Mantids: Methodical predators

Praying Mantis

This week’s featured creature in a very large, very long-bodied and long-legged predator from the insect world. It is called the Chinese Mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis). Only two species, both introduced to North America, known to Iowa. They are the Chinese Mantis and the Carolina Mantis. A small triangular head articulates to focus its eyes on potential prey. Impressive oversized front legs bristle with spines to help hold animals it catches. There are more than 1,500 known species in the world. Today’s image measured over four inches long.

When this author spied this critter on my backyard deck fence, it was time for action with camera and long lens. The result is a very good image of an animal we may rarely see even though we know they do exist. Even more impressive was its head, moving to follow my moves as it focused its beady little eyes on me. It reminded me of old time grade “B” black and white movies of creatures invading city landscapes to devour people by the score. Now back to real science.

An ambush predator, it waits patiently for the right moment to strike out with those long front legs. When folded against its body, it may appear to be praying. However that is the anthropomorphic term applied by people. In truth this insect is “preying” in the sense that its front legs are locked and loaded to catch insects to devour for its next meal. On the menu are crickets, grasshoppers, butterflies, flies and bees. But this insect is an opportunist and will also take its own siblings and if the circumstances are available, capture small birds including hummingbirds.

In fact a hummingbird was photographed in Colorado as it hung from the feeder. What was determined a short time later was that the bird was being held by its head in the front legs of mantis. The mantis was methodically chewing through the skull of the hummingbird to eat its brain tissue. Now you see where the grade “B” black and white movie idea comes from. Large mantids such as this have been observed to go after warblers, honeyeaters, flycatchers, vireos and European robins. Bird predation by mantids is rare especially when compared to the carnage from free-roaming cats.

Catching prey is is a result of this animals stereoptic, or 3-D, vision. By seeing in stereo, it can mentally triangulate the distance to a prey species to determine exact distances and depth of field. It seems to be able to calculate what it must do to catch the victim. If you see a four inch long mantid in your garden, be assured that you are not on its menu. But it will calculate how big you are and how far away you are. Yes, mantids can also fly.

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I want to thank my guest fill-in writers over the past two weeks while I was on vacation. Adam Sodders told of his hunting foray for doves and Emily Herring described the process of coordinating school studies of sciences with her knowledge of how to blend outdoor activities into the learning process. My thanks for their help is sincerely appreciated.

So where did I go over the last two weeks? Answer: Arizona … to visit friends and family first before venturing onto new territory for an archery elk hunt in the Coconino Forest southeast of Flagstaff. My bow and arrow hunt was coordinated with outfitter Steve Ward and the hunt began on Sept. 15 for one week. Did we see elk? Yes, every day. However just because one sees elk does not mean the animals are unsuspecting of human pressures elsewhere. Many elk were way to far away to be approachable, or they were already on the move away from us. Getting in front of moving elk is not the best of odds even though it can be done. Elk are big animals in a big territory and they know how to live and escape all enemies. For one of the biggest members of the deer family, they are experts at avoiding threats.

My assigned hunt area was in unit 5A, a large segment of the Coconino National Forest. In general, the area was located northeast of Pine and Strawberry, little communities at the base of the Mogollon Rim. This rim is a rugged escarpment of the Colorado Plateau’s southern limit. It is part of a great geologic fault running 200 hundred miles across Arizona from southeast to northwest. The rim in places reveals a 2,000-foot difference in elevation from the valley below. Ponderosa pines and pinyon-juniper woodlands dominate.

It is a very good thing I employed an outfitter and guide service. The guide knew the territory well, knew elk behavior well, and knew tactics that got us close enough to evaluate for a go/no-go decision. It was fun, it was work, it was long hours and very informative and educational, all things I like to do. As an archer, I knew going in that the task of getting within 40 yards would be very difficult. But this is my chosen method of hunting. If I had been using a rifle, this hunt trip would have new elk meat in the freezer. I did not get an elk.

A typical hunt day went something like this: Wakeup at 3:30 am, and out the door by 4 a.m. (Pre planning of what clothes to wear and gear to pack was done the night before). Once out the door, my guide drove his truck with trailered ranger vehicle to a forest service access point, then we used the ranger to drive very rocky forest service roads deep into the forest. Once there were hiked into the ponderosa pines listening for elk talk. If we heard elk, we attempted to move closer and always aware of wind direction. Typically by 8:30 a.m., the elk were at bedding areas and quiet. So rather than bust them out of sleeping quarters, we backed out and headed to the cabin.

At the cabin I had time to rest, nap, shower and get ready for the afternoon waterhole wait. We were back at a hunt site by 4 p.m. Portable blinds concealed us and any movements we made. Sitting at a waterhole for three hours in total silence is what was required. As for the elk, sometime they came to drink, sometimes it was a no-show, or maybe these large cervids came into the water on the far side of the pond, out of range and out of sufficient light. Every scenario you can think of happened.

It was interesting to see spike elk approach us and get to within 15 yards before realizing those camo clad “stumps” were not quite the same as a tree. Another time a large bull and his cows came to a waterhole but he was 71 yards away, way too far for my comfort range of 40 yards. There were other almost moments that did not pan out. And on one occasion, a black bear sauntered through between us and the elk we wanted to get close to. The bear was at 20 yards from me and unsuspecting the entire time. My guide thought this was a bit too close and threw a rock at the bear. The bear immediately ran away going uphill faster than I thought possible.

There were four very experienced archers in camp. Everyone had shot opportunities but elected not to take the shot provided. Some of the bull elk they passed on were definitely in my book as big enough. At weeks end, only one bull elk was taken, the three other archers, me included, wrote the successful hunt off as a great learning experience, new friends met, and new country to hunt in for a full mental battery recharge.

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IOWA’s ARCHERY DEER SEASON begins today. The deer population has been relatively stable with a statewide pre-hunt population estimate of about 500,000. This year’s license sales for deer tags will be made by 62,000 bow hunters who will purchase about 90,000 licenses. An average bow hunter takes at least 12 trips to the forests, spends more than three hours each time, and records all kinds of wildlife sightings. Last year 62,000 archers took a tad over 13,000 deer with stick and string equipment. All deer and any fall wild turkey taken by hunters must be reported by midnight of the following day. The gathering of biological information from hunters is one key element of Iowa’s deer management program. And it is the law.

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“On autumn’s wine, now drink your fill; the frost’s on the pumpkin, and snow’s on the hill.”

— Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1993

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.