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February 5, 2024 5 mins

These mantises look like beautiful, bright orchids -- and some use that to aggressively attract prey. Learn more in today's episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/orchid-mantis.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to brain Stuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff.
Lauren vogelbaumb here. One of our favorite things about science
is that it can really surprise us. Consider the case
of the elusive insect, the orchidmantis. Orchid mantises live in
the rainforests of Southeast Asia. The females are big, measuring

(00:25):
about two and a half inches long that's about six
and a half centimeters. Their male counterparts, meanwhile, only grow
to about an inch long maybe three centimeters. If you've
never seen one, they're worth looking up. They look strikingly
like orchid flowers. Their bodies and limbs are colored white
to a delicate pink, often with details of purple on

(00:46):
their heads, and patterns of brighter pink, yellow, green, or
black on their backs and lower limbs. They are two
pairs of hind legs used for walking, have wide, flat
surfaces that look like flower petals. Since they were first
described in scientific literature and more than one hundred years ago,
it was thought that these floral mantises evolved to imitate

(01:08):
orchid flowers and thus potential prey that are attracted to
or live among those flowers. By hiding among real blossoms.
It was thought they could sneak attack anything that happened
by moths, butterflies, beetles, or even frogs and scorpions. This
type of evolutionary behavior is called cryptic mimicry. It can

(01:29):
be used on the offense or defense, and it just
makes sense, right. It was commonly accepted as fact until
a few years ago. Okay, so, in the twenty teens,
a couple of different research groups were conducting systematic field
testing to see how adult orchid mantises operate. It turns
out those females weren't hiding at all. Insects were more

(01:52):
attracted to the female orchid manaces than to real flowers.
It was still a deception, but the other insects were
belining towards them, sometimes literally, you know. In the case
of bees. This is known not as cryptic mimicry, but
as aggressive mimicry. By evolving to be larger and more
flower like, female mantises increase their chances of attracting and

(02:15):
catching their preferred prey. They don't even look like one
particular species of flower. The research shows that their coloration
imitates several different species from an insect's perspective that coloration
from a distance, the screams tasty nectar found here. As
the insect approaches the orchidmantis, the petal shaped legs confirm

(02:37):
what the insect thinks to be true. It's a flower,
so it goes in, and the mantis knabs and eats
the critically misguided insect. These findings might not sound super
different from the previous hypothesis, but they're interesting for a
few reasons. First, this is one of the first times
the female adaptation in a species has been observed to

(03:00):
be for predatory purposes and not reproductive ones. A sexual
dimorphism is when a male and female of the same
species evolve to look and operate a little differently. Usually
the adaptations are both for reproductive purposes, but in the
case of female orchidmantises, they adapted because they were hungry,

(03:21):
not directly to improve their chances of having more or
healthier babies. Their male counterparts meanwhile, evolved to be smaller
and to use their patterning as camouflage to avoid being
eaten by predators. Of course, both of these behaviors indirectly
improve the mantis's chances of reproducing by surviving longer. The second,

(03:43):
the orchidmantis is the first animal known to mimic not
just a part of a blossom, but an entire blossom,
including color, petal shape, et cetera, to attract insects of
its own accord. And finally, these types of studies highlight
how systematic field research can lead to answers you weren't expecting,

(04:03):
or indeed weren't even attempting to find. One of the
studies that contributed to this knowledge wasn't even looking at
orchidmantises specifically, but at mantis taxonomic classification in general. They
were hoping to reclassify some different mantis species to better
align with their actual evolutionary history. But when they started

(04:23):
to notice this pattern in orchidmantis evolution, favoring larger, more
colorful females that could catch bigger prey, they honed in. Oh.
Once again, animals prove that we can't always predict why
they do what they do or look how they look.
Mother Nature continues to surprise us in beautiful and deadly ways,

(04:43):
perhaps especially if you're a bug. Today's episode is based
on the article the orchidmantis looks like a flower, it
stings like a Bee on HowStuffWorks dot Com, written by
Alison Troutner. A brain Stuff is production by Heart Radio
in partnership with hostuffworks dot Com and is produced by
Tyler Klang. But four more podcasts from my heart Radio.

(05:05):
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