cages it is always at hand. Often,
after a few mouthfuls, the insect will drop the juicy morsel without
displaying any further interest in it. Such is the ennui of captivity!

To provide them with a luxurious table I have to call in assistants. Two
or three of the juvenile unemployed of my neighbourhood, bribed by
slices of bread and jam or of melon, search morning and evening on the
neighbouring lawns, where they fill their game-bags, little cases made
from sections of reeds, with living grasshoppers and crickets. On my own
part, I make a daily tour of the paddock, net in hand, with the object
of obtaining some choice dish for my guests.

These particular captures are destined to show me just how far the
vigour and audacity of the Mantis will lead it. They include the large
grey cricket (_Pachytylus cinerascens_, Fab.), which is larger than the
creature which devours it; the white-faced Decticus, armed with powerful
mandibles from which it is wise to guard one's fingers; the grotesque
Truxalis, wearing a pyramidal mitre on its head; and the Ephippigera of
the vineyards, which clashes its cymbals and carries a sabre at the end
of its barrel-shaped abdomen. To this assortment of disobliging
creatures let us add two horrors: the silky Epeirus, whose disc-shaped
scalloped abdomen is as big as a shilling, and the crowned Epeirus,
which is horribly hairy and corpulent.

I cannot doubt that the Mantis attacks such adversaries in a state of
nature when I see it, under my wire-gauze covers, boldly give battle to
whatever is placed before it. Lying in wait among the bushes it must
profit by the prizes bestowed upon it by hazard, as in its cage it
profits by the wealth of diet due to my generosity. The hunting of such
big game as I offer, which is full of danger, must form part of the
creature's usual life, though it may be only an occasional pastime,
perhaps to the great regret of the Mantis.

Crickets of all kinds, butterflies, bees, large flies of many species,
and other insects of moderate size: such is the prey that we habitually
find in the embrace of the murderous arms of the Mantis. But in my cages
I have never known the audacious huntress to recoil before any other
insect. Grey cricket, Decticus, Epeirus or Truxalis, sooner or later all
are harpooned, held motionless between the saw-edges of the arms, and
deliciously crunched at leisure. The process deserves a detailed
description.

At the sight of a great cricket, which thoughtlessly approaches along
the wire-work of the cover, the Mantis, shaken by a convulsive start,
suddenly assumes a most terrifying posture. An electric shock would not
produce a more immediate result. The transition is so sudden, the
mimicry so threatening, that the unaccustomed observer will draw back
his hand, as though at some unknown danger. Seasoned as I am, I myself
must confess to being startled on occasions when my thoughts have been
elsewhere. The creature spreads out like a fan actuated by a spring, or
a fantastic Jack-in-the-box.

The wing-covers open, and are thrust obliquely aside; the wings spring
to their full width, standing up like parallel screens of transparent
gauze, forming a pyramidal prominence which dominates the back; the end
of the abdomen curls upwards crosier-wise, then falls and unbends itself
with a sort of swishing noise, a _pouf! pouf!_ like the sound emitted by
the feathers of a strutting turkey-cock. One is reminded of the puffing
of a startled adder.

Proudly straddling on its four hind-claws, the insect holds its long
body almost vertical. The murderous fore-limbs, at first folded and
pressed against one another on the thorax, open to their full extent,
forming a cross with the body, and exhibiting the axillae ornamented with
rows of pearls, and a black spot with a central point of white. These
two eyes, faintly recalling those of the peacock's tail, and the fine
ebony embossments, are part of the blazonry of conflict, concealed upon
ordinary occasions. Their jewels are only assumed when they make
themselves terrible and superb for battle.

Motionless in its weird position, the Mantis surveys the acridian, its
gaze fixed upon it, its head turning gently as on a pivot as the other
changes place. The object of this mimicry seems evident; the Mantis
wishes to terrorise its powerful prey, to paralyse it with fright; for
if not demoralised by fear the quarry might prove too dangerous.

