Male Mantis Need Not Pray: Cannibal Female Myth Exposed

Bug lovers will recall that the female praying mantis cannibalizes the head of her sexual partner upon mating. Wrote Leland Ossian Howard in Science, Vol VIII (1886):

Placing them in the same jar, the male, in alarm, endeavoured to escape. In a few minutes the female succeeded in grasping him. She first bit off his front tarsus, and consumed the tibia and femur.  Next she gnawed out his left eye… it seems to be only by accident that a male ever escapes alive from the embraces of his partner.

The idea that the female mantis is a femme fatal has resonated in U.S. culture, a culture that loves to recount how human women kill the spirits of their male mates; a culture that, as Twisty Faster puts it, “…will unfairly characterize females as villains whenever possible.”

Case in point, the praying mantis cartoon:

Well, it turns out that our perfect icon of the man-killer was partly an artifact of bad research design.  Faster, who blogs at I Blame the Patriarchy, reports that the study that established that female mantis’ decapitate their mates used starving females.  A new study has documented an entirely different mating ritual:

Out of thirty matings, we didn’t record one instance of cannibalism, and instead we saw an elaborate courtship display, with both sexes performing a ritual dance, stroking each other with their antennae before finally mating. It really was a lovely display.

Well, except:

There is one species…. the Mantis religiosa, in which it is necessary that the head be removed for the mating to take effect properly.  [In general, though, s]exual cannibalism occurs most often if the female is hungry. But eating the head does causes the body to ejaculate faster.

One species, okay, but there are over 2,000 species of praying mantis.  (You learn something every day.)  In any case, everyone loves a good bad-woman story and I suppose that one was just too good to pass up.

This post was originally published on Sociological Images

Picture of Praying Mantis from Flickr.com user SMB(spidermanbryce), praying mantis comic from Flickr.com user WolfieWolf, both through Creative Commons License 2.0. Photo of Cat versus Praying Mantis via author.

Comments

  1. Darn, now I'm going to have to fight off that obnoxious smartpants in me who will want to correct her friends when they mention this.

  2. I've known the truth about preying mantids for years. Lots of people do. I had a canopy of leaves at my old house that was full of mantids. I watched them all the time. In the years I'd lived in that house I saw a male without its head only once. It took five days for the body to die. It kept crawling around the leaves without its head. Creepiest thing I'd ever seen.

  3. Does it really matter? There are plenty of species of insects who's mating act ends in the death of the male. It is a cold truth that in the natural (especially insect) world it is the sole job of males to pass along their genes, once this is done their purpose is over. The whole of the natural world is how it is because it has adapted to optimal behavioral patterns to ensure its survival, there is nothing wrong with this. We are idiots to anthropomorphize insects.

  4. funinthegarden says:

    Out of 30 matings? As someone who has, many years ago, captive bred and observed wild mantises of more than a dozen species, I saw far more than 30 matings, hundreds in fact. I was usually able to save the male by first feeding the female until she was not hungry anymore. And I would leave the pair on a houseplant in a room with lots of space. By morning, the male was usually somewhere on the opposite side of the room. But every so often, I would get a female that would eat the male no matter what. I saw it happen in the wild as well. But most of the time the male did get away. Mantis religiosa (European mantis) was one that did that, as stated in the article, but I saw Chinese females do that, and saw the US native Carolina mantises eat several males. I lost several males in one season to female carolinas. So it's not really a myth, it's just rather uncommon for it to happen. It almost seems that the males are careful to choose well fed females, and are usually very cautious about how they approach the female, sometimes to the point of being funny. I have seen males carefully approach the female from behind for a half hour, then when the female turned her head and gave him 'the look', he was out of there really fast and flew away.

  5. Wow. Some one seems a little touchy… ” will umfairly characterize women as villains WHENEVER possible.” Really? So, anytime a woman is in a story or an anecdote she WILL be the villain? The cartoon is then used as an example of this. However, this article stinks of bias, being written by a woman who is obviuously tryong to push an agenda using unrelated facts. ALL human men do not see woman as villains anymore than ALL human woman view men as villains. These are ideas that are pishe don us by media, but they are not the true feelings of the average person. As far as the examples above, they are jokes, and the female antagonist can be easily replaced witha male in most cases. The manits joke is fairly specific, but it is nothing more than that. Also, most people who take the time to investigate the sexual cannibalism of many arthopods quickly find out that though prevelant, it is not universal. The fact is that when it occurs with arthopods (both insects and arachnids) it is the female that consumes the male. But if we look at other species of animals, we find that male sexual agression is just as prevelant, such as in ducks or apes (most copulation among ducks is not consentual… whereas some birds mate for life, ducks are, well… rapey to say the least.) What it comes down to though is that the sexual behaviors of other species have nothing to do with the behaviors of human beings. They do make good opportunities for jokes. However, as much as one might hear a conversation between men that ends with them scoffing ” pfft, women, am I right?” One can hear the same conversation between women that ends with “pfft, men, am I right?” Historically women were certainly treated with a lack of respect, and there are still men who disrespect women, but women in todays world disrespect and vilainize men who may be just as undeserving of that disrespect as the women who receive it. Listen to the jokes of ANY straight female comedian. Most of their material will deal with men and how they are just not as good as women in all aspects of life, the joke usually having to deal with how the men think they are great, but it’s the women who are really running the show. In the end, they are nothing more than jokes, and whether they are coming from a man or a woman, jokes about how one sex is better that the other are in my opinion, tired, boring, and sexist. They are also generally not funny either, as theae jokes have been told again and again. NO one sex is more victimized by the other nowadays, but if one only listens to men, or vice versa, then yeah, the results are going to seem exceptionally skewed towards on side. Everyone needs to stop whining about who victimized they are when it comea to verbal attacks. They are just jokes. If someone actually thinks one sex is BETTER than the other, well, they’re an idiot, and unless they hold a position of power you can just ignore them. No sense in trying to tell us that “All manitids don’t bite the heads off of the male! See!” Because though that may be true, this article also only addresses 2 studies, one in which the results were skeewed by using starving females and the other…. well we don’t know much about the other aside from their results. But what’s to say that their results weren’t due to poor science as well? Maybe they inly studied a breed that is not knon for sexual cannabalism? Maybe the females in the study had just been fed, which is as bad as using starving females. What’s really to be learned from this all is that you can’t just believe something on face value because a scientist said it, you have to look into the studies themselves. In that respect the person who wrote this is just as bad, hence my use of the term biased at the begining of this little rant. OK. I’ll stop now. Lord knows i can go on forever.

    Also sorry for any typos and the lack of paragraphz. I’m using a mobile device with a touch screen so going back to correct things inside the comment box is kinda impossible. Trust me. It’s a head ache.

  6. My female pray mantis ate my male but the thing is i didnt see them mating and yes she hasnt been fed in a few days, but my question is do pray mantis always mate no matter if the female is hungry or not?

  7. We had a female hanging out on a plumeria plant for a few months. One day it had mated, and by the time we noticed the male’s head and upper part of the body was gone, but the body was still firmly attached. Later the female pulled him off and proceeded to eat the rest of the body like a piece of corn on the cob. We have pictures – fascinating, gruesome.

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