Praying Mantis Mimics Flower to Trick Prey

It may look pretty, but this “orchid” actually has a trick under its, well, leaves—it’s actually a praying mantis trying to get a meal. 

Until recently, scientists weren’t sure if this flower mimic was accurate enough to deceive bugs. Now, a new study says it is—and it’s the first scientific evidence of an animal imitating a flower to attract prey.

A female orchid mantis makes like a flower. Photograph courtesy Dr. James O’Hanlon, Macquarie University

The orchid mantis’ story goes back to 1879, when Australian journalist James Hingsley came back from Indonesia with tales of a carnivorous orchid that enveloped butterflies in its petals and consumed them alive. Hingsley hadn’t actually discovered an insect-eating flower.  He, like those butterflies, was fooled by the orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus). (Watch a praying mantis video.)

For their recent study, scientists James O’Hanlon and Marie Herberstein of Macquarie University in Australia and Gregory Holwell of the University of Auckland in New Zealand went to Malaysia to find out if the orchid mantis’ blossom impression really lured pollinators to their deaths. Herberstein received funding from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

The first challenge for the team was finding orchid mantises in the dense forests of Malaysia. The researchers relied on the knowledge of native Malaysians known as the Orang Asli, who live a traditional lifestyle amidst the forest and knew where the orchid mantises live.

“They likely have an enormous wealth of knowledge about the natural history of the plants and animals of Malaysian rain forests that we scientists have yet to fully appreciate,” said O’Hanlon, whose research will be published in January in American Naturalist.

Once they had obtained a few orchid mantises, the researchers combed the forest for the flower it mimics. But “we really couldn’t find any flower that looks just like the orchid mantis,” he said. (Also see Glowing Cockroach Mimics Toxic Beetle.”)

Instead, orchid mantises may resemble an average or generalized flower, incorporating several characteristics typical of Malaysian blooms.

Flower Power

The scientists performed two experiments: First, they compared the color of mantises and various native flowers using an instrument called a spectrophotometer, which can measure wavelengths of light that an insect sees, which is outside of the range detectable by human vision.

orchid mantis picture
An orchid mantis is camouflaged on a flower, in Borneo, Malaysia. Photograph by Thomas Marent, Minden Pictures/Corbis

The team found that from the perspective of a pollinating insect, the color of orchid mantises is indistinguishable from a large number of Malaysian flower species.

Next, the research team observed live orchid mantises in the field, counting the number of insects that were attracted to the mantis “flower.” They compared this to the number of insects that inspected an actual flower in the same amount of time.

Their hypothesis was right: They were surprised to find the mantises actually attracted more insects than the real flowers.

There are other animals that use their camouflage to hide among flowers and then ambush prey, but the predatory strategy of the orchid mantis is different. (Watch a video of a female praying mantis biting off the male’s head.)

“The orchid mantises we observed were not hiding amongst flowers, but were sitting on their own against a backdrop of green vegetation,” O’Hanlon said.

“Thus, it was the body of the mantis itself that was attracting the pollinators, and not any flowers in its vicinity.”

Still-Mysterious Mantis

O’Hanlon has more questions about the orchid mantis.

“This was the first-ever study of the orchid mantis, so we’re really only seeing the tip of the iceberg here,” he said.

For instance, O’Hanlon plans to look at the interaction between pollinators and mantises, as well as explore the possibility that the orchid mantis’ mimicry conceals it from predators.

Thanks to the team, this elusive floral faker is beginning to give up its secrets.

Follow Mary Bates on Twitter and Facebook.

Mary Bates is a freelance science writer living in Boston. She has a PhD in psychology from Brown University where she studied bat echolocation. You can visit her website at www.marybateswriter.com and follow her on Twitter at @mebwriter.
  • Ima Ryma

    The orchid mantis – bug or bloom?
    Look closely at my pinkish bod.
    Ah – a flower, quick to assume.
    But then notice details quite odd.
    Not petals, but flattened legs four
    Of an insect that is endowed
    With having a plant like decor,
    For purposed mimicry allowed.
    A predator bird that’s nearby,
    I do not look like yummy meat.
    But I’m attractive to a fly,
    And when it lands, I grab and eat.

