Gods of Hottentots

2013-08-08 00:00

PRAYING mantids are sometimes called Hottentots’ gods. Although I don’t know how this name came about, I can imagine people being in awe of such insects.

I receive many inquiries about all sorts of animals and perhaps one of the most common relates to a rather spectacular praying mantid with the equally spectacular name Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi. I published a photo of the nymph of this beautiful creature in The Witness some years ago and so now present one of the adult. This was taken close to the Kruger National Park, but they are common over much of the country and certainly found almost everywhere in KwaZulu-Natal. The common name that has been used is the eyed mantid — probably because the insignia on the adult’s wing looks a little like an eye. I prefer my own name of the RAF mantid, because the circular design on the wings reminds me of British World War 2 aeroplanes.

Apart from its quite splendid appearance, this particular mantid is in other respects fairly uninteresting. Its colouration is an evolutionary adaptation to living on coloured flowers, where it blends in very well and fools its prey into thinking that it is merely part of a flower — until it’s too late.

Most people are familiar with some of the green mantids that we encounter in gardens — usually hiding in leafy shrubs where they melt into their backgrounds — or flying around our lights at night. But there are many other species that we tend to miss, because they are much drabber and they camouflage themselves so well. These usually live on tree trunks. They are brown in colour and often have weird outgrowths of their bodies that disrupt their outlines, and so better hide them from view. One such example is a small species I encountered at Queen Elizabeth Park in Pietermaritzburg. This species had no sign of wings and when it perched among twigs with its front legs and abdomen held out at angles to its body, it blended in perfectly with its environment. I’m pretty sure that any small insect alighting on the tree would not have suspected that danger was lurking near.

I believe that most people are familiar with mantid egg cases (called ootheca), as these are almost invariably pasted onto any suitable surface where, being whitish in colour, they are usually fairly easily observed. It was, therefore, of considerable interest to me when I came across a mantid that digs holes in the ground and deposits its eggs in them. We were on a field trip near Zastron in the Eastern Free State, and while resting on a large bolder I spotted this rather drab mantid among the debris on the sandy soil nearby. I got down on my hands and knees and observed it for a long time. It dug a hole with its abdomen, which has horny ridges on its underside, before depositing its eggs in the usual foamy secretion. It then used its hind and middle legs to scrape the surrounding sand on top of the eggs. When the job was done, it was impossible to identify exactly where the hole had been located. Having never observed such behaviour before, I decided to collect the mantid and it is now in the collection of the KwaZulu-Natal museum. So it goes to show that even the most experienced field worker has lots to learn.

I have long been amused by the fact that many people are scared of praying mantids, even though they are so much smaller than we are and quite incapable of harming us. However, I guess if we could imagine being the size of a fly, we would have every reason to be afraid.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa. net Please do not send large att­achments.

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