Historically, the term “mantid” was used to refer to any member of the order because for most of the past century, only one family was recognized within the order; technically, however, the term only refers to this one family, meaning the species in the other eight recently-established families are not mantids, by definition (i.e., they are empusids, or hymenopodids, etc.), and the term “mantises” should be used when referring to the entire order.
A colloquial name for the order is “praying mantises”, because of the typical “prayer-like” stance. The term is often mis-spelled as “preying mantis”, and this an eggcorn since mantises are notoriously predatory.
The word mantis is Greek for “prophet” or “fortune teller“. In Europe, the name “praying mantis” refers to only a single species, Mantis religiosa. The closest relatives of mantises are the orders Isoptera (termites) and Blattodea (cockroaches), and these three groups together are sometimes ranked as an order rather than a superorder.
Reproduction and life history
Sexual cannibalism is common among mantises in captivity, and under some circumstances may also be observed in the field. The female may start feeding by biting off the male’s head (as with any prey), and if mating had begun, the male’s movements may become even more vigorous in its delivery of sperm. Early researchers thought that because copulatory movement is controlled by ganglion in the abdomen, not the head, removal of the male’s head was a reproductive strategy by females to enhance fertilisation while obtaining sustenance.
Later, this bizarre behaviour appeared to be an artifact of intrusive laboratory observation. Whether the behaviour in the field is natural, or also the result of distractions caused by the human observer, remains controversial.
Mantises are highly visual creatures, and notice any disturbance occurring in the laboratory or field such as bright lights or moving scientists. Research by Liske and Davis (1987) and others found (e.g. using video recorders in vacant rooms) that Chinese mantises that had been fed ad libitum (so were not starving) actually displayed elaborate courtship behavior when left undisturbed. The male engages the female in courtship dance, to change her interest from feeding to mating. Courtship display has also been observed in other species, but it does not hold for all mantises.
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