“Travolta” — The Praying Mantis In Our Back Yard
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I was idly wandering around our back yard the other day when I noticed something tiny and green moving across a pad of one of our Prickly Pear cacti. I looked more closely and realized that it was an immature praying mantis, about the size of my thumbnail. Opportunities like that are simply too good to pass up, so I grabbed a camera and attempted to photograph it. It took much cursing and sweating in 110-degree heat to get a few good images. The mantis was tiny but more than that, it wouldn’t keep still. Whenever I pointed my camera at it, it would turn to face me. Sometimes it would step to one side, sometimes it would leap a couple of inches away. When photographing something this small one has to get close, usually just a few inches from the subject, and at that distance, depth of field is minuscule — a millimeter or so at most. The slightest focusing error ruins the shot. To make things more difficult, the mantis was in shadow most of the time and the lens’ autofocus wouldn’t work under those conditions. I had to manually refocus every shot.
But, an hour’s very hot work produced a few nice images, so here’s the mantis.
I believe that this is an immature specimen of a common southwestern species of praying mantis known as Stagmomantis limbata, sometimes called “Arizona Mantis” or “Bordered Mantis.” If it is a female and survives to adulthood, it will eventually grow to between two and three inches in length. If it is a male, it will be about 1/2 the female’s size.
Mantids are ferocious hunters that rely on their vision to see their prey. They have superb vision, among the best of all insects. This tiny individual clearly could see me. It turned to watch every move I made.
A lot of insects have their heads rigidly attached to their bodies. In order to see something they must orient their bodies so that they face whatever it is that they’re looking at. Not so with mantids. They have flexible necks and are quite adept at turning their heads to get a better look at something.
I decided to nickname this mantis “Travolta” because its posture reminded me of John Travolta’s dance moves in the film “Saturday Night Fever.”
At this stage of its life this little mantis is wingless. As it matures it will acquire wings. Its principal means of moving seems to consist of an extraordinary leaping ability. I watched it make two-inch leaps from one cactus pad to another. That’s 6-8 times its body length, pretty impressive if you ask me.
Images made with Canon 5DS-R, 180 mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, stabilized by monopod (images 1 – 3) or by tripod (image 4), M setting, ISO 160, f16 @ 1/160.