December 7, 2012 | 1
You may be shocked to know that, on a rare occasion, yours truly does look at things that are not protists. Sometimes even finding them interesting. And often taking far too many photos. So I have this stash of photos that might even be interesting, but completely irrelevant to anything I do — as most of what I do apparently pertains in some form to either microscopy, or protists, or both. The awesomeness of microphotography is closely followed by macrophotography (especially in the hands of masters, like Alex Wild — sometimes with protists!), as the macro world is still quite unusual and foreign to us — but perhaps more readily comprehensible. Fun subjects include mosses, lichens, mushrooms… and, of course, insects and other small arthropods.
Around the middle of September, my buddies and I found a giant female Chinese Mantis clinging to the window of a local watering hole. Given that cold days were coming (or so we thought…), I really wanted to keep her — with the extra excuse that she’s invasive. Of course, people don’t seem to mind invasive species that actually look cool, resenting only the ‘ugly’ or ‘annoying’ critters. Anyway, we kept her, in a big fish tank (not filled with water, of course), and finally discovered the one time one can actually appreciate the vigorous abundance of sizeable roaches on our campus. And I mean ROACHES. They’re huge — some have bodies ~5cm long! And they fly too…
Watching a squirming giant roach get devoured by a freakish killing machine is among the more satisfying activities one can do in a lab, perhaps closely following naptime. When you introduce a roach to the mantid’s lair, you witness a stark juxtaposition of representatives of r- and k-selected species of the insect world, respectively. The roach — a master of stealthy survival and rapid, proliferous reproduction; the mantis — a rare yet powerful predator who takes much of an entire year to reproduce. Curiously — both in the same order, Dictyoptera. Mantids and roaches (including termites, cladistically-speaking) are sister taxa. Not that family really matters much when the swaying behaviour kicks in and the mantis lunges towards her juicy prey, catching the roach in one strike of her forearms.
She neither cooks nor kills her prey. She eats it, alive, ripping chunks of flesh out with eerily mechanical-moving mandibles.
She devours everything except for the rather lean final leg segments, and the hard wings. The first prey I fed her was a cricket, and upon returning the next day to see if she had eaten, there was hardly any evidence of either the cricket’s survival or the mantid’s feast — save for a pair of antennae lying on the bottom of the tank. Yet the ferocious carnivory was somehow fully compensated for by the elegance of her movement — mantids are beautiful, and quite charismatic. They almost seem to interact with you — and probably could if they wanted to (like cats). And they’re big — who can say no to an oversized arthropod?
She lived, prayed, and preyed with us for a couple of months until the endpoint of her life cycle was truck. Sadly, as elaborate and remarkable as mantids are, they only live about a year. We probably extended her life by a month or so thanks to captivity, but even being k-selected does not grant you a long life in insect world. She was gorgeous and fascinating, especially for a non-protist.