An introduction on the biology of mantises

Mantises are among all insects, one of the most popular and commonly kept pets. Early civilizations were convinced that mantises had supernatural powers. We know that is not true, but they still have a mysterious and bizarre appearance.

This page gives you an introduction to the biology of these marvellous and colourful creatures. We will talk about the morphology, its natural habitat, their behaviour and life cycle.

The praying mantis

Mantises of the order Mantodea are commonly known as praying mantis. All species that belong to this order have forelegs that are greatly enlarged. Because of their upright posture while remaining completely stationary with their forelegs folded, led to this commonly used name. However, praying mantis is not the official name or a specific species. One of the largest family within this order is the Mantidae, or commonly named as mantids. Within this family live the most species that are kept as pets.

Morphology of the mantis

Mantises have that typical insect 3-part body plan: head, thorax and abdomen. On the thorax are six legs connected, many have wings and two antennae on their head. However, mantises have some features that make them rather unique.

The uniqueness of mantises

All mantises do look somewhat the same. They have that typical triangular head with large, strong mandibles and compound eyes, connected on an elongated neck. Mantises have enlarged forelegs, often with many sharp hooks, adapted to move in a split second to catch prey and hold them tight.

What makes mantises unique is the ability to turn their head around a full 180 degrees, a bit the same as humans do. Mantises are the only insects that can do so, whereas all other insects have necks that are too short and rigid. Mantises have a flexible joint between its head and prothorax that enables them to turn their head.

High developed senses

Mantises have all senses available, i.e. feeling, hearing, smell, taste, and sight. Many senses are not particularly well developed. However, their sense of sight is highly developed, especially when you compare it with other insects. Unique for mantises is that they have a binocular field of vision. With other words, that both eyes can focus on the same point. With that ability, mantises have depth perception and can judge distances very accurate.

While hearing is not particularly well developed, many mantis species have an organ in the middle of their abdomen to sense high-pitched sounds. And that is quite unique for an insect. With this organ, they can perceive the high pitch echolocation sounds bat makes. Bats are a common predator to mantises, and when perceiving the sound of a bat up close will make a mantis let itself suddenly fall to escape ending as prey.

Colouration and camouflage of mantises

Many mantises have quite plain colours, and most are ordinary green, sandy or brown coloured. However, several mantis species are very beautifully coloured. Two examples that are quite extraordinary are the spiny flower mantis (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergii) and orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus).

Many mantises depend on its camouflage, preventing to be eaten by predators. Many species have extraordinary camouflage where on their body are shapes and colours of dead leaves, branches, flowers and moss. When sitting completely stationary on a comparable plant, they are almost completely invisible. Some made advantage of this technique of not been seen to hunt prey better.

Natural habitat distribution

Of the 2400 recognized mantis species, most of them can be found in tropical regions. However, some live in more temperate areas, and they can be found on every continent (except Antarctica).

They almost always live up in the trees, bushes and other foliage. Mantises (often) don’t come to the ground. However, some species live in rocky or sandy desert environments.

The life cycle of a mantis

Mantises are among the hemimetabolous insects and go through three life stage — egg, nymph and adult. Some species are known to breed parthenogenetically, which means they do not have to mate to produce fertile eggs. At least three mantis species are known to be able to reproduce in this way, although these species usually reproduce sexually.


The ootheca is the frothing mass that contains the eggs and creates a protective capsule. This capsule protects against the weather and cold, predators and desiccation. Every species place their ootheca differently. Some attach it to flat surfaces, where others wrap it around a plant or deposit in the ground. For some species is known that the females are guarding the ootheca, for example, as Tarachodes maurus do. The eggs hatch between 3 to 4 weeks for smaller species, and 4 to 6 weeks for larger species.


Nymphs are often differently coloured, and many species of nymphs mimic the shape and behaviour of ants. They grow every time they moult its exoskeleton. Depending on the species and even on the sex, they moult between 5 and 10 times before reaching adulthood. Females often have one moult extra before they become an adult. Only after the last moult, the wings will develop. Mantis will not grow between moults.

The nymphal stages are indicated with a number. Newly hatched nymphs are called L1, and after the first moult will be called L2, and so on. Before the last moult, the nymph is often called subadult.


The lifespan highly depends on the species. Small species may live for only 4 to 8 weeks, while large species can live up to 4 to 6 months. During the adult stage, the male will (try to) mate to fertilize the female, which in turn will lay the ootheca to complete the life cycle. Typically females lay between 10 and 400 eggs but greatly vary between species.

Mating typically occurs in the autumn for species living in temperate climates. In temperate regions, eggs overwinter and have some diapause. Adult and nymph mantises would be killed by the cold. In the tropical areas, mantises will mate whole year-round.

Around 90% of the predatory species have known to exhibit sexual cannibalism, and this is also common among predatory mantis species in captivity. Sexual cannibalism means that before, during or after mating the female kill and eats the male. The true reason for sexual cannibalism is still being debated. It is much less seen in ‘sit-and-wait’ mantis species. In captivity, often these species can also be housed in groups, whereas predatory mantises almost always result in the death of group members.

Behaviour and temperament

Depending on the species, there behaviour and temperament can be very diverse. Some mantises are docile and easy to handle and are often quite ‘sit-and-wait’ species. Others will actively hunt and walk towards their prey, and make much more sound.

Not all mantises like to be handled. Often they make a defensive pose where they hold up their forelegs and spread their wings. This pose means they don’t like it and don’t want to be approached.

Food habits

We already talked about predatory and non-predatory mantises. This characteristic is often seen in how they gather their food. Some mantises will actively hunt or stalk prey, where others are just sit-and-wait until the prey is close enough to catch.

All mantises eat insects and spiders and are therefore carnivorous. Large mantis may even eat small reptiles or amphibians if it gets the chance.

Further reading

Do you want to know more about keeping a mantis as a pet? On this page, you’ll read about the basic care for mantises.

There will also be a page entirely devoted to breeding mantises in the near future. Come back soon to check it out!

Similar bugs to mantises

If you like mantises, you’ll probably also like the insects below. Otherwise, check out our page ‘Choose your bug species‘ to find more different bugs.

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