Orchid Mantis Perfectly Mimics Flowers In Order To Lure Prey [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on December 2, 2013 6:19 PM EST

orchid mantis
The orchid mantis can disguise itself almost perfectly as a flower blossom, attracting prey. (Photo: Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be)

The orchid mantis isn't the only species to resemble its surroundings in order to attract prey or defend against predators--ever seen a leaf insect?--but a new study suggests that it's one of the most unique. The orchid mantis, an elusive Southeast Asian insect, is the only bug known to disguise itself as a flower blossom to attract prey. As you can see in the photo above, the orchid mantis makes a "flower" convincing enough to fool the human eye, so you can imagine how good it is at fooling insects.

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"What really surprised us was the fact that the orchid mantises were even more successful at attracting pollinators than real flowers," said study author James O'Hanlon of Macquarie University, in Australia. "After more than a century of conjecture we provide the first experimental evidence of pollinator deception in the orchid mantis and the first description of a unique predatory strategy that has not been documented in any other animal species."

It took scientists this long to confirm that the orchid mantis, or Hymenopus coronatus, uses its flower-like appearance to attract pollinating insects because the species is somewhat hard to find. In order to view orchid mantises in their natural habitat, O'Hanlon and two other researchers headed to the forests of Malaysia, where aboriginal Malaysians led the researchers to areas they knew orchid mantises would be.

O'Hanlon and his team compared the color of orchid mantises to Malaysian flowers using a spectrophotometer, a device that can measure wavelengths which insects see. It turned out that in the eyes of insects, the orchid mantis is exactly the same color as a number of Malaysian flower species.

The researchers also counted the number of pollinating insects attracted to orchid mantises versus the number attracted to real flowers. As O'Hanlon and his team suspected, pollinating insects were more attracted to the orchids than to flowers. But what was most fascinating about the orchid mantises is that they don't simply blend in by hiding among flowers.

"The orchid mantises we observed were not hiding amongst flowers, but were sitting on their own against a backdrop of green vegetation," O'Hanlon said. "Thus, it was the body of the mantis itself that was attracting the pollinators, and not any flowers in its vicinity."

O'Hanlon hopes to do more research on the orchid mantis, as there is very little known about the insect.

"The hardest part about this kind of research is that you are conducting research on an animal that nobody has ever researched before," said O'Hanlon. "We knew almost nothing about them and had to start from complete scratch."

The team's research will appear in the January issue of American Naturalist.

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