If you ever see something like a beautiful pink orchid start to “walk” among the leaves, chances are it isn’t an orchid but an insect with a very special camouflage. Namely, the orchid mantis.
This specially adapted species, also called Hymenopus coronatus or flower mantis, lives in the rainforests of Southeast Asia from Indonesia to the Philippines to India. But they are particularly abundant in peninsular Malaysia.
So expert are they in their mimicry that a solitary mantis attracts as many flower feeders as when among real orchids, a study found.
How does the orchid mantis pull off its amazing disguise?
First, each of its four legs bears the color pattern of flower petals and a similar rounded shape. As with other members of the mantis family, the orchid mantis’s front legs are lined with “teeth” that allow it to latch onto unsuspecting prey.
Among its prey are butterflies and moths, as they are drawn to their picture-perfect masquerade. But they also receive visits from flies, bees, and wasps in search of sweet nectar.
The orchid mantis is also remarkable for its sexual dimorphism, with the females being much larger, more colorful, and more sedentary—all necessary traits to attract both prey and mates. Males are smaller, drabber, and more mobile to facilitate reproduction.
In addition to their floral appearance, young female orchid mantises emit chemicals that are part of the pheromone communication for Oriental honeybees (Apis cerana), according to journal Zoological Science. The researchers “successfully detected [a pheromone] emitted in the headspace air only at the time when the juvenile mantes were attempting to capture their prey,” the study said.
Researchers also found that the mantis’s appearance adapted not to resemble one particular orchid in their native Malaysian rainforest, nor to give the general impression of a flower, but that its “color and shape varied within the range of that exhibited by many flower petals rather than resembling one type in particular,” according to a study in Current Zoology.
Although a solitary mantis may hunt successfully, the most fruitful bounty occurs when there is a “magnet effect” when “inhabiting patches with high densities of rewarding flowers,” which provide “an optimal foraging strategy for flower-mimicking orchid mantises due to the increased abundance of prey items and the enhanced effectiveness of their deceptive signal,” says a study in Behavioral Ecology.
Then one may ask why these prey insects go for the orchid mantis at all when there are other real, safe flowers nearby? The answer seems to lie in the mantis’s incredible color display, which outdoes the real deal.
For potential feeders, the shape of the flower is less important than the color, notes Discover Magazine, and female orchid mantises seem to have adapted to be more colorful than their namesake flowers; hence, they get more attention.
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