If you’ve ever come into contact with praying mantises, you might be wondering whether they are poisonous and whether they are dangerous for people to handle.
Many insects are, of course, and praying mantis certainly look like the sort of things that might have venom in them!
Fortunately, praying mantises are not poisonous at all – and nor are they venomous.
A praying mantis is highly unlikely to bite you anyway, but if one did bite you, although it would hurt, it would not inject any irritants into your system.
Praying mantises are vicious hunters, but they hunt by ambushing or stalking prey and then snaring it with their spiked legs.
As a brief reminder, the difference between venom and poison is that venom must be injected into the bloodstream, while poison kills whatever has consumed it.
Praying mantises can bite humans or be consumed by them, and neither scenario will result in major harm because they are neither venomous nor poisonous.
Key Fact One: Why Aren’t Praying Mantises Poisonous Or Venomous?
Praying mantises have not evolved venom because they simply have no need to.
“They are powerful hunters in their own right, and venom would be unlikely to play a particularly useful role in their hunting strategy.“
Venom is used by other animals either defensively or offensively, but it’s notable that most insects that have evolved a venom of some form use it defensively – such as wasps and bees.
Few bother with offensive venom, preferring to hunt in other ways.
Why Don’t They Use Venom For Offence?
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule that no insects use venom to attack with.
The assassin bug, for example, hunts with a venom that both poisons and liquefies the prey, and then it sucks up the liquid through its proboscis.
However, a mantis has no need to liquefy its prey; it has small but powerful mandibles that are perfectly capable of taking apart anything it wishes to consume.
While it could use venom for the purposes of killing prey, there is no particular advantage of this strategy over the hunting technique it uses. Mantises are large and very powerful hunters without this additional advantage.
It is rare for animals to develop “overkill” techniques. On the whole, an animal that depends on venom will lack the size, speed, strength, or maneuverability to overcome its victims.
A snake, for example, can only grab a mouse with its mouth, and some have therefore chosen to depend on venom to ensure the victim is killed even if it escapes.
They cannot hold onto it, and so minimize their hunting losses by ensuring that the prey dies once it has been caught, even if it slips free of their teeth.
A praying mantis can grasp prey and kill it without depending upon venom, so there is no reason for them to have evolved venom as a hunting technique.
It is simply unnecessary, and it very rare to see unnecessary things in nature.
Why Don’t They Use Venom For Defence?
The mantis is also unlikely to benefit from using venom defensively the way that bees or wasps do. Any predator that tried to eat them would likely have consumed them before the venom had had time to take effect.
Because mantises are large and powerful, they are better off struggling free and attacking their attacker.
There are quite a lot of things that prey on these insects, but on the whole, they are most vulnerable to bats, chameleons, birds, and Japan’s giant hornet.
None of these enemies are ones that they are likely to be able to sting in advance. Fire ants are another enemy, and again, could not easily be stung, and certainly not in any numbers.
Similarly, the other predators of mantises, such as spiders, are unlikely to be deterred by venom. Some, such as snakes, frogs, scorpions, and lizards might be fended off by the threat of a sting, but the mantis’s strength and aggression work equally well as a deterrent.
It is also notable that praying mantises do not have hives or nests to defend as bees, wasps, and ants do.
On the whole, a sting offers little defense to them, and they have therefore focused on other methods to ensure their survival.
You might wonder if mantises could benefit from being toxic once eaten (i.e. poisonous).
Some insects successfully depend on this strategy to put predators off, and warn them away by using bright colors such as yellow and black to indicate that they are inedible.
While mantises certainly could have evolved in this way, it is at odds with their hunting technique; they are ambush hunters, and many rely heavily on extraordinary camouflage in order to ensnare their prey.
With the warning colors of “I’m poisonous,” this hunting strategy would be impossible.
Key Fact Two: What Do Praying Mantises Eat?
You might be wondering what sort of animals they hunt. This depends very much on the species, as there are many kinds of praying mantis, but there are some generalities.