Does it really terrify its prey? Under the shining head of the Decticus,
behind the long face of the cricket, who is to say what is passing? No
sign of emotion can reveal itself upon these immovable masks. Yet it
seems certain that the threatened creature is aware of its danger. It
sees, springing up before it, a terrible spectral form with talons
outstretched, ready to fall upon it; it feels itself face to face with
death, and fails to flee while yet there is time. The creature that
excels in leaping, and might so easily escape from the threatening
claws, the wonderful jumper with the prodigious thighs, remains
crouching stupidly in its place, or even approaches the enemy with
deliberate steps.[2]

It is said that young birds, paralysed with terror by the gaping mouth
of a serpent, or fascinated by its gaze, will allow themselves to be
snatched from the nest, incapable of movement. The cricket will often
behave in almost the same way. Once within reach of the enchantress, the
grappling-hooks are thrown, the fangs strike, the double saws close
together and hold the victim in a vice. Vainly the captive struggles;
his mandibles chew the air, his desperate kicks meet with no resistance.
He has met with his fate. The Mantis refolds her wings, the standard of
battle; she resumes her normal pose, and the meal commences.

In attacking the Truxalis and the Ephippigera, less dangerous game than
the grey cricket and the Decticus, the spectral pose is less imposing
and of shorter duration. It is often enough to throw forward the talons;
this is so in the case of the Epeirus, which is seized by the middle of
the body, without a thought of its venomous claws. With the smaller
crickets, which are the customary diet in my cages as at liberty, the
Mantis rarely employs her means of intimidation; she merely seizes the
heedless passer-by as she lies in wait.

When the insect to be captured may present some serious resistance, the
Mantis is thus equipped with a pose which terrifies or perplexes,
fascinates or absorbs the prey, while it enables her talons to strike
with greater certainty. Her gins close on a demoralised victim,
incapable of or unready for defence. She freezes the quarry with fear or
amazement by suddenly assuming the attitude of a spectre.

The wings play an important part in this fantastic pose. They are very
wide, green on the outer edge, but colourless and transparent elsewhere.
Numerous nervures, spreading out fan-wise, cross them in the direction
of their length. Others, transversal but finer, cut the first at right
angles, forming with them a multitude of meshes. In the spectral
attitude the wings are outspread and erected in two parallel planes
which are almost in contact, like the wings of butterflies in repose.
Between the two the end of the abdomen rapidly curls and uncurls. From
the rubbing of the belly against the network of nervures proceeds the
species of puffing sound which I have compared to the hissing of an
adder in a posture of defence. To imitate this curious sound it is
enough rapidly to stroke the upper face of an outstretched wing with the
tip of the finger-nail.

In a moment of hunger, after a fast of some days, the large grey
cricket, which is as large as the Mantis or larger, will be entirely
consumed with the exception of the wings, which are too dry. Two hours
are sufficient for the completion of this enormous meal. Such an orgy is
rare. I have witnessed it two or three times, always asking myself where
the gluttonous creature found room for so much food, and how it
contrived to reverse in its own favour the axiom that the content is
less than that which contains it. I can only admire the privileges of a
stomach in which matter is digested immediately upon entrance, dissolved
and made away with.

The usual diet of the Mantis under my wire cages consists of crickets of
different species and varying greatly in size. It is interesting to
watch the Mantis nibbling at its cricket, which it holds in the vice
formed by its murderous fore-limbs. In spite of the fine-pointed muzzle,
which hardly seems made for such ferocity, the entire insect disappears
excepting the wings, of which only the base, which is slightly fleshy,
is consumed. Legs, claws, horny integuments, all else is eaten.
Sometimes the great hinder thigh is seized by the knuckle, carried to
the mouth, tasted, and crunched with a little air of satisfaction. The
swollen thigh of the cricket might well be a choice "cut" for the
Mantis, as a leg of lamb is for us!

The attack on the victim begins at the back of the neck or base of the
head. While one of the murderous talons holds the quarry gripped by the
middle of the body, the other presses the head downwards, so that the
articulation between the back and the neck is stretched and opens
slightly. The snout of the Mantis gnaws and burrows into this undefended
spot with a certain persistence, and a large wound is opened in the
neck. At the lesion of the cephalic ganglions the struggles of the
cricket grow less, and the victim becomes a motionless corpse. Thence,
unrestricted in its movements, this beast of prey chooses its mouthfuls
at leisure.





Next: THE MANTIS - COURTSHIP

Previous: THE CIGALE. THE EGGS AND THEIR HATCHING



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