Praying mantis come in a surprising range of different colors. Even within a single species you may find different colors in a single population.
The most common colors are green or brown, sometimes with pale straw-like specimens being seen.
So the obvious question is why are praying mantis different colors?
The short answer is due to camouflage, but this answer really requires a little further explanation to better understand.
The Importance of Mimicry
Praying mantis are nature’s experts when it comes to camouflage and mimicry.
This camouflage serves two main purposes for the praying mantis. Firstly, it allows the mantis to avoid detection by predators such as birds and smaller mammals. A green mantis sitting in a green bush, for example, is very difficult for larger animals to spot.
The second reason that praying mantis employ mimicry is to sneak up on their prey.
It is important to realize that praying mantis feed almost entirely on smaller animals – most commonly insects but also sometimes tiny reptiles, amphibians or even birds.
The prey animals that mantis search for are often fast-moving and many can fly. Worse, the praying mantis catches them in it’s front arms, shooting them forward so quickly you barely see them move.
In other words they don’t hunt from a distance. Rather than chasing down prey, they instead rely on sitting motionless, perfectly camouflaged, until a suitable insect gets within an inch or two of them. Then they strike.
It stands to reason that their camouflage needs to be pretty amazing if they are to trick a fly or a cockroach just inches away to walk in their direction.
Put bluntly, if praying mantis didn’t match their surroundings with impressive camouflage then they’d not only be less successful hunters, but they’d also be far more likely to get picked off themselves before their prime.
This answers part of the question. But why is there still so much variety when it comes to praying mantis coloration?
Nature Varies and So Do Praying Mantis
The colors found in nature can vary significantly.
Think of a shrub in early spring, before it’s leaves start to regrow. All you’d see would be the dark brown stems.
As the season continues those fresh leaves and shoots explode into life, meaning that green becomes the predominant color.
Even later, in the heat of the summer the shrub may struggle with the heat and lack of water. Leaves may go pale and straw-like.
Praying mantis are smart enough to cover all these bases. A single species may have some individuals that are green, some that are brown and even some paler ones.
Even the greens and browns aren’t necessarily “fixed” – two different mantis from the same parent may show slightly different tints and tones. This gives a huge “rainbow” of natural colors in the population.
This has two benefits. Firstly, it means that praying mantis can thrive in a range of different habitats and environments, reducing competition. Straw-colored mantis can thrive in summer-bleached thickets of grass, while deep green mantis camouflage well amongst leaves.
Just as importantly, however, is that no matter what the environment does there will be mantis of the correct color to thrive.
If there is too little rainfall one summer and all the green leaves turn brown, there will already be some brown mantis in the population. These brown praying mantis are now at an advantage and therefore have a greater chance of surviving to reproduce the next generation.
What About Brightly Colored Mantis Like Orchid Mantis?
The above explanation might make sense for the sorts of praying mantis you might see in your garden or when on vacation in a hot country, but what about those jewels of the praying mantis world – the incredible pink Orchid Mantis?
Well, as you might have guessed from the name, these mantis are often found around open flowers. Of course these flowers naturally attract lots of pollinators, so they act as a beacon for tasty potential meals from miles around.
Of course, flowers are rarely green or brown – they tend to be brightly colored specifically to draw the eye of these pollinating insects. As a result, Orchid Mantis aim to match them, displaying beautiful pinks and whites most commonly.
Can Praying Mantis Change Color?
There is evidence that quite a few different praying mantis species can change color during their lifespan. This is most commonly observed when a praying mantis molts.
That brown mantis can turn green next time it changes it’s skin. There may be subtle shifts in shade between molts, with an individual praying mantis getting noticeably darker or lighter.
Of course, this is all to help the mantis better blend in with its surroundings. If it’s been a wet, humid summer with lots of greenery around then some brown mantis may be tempted to change their clothing for a greener version.
As always, the goal is to remain hidden and changing color can help a praying mantis to accomplish this more effectively.
Camouflage Beyond Color
While the color of a praying mantis is a primary strategy for avoiding detection it is far from the only trick that a mantis can draw upon.
A few other notable tricks include:
While many commonly-found praying mantis are largely one big block of color, others have evolved a variety of different markings on them.
These “marbled” designs can act rather like the stripes of a tiger, helping to break up the outline of the mantis. When something isn’t the shape of a predatory praying mantis they’re even harder for other creatures to spot.
A Head That Turns
The praying mantis is notable for having a proper “neck” which means they can turn their heads.
For a carnivorous insect that relies on catching smaller creatures this can be a very handy feature. It means they can subtly turn their head to look at a prey insect without having to move their entire body.
Praying mantis got their name from the way that they sit motionless for hours on end with their “hands” held up in front of them. To many people they looked just like they were praying.
This lack of motion can also help praying mantis to remain undetected, which is why a mantis will generally only attempt to run or fly away from danger as a last resort.
Their first strategy is simply to hunker down and hope that you don’t spot them. Because of this you could have walked past dozens of praying mantis in your life without even having a clue they were right beside you.
Even when a praying mantis does move – such as when trying to get close to a juicy fly or cricket – they move incredibly slowly.
They creep for almost imperceptibly slowly.
Interestingly they also maintain a strange movement, seeming to flutter in the wind like a leaf. This also helps them to look more like a piece of plant matter moving in the breeze, rather than that they are – a hungry, predatory insect.
All told it’s fair to say that praying mantis are pretty impressive animals that are perfectly evolved for their way of life. And just one of those strategies involves praying mantis being different colors.