They are aggressive and unfussy hunters, and will tackle almost anything that is the same size as them or smaller.
“Praying mantis have been known to eat (and be eaten by) prey such as frogs, lizards, tarantulas, and even snakes.“
The victor of these matches is usually determined by size and strength, and whichever wins will eat the loser.
You may struggle to imagine a praying mantis eating a snake, but they can grow to six inches long, and their ferocity makes them deadly opponents.
Mantises are also famous for occasionally preying on each other, although it is thought that this has been overstated to some degree, and that they rarely eat each other unless other food sources are not available, or they fight.
They will also devour mice, smaller insects, beetles, crickets, butterflies, spiders, and – amazingly – hummingbirds.
In the wild, they have even been known to hunt fish from the safety of lily leaves. By standing on the leaf and stretching into the water, they can grab fish.
These insects are strong and not to be underestimated. They will tackle almost anything that they find which is a reasonable size. Some of them can even fly, although they do not do so very often.
You might wonder if they ever take on things that are too big, or could mistake a human’s hand for viable prey. It is quite unlikely. Praying mantises have extraordinarily good eyesight.
Their heads can turn 180 degrees in either direction, and their large, compound eyes are placed on either side of their head, so they have a superb field of vision.
They are also currently the only insect that has been proven to have 3D vision similar to that of humans, meaning that they see in much the same way that people do.
If you are unlikely to mistake a rock for supper, a praying mantis is unlikely to think your finger makes a tasty meal. It could happen, but it probably won’t.
That isn’t to say they won’t bite you if you anger them, however; they are aggressive bugs and should always be handled with care and respect.
Key Fact Three: How Do Praying Mantis Hunt?
As mentioned, mantises are keen ambush hunters. If you have ever looked up the range of this insect, you’ll know that there are nearly 2,000 kinds across the globe (estimates say about 1,800).
However, most conform to a similar hunting strategy, because – obviously – it is highly effective.
Usually, a praying mantis will settle in a spot where it blends perfectly with its background.
They do not have the ability to color change like chameleons do, but their camouflage is extraordinarily good, and they can find surroundings where they are essentially invisible.
They will then either wait for prey to come to them, or stalk along the leaves and branches to approach prey that they have detected. Because of their superb camouflage, they can often stay hidden even when moving.
When close enough, they will suddenly lash out and grab the prey with their strong arms. This attacking movement is usually extremely quick, with the intention of grasping and holding whatever they are attacking.
Mantises can grab prey in under 70 milliseconds, far faster than a person can blink. Few creatures have any chance of escaping that speed.
Their arms are spiny and powerful, and can easily grip the prey while the mantis bites and injures it. Their jaws are also strong and perfectly capable of breaking up the prey so that they can feed.
Examining the hunting technique, it’s clear why venom would not be of particular value to a mantis. Although venom is a fast acting attack, it is not as quick or reliable as a mantis’s arms.
It’s also problematic as the animal that the mantis is hunting could easily then drop off a branch or twig, and fall beyond the mantis’s reach.
Venomous fangs would be of little use; by the time the mantis was close enough to use them, it would already have the prey in its arms.
A stinger would potentially be even worse. Stinging also requires a high degree of accuracy in most cases, and much of a mantis’s prey is too small for this to be effective.
For example, a mantis would probably struggle to sting a cricket. It would be likely to miss, or lose the bug if it dropped once the venom started to take effect.
“It’s much more reliable for a mantis to hunt by grabbing and holding its prey while it eats it. This ensures the prey is immobilized and not lost, and the mantis is perfectly adapted for this hunting technique.“
Depending on brute strength rather than venom also makes them less likely to become prey themselves.
Many things that might tackle a mantis are as likely to end up being dinner as they are to eat the mantis.
By growing strong and developing fierce spines on their arms, mantises have removed themselves from the menu of many other insects – or at least given themselves a fighting chance – and they are therefore higher up on the food chain than they might be if they relied on poison.
