9 of the Most Absurd-Looking Mantis Species

Strange shapes and patterns make these species stand out, even as they blend in.

A Malaysian orchid mantis sits on a yellow flower.

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Mantises are something of an eccentric in the world of insects. They can fly—the males can, at least—but more often they move slowly among shrubs and flowers. They can be fearsome hunters, but usually wait for their prey to find them. Most of all, they are hyper-adapted to their environments, and there are more than 2,000 species of mantises, each with the looks and skills they need to thrive in their corner of the world. They all share the distinctive bent forelegs and long abdomens, but each has singular adaptations that make it both a fearsome hunter and elusive prey.

Boasting odd spikes, bold stripes, and spot-on mimicry, these nine mantis species have some of nature's best camouflage.

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Spiny Flower Mantis

A spiny flower mantis with a spiky abdomen sits atop a flower bud.

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The spiny flower mantis (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergii) hails from Sub-Saharan Africa and features prominent eyespots on its wings to deter predators. It grows to between one and two inches—making it one of the smaller mantis species—but it is still a capable predator itself. The intricate spikes and dappled green-and-white coloration it sports blends into surrounding flora so well that some insects will attempt to pollinate them, which ends in a meal for the mantis rather than successful pollination.

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Devil's Flower Mantis

A devil's flower mantis on a green leaf appears to glow in sunlight.

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The devil's flower mantis (Idolomantis diabolica) is another species native to Sub-Saharan Africa, but one that grows to a much larger size. Adult females, which are larger than males, can be five inches long, making it one of the largest mantis varieties. Males tend to be smaller, around four inches in length. A defining characteristic is its defensive display, in which it raises its forelegs to reveal a stark black-and-white underside and appear larger than it truly is. Thanks to its intense coloration and dramatic displays, it's a popular pet, and thousands are imported to Western countries every year. 

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Ghost Mantis

A ghost mantis, which looks like a dry leaf, blends into its background of brown leaves.
This ghost mantis is characterized by its incredible camouflage, giving the appearance of dead dried up leaves.

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The ghost mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa) is an African mantis species remarkable for its leaflike body. It even has pigment variations that resemble the veins of a leaf, perfecting its disguise against birds and other would-be predators. The mantis can change its color after a few molts if it moves from, say, a brown environment to a green one, and vice versa.

It's considered a miniature species, rarely growing more than two inches long. It's another popular pet species, especially because lack of aggression toward its own species means they can coexist in captivity. (Other mantises quickly turn to cannibalism.)

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European Mantis

Praying mantis facing camera with front legs up

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At times, the name "praying mantis" might be used to describe any of the mantid species, but if you live in the United States, chances are it's referring to the European mantis (Mantis religiosa). This distinctive species is the most common mantis in Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Though it's usually bright green, it can range in color from yellow to dark brown.

Even this common species has a few bizarre characteristics, including a mobile head (they can look behind them, a unique skill among insects) and a propensity for sexual cannibalism, in which the more-powerful female is likely to kill and eat the male after mating. Scientists suspect she does this to take advantage of available resources shortly after being fertilized so that her eggs will grow better and faster.

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Conehead Mantis

A pink-hued Conehead mantis perches on a stick.

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A native of the Mediterranean, the conehead mantis (Empusa pennata) is easily distinguished by its protruding crown and feathery antennae, which give it an alien appearance. It can grow to over four inches in length and is a prodigious predator capable of taking down prey its own size. Like all mantises, it catches prey through stalking, pouncing, and gripping its victims in spinelike front legs. It likes to live in open areas of scrub and perennial herbs.

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Malaysian Orchid Mantis

A Malaysian orchid mantis is well-camouflaged where it sits on a drooping orchid flower.

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The Malaysian orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) is an amazing example of camouflage, with legs like petals and soft pink coloration. It lives, of course, in Malaysia, as well as in other Southeast Asian countries. It hides in flowers and tree limbs, turning brown if the environment calls for it. All of this disguise is a powerful predatory tactic, causing unsuspecting flying insects to land, literally, in its waiting arms. Apparently it was discovered in 1879 "when an Australian journalist took a trip to Indonesia and returned with stories of bug eating flowers. What he actually saw was the orchid mantis."

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Shield Mantis

A green shield mantis disguises itself on a leaf in Peru

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Like other mantis species, the shield mantis (Choeradodis rhombicollis) has a super-realistic leafy appearance. But unlike some species, the shield mantis doesn't devote its entire body to the disguise. Instead, its upper leafy look hides an ordinary undercarriage, though it can reach a length of up to five inches.

This Central and South American native can also vibrate and shake its body to replicate a leaf moving in the wind. Once situated, this large mantis adopts a "sit and wait" hunting tactic, and can feed on prey as large as lizards and hummingbirds. 

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Dragon Mantis

A dragon mantis with brown and green coloration sits on a tree stump.

Robert Oelman / Getty Images 

The dragon mantis (Stenophylla cornigera) is a particularly elusive species, expertly hidden in the dense foliage of the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest with its leafy appendages and twig-like body. It's so hard to spot, in fact, that researchers aren't sure how many are out there—it could be that the species is incredibly rare or that it's incredibly hard to find.

During a 2019 expedition, entomologists tracked down two adult males at night using a light trap, proving their theory that this nocturnal species navigates by moonlight. As researcher Leonard Lanna told National Geographic, "This mantis is considered legendary among specialists. Seeing a live one is something few people have done."

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Dead Leaf Mantis

A dead leaf mantis blends with the dead brown leaf it perches on.

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The dead leaf mantis (Acanthops falcata) is similar to the ghost mantis, but with a few differences worth noting. For one, its homeland is South America, rather than Africa. It's also unique in that it displays sexual dimorphism—where the males and females of the species look different—to a greater extent than other mantises. The smaller males have a flattened thorax and resemble a flat leaf, while the flightless but larger females look like a curled leaf, and flash prominent orange warning colors under their unusable wings. 

View Article Sources
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