    When I’m acting like a flower,
    I do feel such awesome power.

  • Celine

    WOW! What an awesome discovery! Simply amazing there’s ever such an insect that’s both a beauty and yet potentially dangerous predator.

  • Mirta Montalvo

    Enjoyed reading this article and Ima Ryma’s playful poem.

  • David Cook

    Insects evolved well before flowering plants. This is very strange evolutionary behaviour. Is there a clue in the fact that the mantis attracts more insects than the actual plants?

  • Behnaz

    It was amazing. I really enjoyed reading it.

  • Robert

    Creation declares the glory of our infinitely creative God, to Whom belongs all praise and glory. Check out creation.com for great articles which give credit where it is due.

  • Robert Slimm

    For the true theory of everything, read the Bible. It tells where we came from, where we’re going, what came before us and what happens after us. The great and glorious Creator God is the centre of all, because without Him is nothing. And yet He loves us…

  • Jared Eldredge

    oh for crying out loud – Robert, please leave your imaginary friend at the door when you come to visit!

    as for the very interesting question posed about how insects evolved much earlier than flowering plants… i wasn’t aware of that but now i’m quite curious, thanks for asking the question @David Cook.

  • karen m kalpin

    To the religious guy – this is a science based publication/site. You don’t have to read it. Read something else. I am actually interested in the science of the world I live in – if you’re not stick with the bible man, we just want to enjoy our Geo!

  • Finbar

    This is a top notch article. O’Hanlon is my lecturer and a fine one at that. Very good at his job! These types of discoveries are what makes science so awesome and opens up even more questions about the beautiful planet we just so happen to exist on through a series of mind boggling coincidences. To this bible guy, chill out mate. Theres no need to preach on Geo. Go out and look at what your creator has created, fall in love with it, protect it from those who abuse it. And if you have any questions, come back to this site and I’m sure you will find some answers that delve slightly deeper then “In the beginning…”

  • wade

    to karen m kaplin,
    your idea of this being a “science based publication” is right. and the defintion of good science is the hunt for accurate information ,however, you seem to think that your “science” is proven when in truth science is just a theory and i do believe in micro-evolution because that is evident and i am a christian. however there is little evidence for macro-evolution

  • geofish

    awesome photos

  • Usha

    Amazing survival and feeding behavior. Can’t imagine the brain power of these little creatures. Nature make wonders a lot!

  • Marcel Kincaid

    ” the defintion of good science is the hunt for accurate information”

    FIrst, that/s not it’s definition. Second, that’s something that people like you refuse to do.

    “however, you seem to think that your “science” is proven when in truth science is just a theory”

    You don’t understand what these words mean.

    “and i do believe in micro-evolution because that is evident”

    What you mean is that it is so obvious that even a science denier like yourself has trouble denying it.

    “and i am a christian”

    And the relevance of that is … obviously that you choose what to believe based on your religious dogma rather than via the scientific method.

    “however there is little evidence for macro-evolution”

    You are overwhelmingly wrong. There is vast, massive evidence of “macro” evolution … that you know nothing at all about biological science is evident. There’s also basic logic; given “micro” evolution, the existence of “macro” evolution is inevitable. (I put these words in scare quotes because they are not scientific terms, they are terms used by intellectually dishonest know-nothing godbots.)

  • Marcel Kincaid

    Usha: Being camoflaged doesn’t require brain power. It’s not a choice; they were born this way.

  • Marcel Kincaid

    There isn’t anything at all “strange” about insects evolving before flowering plants. Most insects don’t depend on or mimic flowering plants. And the fact that “the mantis attracts more insects than the actual plants” could simply be due to its being mobile, and thus able to situate itself well. Or, as appears likely. mantises evolve more quickly than plants.

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