This section is from "Scientific American Supplement". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
On examining the strange forms shown in the accompanying engraving, many persons would suppose they were looking at exotic insects. Although this is true for many species of this group, which are indigenous to warm countries, and reach at the most only the southern temperate zone, yet there are certain of these insects that are beginning to be found in France, to the south of the Loire, and that are always too rare, since, being exclusively feeders on living prey, they prove useful aids to us.
These insects belong among the orthoptera--an order including species whose transformations are less complete than in other groups, and whose larval and pupal forms are very active, and closely resemble the imago. Two pairs of large wings characterize the adult state, the first pair of which are somewhat thickened to protect the broad, net-veined hinder pair, which fold up like a fan upon the abdomen. The hind legs are large and adapted for leaping.
The raptorial group called Mantidae, which forms the subject of this article, includes species that maybe easily recognized by their large size, their enormous, spinous fore legs, which are adapted for seizing other insects, and from their devotional attitude when watching their prey.
These insects exhibit in general the phenomenon of mimicry, or adaptation for protection, through their color and form, some being green, like the plants upon which they live, others yellowish or grayish, and others brownish like dead leaves.
In the best known species, Mantis religiosa, the head is triangular, the eyes large, the prothorax very long, and the body narrowed and lengthened; the anterior feet are armed with hooks and spines, and the shanks are capable of being doubled up on the under side of the thighs. When at rest it sits upon the four posterior legs, with the head and prothorax nearly erect, and the anterior feet folded backward. The female insect attains a length of 54 millimeters, and the male only 40.
The color is of a handsome green, sometimes yellow, or of a yellowish red. The insects are slow in their motions, waiting on the branches of trees and shrubs for some other insect to pass within their reach, when they seize and hold it with the anterior feet, and tear it to pieces. They are very voracious, and sometimes prey upon each other. Their eggs are deposited in two long rows, protected by a parchment-like envelope, and attached to the stalk of a plant. The nymph is as voracious as the perfect insect, from which it differs principally in the less developed wings.
The devotional attitude of these insects when watching for their prey--their fore legs being elevated and joined in a supplicating manner--has given them in English the popular names of "soothsayer," "prophet," and "praying mantis," in French, "prie-Dieu," in Portuguese, "louva-Deos," etc. According to Sparmann, the Nubians and Hottentots regard mantides as tutelary divinities, and worship them as such. A monkish legend tells us that Saint Francis Xavier, having perceived a mantis holding its legs toward heaven, ordered it to sing the praises of God, when immediately the insect struck up one of the most exemplary of canticles! Pison, in his "Natural History of the East Indies," makes use of the word Vates (divine) to designate these insects, and speaks of that superstition, common to both Christians and heathens, that assigns to them the gifts of prophecy and divination. The habit that the mantis has of first stretching out one fore leg, and then the other, and of preserving such a position for some little time, has also led to the belief among the illiterate that it is in the act, in such cases, of pointing out the road to the passer by.
MANTIDES AND EMPUSae
The old naturalist, Moufet, in his Theatrum Insectorum (London, 1634), says of the praying mantis (M. religiosa) that it is reported so divine that if a child asks his way of it, it will show him the right road by stretching out its leg, and that it will rarely or never deceive him.
This group of insects is most abundant in the tropical regions of Africa, South America, and India, but some species are found in the warmer parts of North America, Europe, and Australia. The American species is the "race-horse" (M. carolina), and occurs in the Southern and Western States. Burmeister says that M. argentina, of Buenos Ayres, seizes and eats small birds.
The genera allied to Mantis--Vates, Empusa, Harpax, and Schizocephala--occur in the tropics. The genus Eremophila inhabits the deserts of Northern Africa, where it resembles the sand in color.
The species shown in the engraving (which we borrow from La Nature) inhabit France.