Many mantises compound this by choosing to hunt at night, when there are fewer predators around to bother them.
They have extremely good eyesight, and are also sensitive to signs of bats approaching; they usually drop to the ground, making it difficult for bats to locate or grab them.
Key Fact Four: Could A Mantis Ever Be Poisonous?
Next, you might be wondering what happens if a praying mantis consumes something that is poisonous. Does it, in turn, take on the characteristics and poison whatever eats it?
We have already established that praying mantises are not fussy feeders and will eat almost anything that they come across.
However, most animals will avoid consuming other poisonous animals – that is the whole point of poison. A praying mantis is very unlikely to eat poisonous bugs or other foods that could kill it.
If a praying mantis did eat something poisonous, it is possible that the toxins could remain in the mantis’s bloodstream and get passed onto anything that then ate the mantis.
We can see this working in other ways; rat poison has been known to poison owls that then consume the rat.
However, a mantis cannot make itself venomous by consuming poisonous or venomous bugs as far as we know currently.
Some creatures may, if very specifically adapted, be able to utilize venom stolen from other animals.
For example, the sea slug family called nudibranchs is capable of recycling the stinging cells from the sea anemones they prey on, and reusing these within their own bodies.
However, they do not digest the cells, and do not become “poisonous” as a direct result of eating them. They simply acquire the enemy’s weapon and use it themselves.
In short, then, it is highly unlikely that a mantis could become toxic by consuming other things, unless it were to accidentally ingest manmade chemicals and spread them through the food chain that way.
They do not have the ability to produce venom by eating other animals.
Key Fact Five: Praying Mantises Have Five Eyes
As if the other features already mentioned weren’t enough, it’s important to recognize that part of their evolutionary journey has given praying mantises five eyes.
They have the two main large eyes that you see when you look at the bug, and then three tiny eyes in between these large eyes.
It’s no wonder that they are excellent visual hunters, therefore – or that they are so good at camouflaging themselves.
With such effective eyesight, it is likely very easy for them to tell when they are blending with their background, and when they need to move.
Those five eyes are pretty special, too. As mentioned, scientists have determined that mantises can see much like humans can, but they can actually see a little better than we can, too.
Their eyes are capable of stereopsis, and they have a type of 3D vision that allows them to see movements we can’t detect.
They are able to see insects moving around at greater distances than people can, which helps them to hunt more effectively.
They fix their eyes on the prey and then move their long thoraxes to keep their heads in the right position to see them.
Mantises are particularly sensitive to movement, so if their prey freezes, they will find it more difficult to locate it properly. Prey that is moving, on the other hand, is easy for the mantis to grab.
A mantis also has very powerful mandibles, which are used to tear up its prey with ease while it grips it with its strong legs.
The spines on its legs help to prevent the prey from escaping, and while many mantises only have a few spines on each front leg, some have about thirty.
These spines can also help the mantises climb and jump from bush to bush, and may allow them to grip onto foliage more easily after a flight.
It’s worth noting that not all kinds of mantises can fly, and many of the females are too heavy to get airborne, even if they do have wings on their backs. Males, however, may fly more easily.
With all of those amazing evolutionary advantages, it’s little surprise that the mantid family did not bother with poison as it developed.
While any creature can benefit from making itself inedible or capable of injecting venom into its prey, mantises depend on stealth, camouflage, and strength instead.
So, praying mantises are not poisonous, and have little need to be.
Many of their predators would not be deterred by poison, and in order to advertise itself as poisonous, a mantis would lose its key advantage: its camouflage.
Mantises, therefore, have forgone poison in favor of disguise, which serves to protect the mantis from its predators, and allows it to get within striking distance of its prey.
Mantises are amazing to see in action, and if you ever have the opportunity to watch slowed down footage of a mantis strike, you will see why these incredible insects don’t have to depend on poison.
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