- From the Peruvian Amazon, researchers have described a new-to-science species of bright orange-red praying mantis that conspicuously mimics a wasp.
- The mantis mimics not only the bright coloration of many wasps, but also a wasp’s short, jerky movements. Such conspicuous mimicry of wasps is rare among mantises, which usually tend to resemble leaves or tree trunks, the researchers say in a new study.
- The researchers have named the praying mantis Vespamantoida wherleyi.
In 2013, a team of researchers surveying insects in a research station on the banks of the Amazon River in northern Peru set up a light trap. The large, brightly lit sheet, meant to attract insects just like a porch light does in the dark, lured in an unexpected creature. Among the various beetles, flies, wasps and praying mantises that had flown into the sheet was a tiny, bright orange-red insect with a black abdomen, eyes and head.
At first glance, it seemed like a species of wasp. But when Gavin Svenson, director of research and collections at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, looked more closely, he noticed that there was something odd about it.
“It didn’t look quite like a mantis, it didn’t look quite like a wasp,” Svenson said in a video statement. “I went up and I grabbed it and I put it in a little vial and once we started observing it we knew we had something totally different.”
Upon further analysis, Svenson and his team confirmed that it was actually a species of praying mantis that conspicuously mimics a wasp: not only does it mimic a wasp’s bright colors, but also a wasp’s movements. The mantis was, in fact, new to science, the researchers found, and they named it Vespamantoida wherleyi, in a new paper in the journal PeerJ.
“Typically, the majority of species differentiation is discovered and confirmed within a lab or collection setting,” Svenson said in a statement. “To have that rare eureka moment where you know you have found something new in the field is incredibly exciting.”
Most praying mantises rely on camouflage, both to avoid predators and to hunt. But they usually do so by mimicking leaves or tree bark and are brown or green. V. wherleyi, however, is brightly colored and has short, rapid, jerky movement patterns like those of many wasps. The mantis’s antennae movements are also similar to those of wasps, the authors write.
“In nature, when you are intentionally conspicuous, you are advertising something,” Svenson said. “When you are a species that can be easily taken as prey, you advertise because you want predators to think that you are poisonous, or could injure them, or any combination of unpleasant factors that tell the predator to think twice before pursuing you.”
The researchers found that the newly described species was quite similar to a species of praying mantis (formerly called Mantoida toulgoeti), previously described from French Guiana. The two species aren’t similar enough to be the same species, Svenson said. But the researchers concluded that the two species belonged to the same lineage or genus, which they have now named Vespamantoida, meaning wasp-mantis.
A mantis mimicking wasps is rare, and the researchers now hope to study why this mimicry may have evolved.
“I think the next natural thing is to study the evolutionary biology of the lineage,” Svenson said. “If wasp mimicry is successful in this lineage, why has it not evolved in the other lineages as well? Why have no other species within the family evolved brightly colored wasp mimicry? We’re just not sure.”
Video of Vespamantoida wherleyi by Gavin Svenson, Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Banner image of Vespamantoida wherleyi by Gavin Svenson, Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Svenson, G. J., & Rodrigues, H. M. (2019). A novel form of wasp mimicry in a new species of praying mantis from the Amazon rainforest, Vespamantoida wherleyi gen. nov. sp. nov. (Mantodea, Mantoididae). PeerJ, 7, e7886. doi: 10.7717/peerj.7886