THE MANTIS - THE CHASE
There is another creature of the Midi which is quite as curious and interesting as the Cigale, but much less famous, as it is voiceless. If Providence had provided it with cymbals, which are a prime element of popularity, it would soon have eclipsed the renown of the celebrated singer, so strange is its shape, and so peculiar its manners. It is called by the Provenandccedil;als lou Prego-Die;u, the creature which prays to God. Its official name is the Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa, Lin.).
For once the language of science and the vocabulary of the peasant agree. Both represent the Mantis as a priestess delivering oracles, or an ascetic in a mystic ecstasy. The comparison is a matter of antiquity. The ancient Greeks called the insect andMu;á¼andnu;andtau;andiota;Ï›, the divine, the prophet. The worker in the fields is never slow in perceiving analogies; he will always generously supplement the vagueness of the facts. He has seen, on the sun-burned herbage of the meadows, an insect of commanding appearance, drawn up in majestic attitude. He has noticed its wide, delicate wings of green, trailing behind it like long linen veils; he has seen its fore-limbs, its arms, so to speak, raised towards to the sky in a gesture of invocation. This was enough: popular imagination has done the rest; so that since the period of classical antiquity the bushes have been peopled with priestesses emitting oracles and nuns in prayer.
Good people, how very far astray your childlike simplicity has led you! These attitudes of prayer conceal the most atrocious habits; these supplicating arms are lethal weapons; these fingers tell no rosaries, but help to exterminate the unfortunate passer-by. It is an exception that we should never look for in the vegetarian family of the Orthoptera, but the Mantis lives exclusively upon living prey. It is the tiger of the peaceful insect peoples; the ogre in an ambush which demands a tribute of living flesh. If it only had sufficient strength its blood-thirsty appetites, and its horrible perfection of concealment would make it the terror of the countryside. The Prego-Die;u would become a Satanic vampire.
Apart from its lethal weapon, the Mantis has nothing about it to inspire apprehension. It does not lack a certain appearance of graciousness, with its slender body, its elegant waist-line, its tender green coloring, and its long gauzy wings. No ferocious jaws, opening like shears; on the contrary, a fine pointed muzzle which seems to be made for billing and cooing. Thanks to a flexible neck, set freely upon the thorax, the head can turn to right or left as on a pivot, bow, or raise itself high in the air. Alone among insects, the Mantis is able to direct its gaze; it inspects and examines; it has almost a physiognomy.
There is a very great contrast between the body as a whole, which has a perfectly peaceable aspect, and the murderous fore-limbs. The haunch of the fore-limb is unusually long and powerful. Its object is to throw forward the living trap which does not wait for the victim but goes in search of it. The snare is embellished with a certain amount of ornamentation. On the inner face the base of the haunch is decorated with a pretty black spot relieved by smaller spots of white, and a few rows of fine pearly spots complete the ornamentation.
The thigh, still longer, like a flattened spindle, carries on the forward half of the lower face a double row of steely spines. The innermost row contains a dozen, alternately long and black and short and green. This alternation of unequal lengths makes the weapon more effectual for holding. The outer row is simpler, having only four teeth. Finally, three needle-like spikes, the longest of all, rise behind the double series of spikes. In short, the thigh is a saw with two parallel edges, separated by a groove in which the foreleg lies when folded.
The foreleg, which is attached to the thigh by a very flexible articulation, is also a double-edged saw, but the teeth are smaller, more numerous, and closer than those of the thigh. It terminates in a strong hook, the point of which is as sharp as the finest needle: a hook which is fluted underneath and has a double blade like a pruning-knife.
A weapon admirably adapted for piercing and tearing, this hook has sometimes left me with visible remembrances. Caught in turn by the creature which I had just captured, and not having both hands free, I have often been obliged to get a second person to free me from my tenacious captive! To free oneself by violence without disengaging the firmly implanted talons would result in lacerations such as the thorns of a rosebush will produce. None of our insects is so inconvenient to handle. The Mantis digs its knife-blades into your flesh, pierces you with its needles, seizes you as in a vice, and renders self-defense almost impossible if, wishing to take your quarry alive, you refrain from crushing it out of existence.
When the Mantis is in repose, its weapons are folded and pressed against the thorax and are perfectly inoffensive in appearance. The insect is apparently praying. But let a victim come within reach, and the attitude of prayer is promptly abandoned. Suddenly unfolded, the three long joints of the deadly fore-limbs shoot out their terminal talons, which strike the victim and drag it backward between the two saw-blades of the thighs. The vice closes with a movement like that of the forearm upon the upper arm, and all is over; crickets, grasshoppers, and even more powerful insects, once seized in this trap with its four rows of teeth, are lost irreparably. Their frantic struggles will never release the hold of this terrible engine of destruction.