An Orchidean Cryptid

A female juvenile orchid mantis chows down. Photo courtesy of James O’Hanlon via Science Friday

A few days ago we shared about the clade of flowers known as orchids, and how people in the UK can become citizen scientists regarding them. Now, Science Friday writer Julie Liebach (who also edits the site’s content online) explores the research of an entomologist studying a type of “praying” mantis that, as a juvenile, mimics the general feeling of the average orchid – but not a particular species or genus of the flowers, interestingly enough:

They’re predominantly white with pink or yellow accents, similar to some orchids and other flowers, and their four hind legs are lobed, like petals. But if you search for an exact floral counterpart, as behavioral ecologist James O’Hanlon did, you probably won’t find one. “I spent forever looking for a flower that they look just like,” he says, to no avail.

As it turns out, rather than mimicking one floral species, the insect instead may embody a “generic or an average type of flower” in order to attract bees and other pollinating insects as prey.

What’s more, as far as O’Hanlon can tell, it’s the only animal on record that “takes on the guise of a whole flower blossom” as a predatory strategy, he wrote in a brief orchid mantis guide, appearing this past February in Current Biology. (As mantises mature, they appear—at least to humans—less like flowers, because their long wings extend over the thorax and abdomen, covering their legs).

An elusive species of praying mantis, the orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) stalks the rainforests of Southeast Asia and Indonesia in characteristic solitude (mantises are generally loners). The insect first beguiled O’Hanlon, a postdoctoral fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, several years ago, when he was researching another species in the mantid literature and came across this “amazing-sounding, almost like a mythical beast sort of creature,” he says. After digging for more details and coming up short, he realized that “nobody had ever [experimentally] studied it, so I decided that it’s about time someone did.”

Over the course of several years, as part of his Ph.D. work, O’Hanlon fleshed out the orchid mantis profile in a handful of published studies. “I think the most surprising finding is just seeing how good they actually are at attracting pollinators,” he says. “The very first study we published on them actually showed that they attracted more bees than other flowers in their environment.”

At least part of the mantis’s success seems to be its ability to exploit how pollinators respond to color. Using a mathematical modeling system that represents how certain insects perceive the world around them, O’Hanlon and colleagues calculated how—from the perspective of representative prey species—the coloring of juvenile orchid mantises compares to the hues of more than a dozen flower species found in mantis habitat in the Malaysian peninsula. They found that the mantis’s color fits within the spectrum of floral shades tested but had no identical match, suggesting that when would-be pollinators see an orchid mantis, they detect a color that signifies a generic sense of “flower.”

Read the rest of the original article here.

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