By Mary Bates
A scientist has discovered 19 new species of super-speedy praying mantises that roam Central and South America, a new study says.
The insects belong to a group called bark mantises, which are flatter and broader than the more commonly known mantis.
“They almost look like cockroaches with a narrow front end,” said Gavin Svenson, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and author of a study published recently in the journal ZooKeys.
Some of the new species have creative names. There’s Liturgusa algorei (above), whose moniker honors former U.S. vice president and environmental activist Al Gore. Liturgusa krattorum is named for Martin and Chris Kratt, the hosts of two popular children’s shows about animals. And Svenson dubbed two of the bark mantises Liturgusa tessae and Liturgusa zoae, after his daughters, Tessa and Zoey. (Also see “Praying Mantis Mimics Flower to Trick Prey.”)
Previously, only ten species of bark mantis were known to science, so the new study nearly triples the known biodiversity of this group.
“This paper will serve as an authoritative work on the bark mantis group for many years to come,” said Jason Cryan, deputy museum director for research and collections at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, who was not involved in this study.
Speedy, Hidden Hunters
Svenson studied more than 500 bark mantis specimens from museums in North America, South America, and Europe, as well as collected insects from eight countries in Central and South America.
Most bark mantises are highly camouflaged to look like bark or lichen. They spend their lives on tree trunks and branches, where they use their superior vision to hunt smaller insects. (Watch a praying mantis video.)
While most people think of praying mantises as stealthy ambush hunters, Svenson said bark mantises actively pursue their prey and chase it down. “They’re extremely fast,” Svenson says.
Due to their camouflage and speed, bark mantises are not easy to capture. But Svenson figured out a way: He used a long, curved stick to tap the backside of tree trunks.
“Chances are, it will see you coming before you ever notice that it’s there, and it will run to the backside of the tree,” Svenson says. Tapping the back of the tree with the stick makes the mantis run around to the front, where it can be corralled into a net or scooped up by hand.
Svenson also collected bark mantises at night, when he could temporarily stun them by shining a bright spotlight in their eyes.
Many of the newly described species are known from only a few specimens collected 50 to 100 years ago, sometimes from places that are now being converted to agricultural uses and urban development.
It’s unknown whether some of the bark mantis species are endangered or even extinct, Svenson said—but he hopes the new study will shed more light on these mysterious animals.