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.





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