Most mantises are exclusively predatory and exceptions are predominantly so. Insects form their primary prey, but the diet of a mantid changes as it grows larger. In its first instar a mantid will eat small insects such as tiny flies or its own siblings. In later instars it does not or cannot profitably pursue such small prey. In the final instar as a rule the diet of the praying mantis still includes more insects than anything else, but large species of mantis have been known to prey on small scorpions, lizards, frogs, birds, snakes, fish, and even rodents; they will feed on any species small enough for them to capture, but large enough to engage their attention. For example, a large mantis feeding on a bee or bug might be pestered with impunity by jackal flies and biting midges that it would readily have eaten in its first instar. Large prey tends to increase in value with the cube of its dimension: a blowfly four times as long as a jackal fly would represent a meal about 64 times as massive. When a female mantis is into her final growth spurt and is accumulating nutrients to make eggs, the largest available prey that she can manage is the most effective for her to concentrate on.
The majority of mantises are ambush predators, but some ground and bark species will actively pursue their prey. For example, members of a few genera such as the ground mantids, Entella, Ligaria and Ligariella, run over dry ground seeking prey much as tiger beetles do. Species that are predominantly ambush predators camouflage themselves and spend long periods standing perfectly still. They largely wait for their prey to stray within reach, but most mantises will chase tempting prey if it strays closely enough. In pure ambush mode a mantis lashes out at remarkable speed when a target does get within reach, details of the speed and mode attack varying with the species. A mantis will catch prey items and grip them with grasping, spiked forelegs. The praying mantis usually holds its prey with one arm between the head and thorax, and the other on the abdomen. Then, if the prey does not resist, the mantis will eat it alive. However, if the prey does resist, the mantis will often eat it head first, some species of mantises being more prone to the behaviour than others. Unlike sucking predatory arthropods, a mantis does not liquefy prey tissues or drain its prey's body fluids, but simply slices and chews it with its mandibles as convenient, often from one end. If it should happen to have begun feeding on the midsection of the prey it typically ends up eating first one remnant end from one foreclaw then the rest from the other, leaving nothing but accidentally severed fragments such as limbs.
Chinese Mantids have been found to gain benefits in survivorship, growth, and fecundity by supplementing their diet with pollen. In replicated laboratory tests the first instar actively fed on pollen just after hatching, thereby avoiding starvation in the absence of prey. The adults fed on pollen-laden insects, attaining fecundity as high those fed on larger numbers of insects alone (Beckman & Hurd 2003).
- Beckman, N. and L. E. Hurd. 2003. Pollen feeding and fitness in Praying Mantids: The vegetarion side of a tritrophic predator. Environmental Entomology 32:881-885.
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