The Discovery Of 19 New Praying Mantis Species Is Pretty Astounding

By Shweta Iyer on March 18, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

praying mantis
Nineteen new species of praying mantises were discovered in and around the tropical forests of Central and South America and also in museum collections. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

The discovery of a new species always generates a lot of enthusiasm. And discovery of 19 seems astounding. Recently, 19 new species of praying mantises were discovered in and around the tropical forests of Central and South America and also in museum collections, according to a press release Tuesday. The insects were collected by Dr. Gavin Svenson, who is curator of invertebrate zoology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He published a revision of the genus Liturgusa, a species of praying mantis, in the open access journal ZooKeys.

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Svenson, painstakingly collected these specimens from 8 countries in Central and South America and 25 international museums in North and South America and Europe. Some of the newly described species were identified only by their museum specimens, which had been collected before 1950 from areas that have now drastically changed due to farming and other commercial activities."This group, the Neotropical bark mantises, are incredibly fast runners that live on the trunks and branches of trees," said Svenson. "This violates the common perception of praying mantises being slow and methodical hunters."

Mantises, in general, protect themselves from danger by camouflage and concealment. The bark mantis also has the advantage of having a flat morphology. It often goes undetected, as it can very easily blend into its background, be it bark, moss, or lichen. They are also adept at avoiding detection by running to the opposite side of the tree, a characteristic of tree dwelling lizards.

"This is an amazing behavior for an insect because it shows  that they are not only relying on camouflage like most insects but are constantly monitoring their environment and taking action to run and hide," said Svenson. "In addition, some species leap off the tree trunk to avoid capture and play dead after fluttering down to the forest floor since none of the species are strong fliers."

These bark mantises are active predators as opposed to being ambush predators, as most mantis species are. This means they actively pursue their prey rather than wait for the prey to come close. Also, the Neotropical bark mantis, like the bark mantis group from Australia (Ciulfina), does not display sexual cannibalism. This research brings to light several previously unknown characteristics of mantises and indicates the probability of the presence of several undiscovered species.

"Based on this study, we can predict that mantis groups with similar habitat specialization in Africa, Asia and Australia will also be far more diverse than what is currently known," Svenson said. "Many of these groups have never been studied other than by the scientists that originally described some of the species, which in some cases is more than 100 years ago. This is exciting because enormous potential exists for advancing our understanding of praying mantis diversity just by looking within our existing museum collections and conducting a few field expeditions."

The discovery of these 19 new species indicates that there are more species than previously thought. Also, their discovery in Central and South America indicates that mantis habitats are more restricted to these areas. These findings will have a huge impact on conservation efforts as most of the locations from where the species were collected are not protected.

It is also difficult to establish the conservation status of many of the species that were collected from museums, as they have not been seen since they were collected several years back. Many of them may even be extinct.

Several of the new species have been named after famous personalities who have increased public awareness on environmental issues. For example, Liturgusa algorei that is named for Albert Arnold "Al" Gore Jr., former vice president of the United States of America. Liturgusa krattorum is named for Martin and Chris Kratt, hosts and creators of Kratts' Creatures and Wild Kratts. Liturgusa fossetti has been named after the late James Stephen Fossett. Liturgusa bororum is named for the Bora people, an indigenous group found in the Amazon basin in northern Peru, Columbia, and Brazil. Liturgusa tessae and Liturgusa zoae have been named after Svenson's daughters, Tessa and Zoey.

Svenson's goal is to create an accurate classification system for praying mantises based on their evolutionary relationships, physical traits, and geographical distribution.

Source: Svenson GJ. Revision of the Neotropical bark mantis genus Liturgusa Saussure, 1869 (Insecta, Mantodea, Liturgusini). ZooKeys. 2014.

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