Mimicking mantis outperforms orchids

By Wes Judd 10 October 2013
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The orchid mantis, which imitates a flower to lure prey, attracts more insects than the real thing, say researchers.

THE ORCHID MANTIS, which resembles a flower in order to lure its prey, is more effective at attracting insects than an actual flower, researchers have found.

In the plant world, orchids use scent and bright colours to attract insects in a bid to spread their pollen and reproduce. It has long been assumed that the orchid mantis mimics flowers in order to lure these same insects.

Australian researchers investigating this theory were stunned to discover that the species is around 30% more effective at attracting pollinators than the real thing.

“We measured the hourly rate at which the pollinators flew up to the mantis and compared that to real flowers,” says Dr James O’Hanlon, an ecologist at Macquarie University in Sydney and the lead researcher. “I thought they’d be comparable, but the orchid mantis went way over.”

Praying mantis imitates flowers to lure insects

The Malaysian orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) is the only known animal to mimic a plant, says James, however there is still very little known about the species.

“We had to start from scratch. No-one had worked on them before. We didn’t know where they were or how to find them.”

The team headed to Malaysia and enlisted the help of the indigenous people to locate the species, which lives in forests of very low density.

Using colour analysis, the researchers determined that to pollinators, the colour of the mantis would be “indistinguishable” from flowers within the same geographical area. Their findings were published recently in The American Naturalist.

Animals that look like flowers

James says more research is required to understand why the orchid mantis is so successful in luring insects.

“Now that we know they’re attractive, we want to know why. How the insects are viewing them? Do they respond to the shape or colour? Do they think it’s a flower, or something unique and attractive?”

Graham Milledge, a mantis taxonomy expert at the Australian Museum, says the discovery is exciting.

“The significance of the discovery is that it demonstrates that flower mimicry in this species is used to actively attract prey rather than just being for camouflage,” he says.