11 Wondrous Facts About Praying Mantises

They have excellent vision, eerie camouflage, and uncanny athleticism.

praying mantis with front legs up in defensive position
More than 2,000 mantis species are known to science.

artas / Getty Images

Named for its prominent front legs that fold together in a gesture suggesting devotion, the praying mantis comes off as serene and soulful. You might think of them as docile things, moving about slowly, nibbling on orchids ... but oh, how looks deceive. The truth is, mantises are ambush predators with lightning-fast moves.

With their long necks, upright posture, distinct faces, and direct gaze, they’re decidedly charismatic (or terrifying). But more than that, they are fascinating creatures that have mastered their place in the natural world. About 2,000 known mantis species exist around the world, exhibiting a wide and awe-inspiring array of adaptations to their environments. For a few examples, consider the following facts about these incredible insects.

1. They Have Great Vision

praying mantis face closeup
Excellent vision helps ambush-hunting mantises get a jump on their prey. David Campling / EyeEm / Getty Images

Praying mantises possess stereo vision, and thanks to the placement of their eyes, they also have a wide field of vision. Each of their eyes has a fovea — a concentrated area of photoreceptor cells that lets them focus and track with acuity. And not only can mantises see in 3-D, but research has found their 3-D vision works differently from all previously known forms in nature. Aside from revealing more about mantises themselves, this could help scientists develop better vision in robots.

2. They Are Head Turners

Mantises are the only insects capable of turning their heads from side to side. Being able to turn its head without moving the rest of its body is a key advantage for a mantis when hunting, allowing for minimal movement as it sneaks up on prey.

3. They Are Agile Like Cats

To the surprise of scientists filming them, mantises have been found to jump with extreme precision, contorting their body midair to land on a precarious and specific target. Watch the video above; athletic, right?

4. They Make Swift Work of Their Prey

Praying mantises wait to ambush or patiently stalk their prey, but once they’re ready to strike, they do so with lightning speed, attacking with those big front legs so quickly it’s hard to see with the naked eye. In addition, they have spikes on their legs to skewer and pin the victims into place.

5. They Are Masters of Disguise

orchid mantis
An orchid mantis perches atop flower petals. Adegsm / Getty Images

Praying mantises are supremely gifted in camouflage. They come in the form of leaves and sticks and branches, like many insects, but also take it a bit further. Some mantises molt at the end of a dry season to become black, conveniently timing their transformation to coincide with the blackened landscape left by brush fires. The flower mantises are amazing — some wildly ornate, others looking so convincing that unsuspecting insects come to collect nectar from them ... and become dinner.

6. They Only Eat Live Food

Mantises like their food still moving, apparently. That can make them helpful in pest control, since they prey on some potentially destructive insects like beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers, but it's worth noting they aren't picky eaters. Mantises are also known to prey on helpful insects like native bees and butterflies, so their overall effect on pest control is difficult to predict.

7. They Are Ambitious Predators

praying mantis on hummingbird feeder, looking at hummingbird flying nearby
Some mantises are known to prey on hummingbirds. Mike Lewinski / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Mantises don’t stop at eating insects. They also target other arthropods like spiders, and sometimes even small vertebrate animals. Some mantises are known to prey on hummingbirds, for example, as well as warblers, sunbirds, honeyeaters, flycatchers, vireos, and European robins, in addition to frogs and lizards.

8. They Do Have Predators of Their Own

praying mantis on chameleon's back
Chameleons are among the animals that prey on praying mantises. engabito / Getty Images 

Even though they stalk hummingbirds and are masterful hunters, praying mantises are also hunted themselves. Their predators include frogs, lizards, and birds, as well as certain kinds of spiders.

9. They Battle with Bats

Praying mantises are also preyed upon by bats, but they are no easy victim. They can detect the bats’ echolocation sounds and when they are approached, they dive to the ground, often executing spirals and loops on their way. If caught, they try to slash their way to freedom by use of their big spiky front legs. Bam! Pow!

10. They Were Once Thought to Have Special Powers

Well, obviously they have special powers. In some early civilizations like ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, and Assyria, however, people considered praying mantises to have supernatural powers. (The mantis part of the name comes from the Greek for prophet.) Is it any wonder?

11. They Engage in Risky Sex

Praying mantis mothers lay an especially large bunch of eggs, which means they need a lot of food. Which means, unfortunately for their mates, they may literally bite off their head and devour them. And they may even do this during the course of their three-hour mating session. A little bit of coital cannibalism may also add to the success of the copulation. Hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do ...