Until recently, scientists weren’t sure if this flower mimic was accurate enough to deceive bugs. Now, a new study says it is—and it’s the first scientific evidence of an animal imitating a flower to attract prey.
A female orchid mantis makes like a flower. Photograph courtesy Dr. James O’Hanlon, Macquarie University
The orchid mantis’ story goes back to 1879, when Australian journalist James Hingsley came back from Indonesia with tales of a carnivorous orchid that enveloped butterflies in its petals and consumed them alive. Hingsley hadn’t actually discovered an insect-eating flower. He, like those butterflies, was fooled by the orchid mantis (). (Watch a praying mantis video.)
For their recent study, scientists James O’Hanlon and Marie Herberstein of Macquarie University in Australia and Gregory Holwell of the University of Auckland in New Zealand went to Malaysia to find out if the orchid mantis’ blossom impression really lured pollinators to their deaths. Herberstein received funding from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.
The first challenge for the team was finding orchid mantises in the dense forests of Malaysia. The researchers relied on the knowledge of native Malaysians known as the Orang Asli, who live a traditional lifestyle amidst the forest and knew where the orchid mantises live.
“They likely have an enormous wealth of knowledge about the natural history of the plants and animals of Malaysian rain forests that we scientists have yet to fully appreciate,” said O’Hanlon, whose research will be published in January in American Naturalist.
Once they had obtained a few orchid mantises, the researchers combed the forest for the flower it mimics. But ”we really couldn’t find any flower that looks just like the orchid mantis,” he said. (Also see “Glowing Cockroach Mimics Toxic Beetle.”)
Instead, orchid mantises may resemble an average or generalized flower, incorporating several characteristics typical of Malaysian blooms.
The scientists performed two experiments: First, they compared the color of mantises and various native flowers using an instrument called a spectrophotometer, which can measure wavelengths of light that an insect sees, which is outside of the range detectable by human vision.
An orchid mantis is camouflaged on a flower, in Borneo, Malaysia. Photograph by Thomas Marent, Minden Pictures/Corbis
The team found that from the perspective of a pollinating insect, the color of orchid mantises is indistinguishable from a large number of Malaysian flower species.
Next, the research team observed live orchid mantises in the field, counting the number of insects that were attracted to the mantis “flower.” They compared this to the number of insects that inspected an actual flower in the same amount of time.
Their hypothesis was right: They were surprised to find the mantises actually attracted more insects than the real flowers.
There are other animals that use their camouflage to hide among flowers and then ambush prey, but the predatory strategy of the orchid mantis is different. (Watch a video of a female praying mantis biting off the male’s head.)
“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 has more questions about the orchid mantis.
“This was the first-ever study of the orchid mantis, so we’re really only seeing the tip of the iceberg here,” he said.
For instance, O’Hanlon plans to look at the interaction between pollinators and mantises, as well as explore the possibility that the orchid mantis’ mimicry conceals it from predators.
Thanks to the team, this elusive floral faker is beginning to give up its secrets.