"Waitwaitwait," you say. "A praying mantis? Like as in the insect? You're seriously going to write a Middle Flipper blog about a bug?"
Yes, you incredulous readers! I realize bugs have tiny brains, and we think of them as small robots made of organic matter. I'm no entomologist. I have a handful of fun biofacts about arthropods and their behavior, and a passionate interest in ethology and the scientific method. That is why I'd like to share with you my hypothesis that insects of the same species have different temperaments. My entire sample study is a whopping three individual praying mantises. Mantisi. Mantisouses? Manticies?
|Where the mantiseseses live|
About a year ago, I visited Ocklawaha prairie for the first time. This is one of a handful of prairies found in Florida. It's gorgeous, and kind of in the middle of nowhere. There are two ways to view the prairie: from a lookout on a bluff overlooking the entire thing, or by walking across the prairie on a boardwalk.
Well, I had to experience it all. I wanted to see alligators, wood ducks, wading birds of all kinds, snakes, birds of prey, you name it. Armed with my camera, Russ and I set off to explore the prairie at the ground level.
When we approached the boardwalk, there were several hypotheses (hypothesises?) my highly scientific mind made in quick succession. First, the boardwalk had not been maintained by human beings in a long time, because it was overgrown by Some Really Cool Grassy Plants.
|Really Cool Grassy Plants (Reallius coolius grassius planticus)|
Second, the most common pedestrian upon the boardwalk was the coyote. These coyotes must be from New York City, because a) they walked on the only "sidewalk" in a gigantic natural prairie, and b) they used the sidewalk as a bathroom.
But I digress. My third observation was that due to government downsizing, the state of Florida could only afford to hire Writing Spiders (yes, they are real) to monitor activity along the boardwalk and ensure that everyone was behaving themselves.
|A writing spider hiding behind her work|
So we ambled along the boardwalk, taking care not to disturb any writing spiders, break off any parts of plants, or step in large piles of coyote leavings. It was actually pretty awesome, and the view was amazing. I checked every nook and cranny of the boardwalk to find little critters skittering around it. I was especially impressed by the writing spiders though. They spin a web and in it create what is called a stabilimentum, which looks like they scribbled a zig-zag or some kind of alien lettering through the center. I've heard they use it to attract predators to their web (such as bees, wasps, politicians, etc.), but I'm pretty sure they just do it because they're all like, "Look, we all read Charlotte's Web as Required Reading For All Spiders Everywhere. Everyday we're writing stuff in our web, but where's the media coverage? No where. Why? Because the system is corrupt." It's hard being a writing spider.
|"WE DEMAND EQUALITY"|
Then, just when I thought I'd seen everything I could see at the prairie, I see a large praying mantis perched on the railing of the boardwalk. I walked over to her so I could take a couple of photos. She immediately ran for cover. Being the paparazzi I am, and assuming this little creature didn't know any better (you know, the Hairless Ape Hubris we all embody), I pursued her like she was the insect-version of a quasi-celebrity. Nonetheless, she evaded me at every turn.
I felt bad. She probably saw this giant camera with a reflective lens come at her and thought one (or more) of the following things:
1) "OMG I'M GOING TO GET EATEN BY THAT GIANT BLACK SHINY BIRD WITH THE LONG HAIR"
2) "OMG LOOK AT THAT OTHER PRAYING MANTIS LOOKING BACK AT ME DOING THE EXACT SAME THING I AM DOING. SHE IS PROBABLY GOING TO EAT ME."
3) "Wow, I never knew I had bug eyes."
|The scared mantis, hiding from me (she is actually upside down under the railing handle)|
My guilt overcame me and I left the little insect alone. Russ and I had come to the end of the boardwalk, so we turned around to head back. Much to my surprise, I saw another little praying mantis. I approached her more cautiously, but noticed right away that she had no fear of me at all. In fact, she didn't seem bothered by anything. When I got the camera right up next to her head, she turned her head, but didn't react in any other way. I moved around her, wondering why she was so chill and the other mantis had been so eager to get away from me. I chalked it up to my more careful approach, and left the brave little mantis.
|The brave mantis, looking cute with her compound eyes.|
|Gorgeous! Work it, girl!|
Then, just as we were about to exit the prairie, I saw the Last Mantis. She too stood on top of the railing, looking at me like she just was dying for a photo session. As I walked slowly towards her, she immediately locked eyes (all 3458907345 of them) on me and tracked me wherever I went.
"Wow!" I thought. "Look at how attentive this bug is!"
I got my camera close to her. She stared back at me. She reared her giant ninja scimitar death arms up at me and ATTACKED THE LENS. I jumped backwards and may or may not have screamed a little/a lot. Some expletives came out of my mouth.
This crazy chick (referring to the mantis, duh) wasn't finished with me. She wasn't all bite-and-run. She continued to track me like a jaguar stalks its prey. I stupidly tried to take another photo, and she tried to decapitate me again with her crazy arms.
|"Ima bout to kill you"|
Once again my Scientific Mind formulated the most parsimonious of explanations.
The praying mantis (species as yet unidentified by observer) reacts to visual, reflective stimuli in a camera lens. The reflection appears as a conspecific and therefore elicits a territorial reflexive response.
Girlfriend be crazy.
I set the camera down, because I thought it was obvious this insect was responding to my camera lens. I put it down and started walking away (backwards, you know, to keep my eye on this gangster)…AND SHE FOLLOWED ME. I started to job backwards slightly, to which she responded by running faster and then LEAPING from the railing onto the camera bag that was by my hip. I can only describe the reaction I had as "I'm On Fire" and I tried to take the camera bag off of me without killing the mantis but also without letting her saw my head off.
When I took the bag off, she kept turning to face me, no matter how many times I spun her around to face the Wilderness from which she came. I finally shook her off a few inches from the ground, which still didn't stop the madness. She ran down the boardwalk towards me on her skinny little legs and chased my ass off.
As I ran up the stairs, I heard a small voice yell, "YEAH THAS RIGHT".
|"DON'T LET THE DOOR HIT YOU ON THE WAY OUT"|
I couldn't believe it. After experiencing a terrified and a docile mantis, I never expected to be ran down by one. When my heart stopped racing and my mind exited FIGHT OR FLIGHT I'M GOING TO BE MURDERED mode*, I felt humbled and awe-inspired. In one half-hour period, I got to see three completely different reactions from three individuals of the same species. I assumed they didn't really "know" I was there, beyond whatever it is they do to survive. But what I'd actually done is terrorize one, who knows what effect I had on the other (boost her self esteem with my photo session?), and definitely pissed off the last one. The last one taught me the most, though. She taught me that she had a right to be on that boardwalk as much as I did. She taught me that it's pretty rude to stick a giant camera lens in the face of any non-consenting subject, especially if the subject is 89 times smaller than the camera lens itself. And she taught me that I can't just get away with being rude because I'm a giant animal. She took the gloves off and told me what's up. She took my human pride and tossed it onto the boardwalk among the piles of dried up coyote crap, where it belongs.
|Not pictured: My pride.|
And I'm pretty sure she told all the writing spiders to scribble a picture of my face in their web, with phrases such as "KEEP THIS MORON OUT" underneath it. Eat your heart out, Charlotte.
* This mode is most commonly experienced by humans when they encounter insects, spiders, scorpions, or strange noises made by inanimate objects but sound like they are a serial killer entering the house.